Monday, December 13, 2010

Exotic Animals Killed After Sanctuary Denial in Thorold, Ontario

On Nov. 26, the Toronto Sun started an article with: “An Ontario family that had three lions and six monkeys euthanized is blaming a city council decision that denied their request for an exotic pet sanctuary.”

A lion and her cub — not killed in Ontario.The animals were killed, slaughtered, butchered or even executed, but not euthanized. Euthanasia is the last gift you can provide the terminally suffering of any species (including human) where there is no hope for survival or comforting palliative care, and that clearly does not apply to this situation. And since these animals were killed, the term “sanctuary” also is inappropriate.

This “sanctuary” was set up within the jurisdiction of Thorold, a city of fewer than 20,000 citizens not far from Niagara Falls, Ontario. Local bylaw(called “ordinances” in the United States) did not allow the keeping of these animals. My colleagues and I work hard to see such bylaws put in place, because at the moment, Ontario is the single remaining province without any kind of zoo licensing. There currently is a bill before provincial parliament that, if passed, will at least provide some level of licensing, but there is no guarantee it will pass. Anyone can own any kind of exotic animal so long as it was acquired legally and no local bylaws prohibit it. No one knows how many lions, cobras, bears, apes and alligators are in how many barns, garages and basements in Ontario.

The animals killed (three lions and six “monkeys”) were allegedly, at least some of them, former “pets.” The animals were — according to the people charged under the Ontario Planning Act, Chris and Sharon Morabito — “unwanted” animals turned over by former owners. It reportedly was claimed that no zoo would take them because the sanctuary was not accredited. But there is no such thing in Ontario as sanctuary accreditation. There is a zoo accreditation program run by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), although it hardly is rigorous in enforcing what relatively minimal standards it sets for zoos (but not sanctuaries).

However, according to the news story, the Thorold “sanctuary” was not given rezoning at least in part because it was not “accredited.” The Thorold City Council is being blamed by the people charged for not OK’ing the sanctuary after the fact. But if the place was not zoned to allow the keeping of exotic animals, what did they expect? The Sun article states: “The Morabitos said the family has received conflicting opinions and orders from the city’s planning department.” But the city is claiming that it already had issued a “stop order” and that it was ignored. If there is conflict, first get it resolved!

Surely the Morabitos’ credibility was compromised a year earlier when Niagara police found marijuana growing on the property. Also present at the time were lions, a three-legged jaguar, parrots and monkeys in various cages and enclosures. The Lincoln County Humane Society was satisfied that there were no cruelty violations, but that does not placate my annoyance at the situation that led to the deaths of these “unwanted” animals in late November. The Morabitos also claim that having been to court four times, they are bankrupt.

I am no stickler who would put rules and regulations over what I would believe to be the morally correct thing to do for anyone, human or animal, although with the understanding that there can be consequences when one ignores the law. But there are too many of these “sanctuaries” claiming to be for “educational” or “rehabilitation” purposes, and which too often manage to attract devoted followers but don’t really serve the interests of animals. Just recently one of the sleazier private zoos in Ontario, also claiming to hold “unwanted” animals, finally closed, and yet it had the staunch support of a Toronto Sun columnist who seemed to think that because the animals were “unwanted” the owner was some sort of saint. Admittedly when I was young I once supported a similar enterprise, until I learned that when I found a better home for the “unwanted” animals, the guy I had trusted would not turn them over. He was simply using the animals to justify endless donations from well-intentioned people as na├»ve as I had been.

There are solutions. Most of all I would like to see very strict bans on the import, sale, breeding and ownership of these “exotic” animals, but that isn’t going to happen. Right-wing politicians put the “right” of people to do as they please, and to make money, way ahead of any interest in protecting the animals, or the
environment, or people at risk from inherently dangerous animal species. In the United States, Congress — having already banned the interstate movement of big cats as pets — is now considering adding primates to the list of prohibited species.)

Born Free USA runs a genuine animal sanctuary in Texas, but done properly, with no contempt for local laws and regulations and under solid management. Such sanctuaries are essential; there is a desperate need for them as more and more animals not suitable as pets are being sold by the exotic pet industry. But to work they must meet certain qualifications. That is why the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries was formed. The GFAS needs to have a global presence, to assure that sanctuaries really do serve the interest of those animals nobody wants, and that there are very specific, identifiably effectual standards to be met for meaningful accreditation for vitally required animal rescue and long-term care. Our own Adam Roberts, one of the busiest animal protectionists I know, takes the time to be the current president of GFAS.

Animal sanctuaries are essential, but in order to avoid the kind of fiasco that led to the deaths of innocent animals in Thorold last month they must be properly constituted, funded and managed. GFAS is the best bet we have for that to happen.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Canada

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Giant Pandamonium - Should Canada Rent Giant Pandas?

November began with the announcement that after years of international negotiations China would send a “breeding pair” of giant pandas to Canada, for 15 years, with each of three zoos having the pandas for five years each. The zoos are the Calgary Zoo, the Granby Zoo, in Quebec, and the Toronto Zoo.

That would be the same Calgary Zoo that recently has had a gorilla escape when a gate was left open; had a gorilla find and pick up a knife; had a hippopotamus die soon after arriving due to bad management during transport; had a baby elephant die from herpes; had a markhor goat hang itself with an enrichment toy; had a capybara crushed by a gate; had dozens of bats die after some genius strung piano wire in their cage to force them to the front to make them more visible to visitors; had a massive die-off of visiting stingrays due to poor water quality; had a tiger give birth to two cubs without anyone knowing she was pregnant, both of whom died; and, well, if the Chinese want to entrust their pandas to that facility, they’re more optimistic than I would ever be.

As for the Toronto Zoo, there is one possible problem: Toronto, days earlier, elected a right-wing mayor whose platform consisted pretty much of nothing more than cutting municipal spending, and the cost of these panda visitors is estimated to be about $20 million. Ouch.

Fear not! A city councilor, Giorgio Mammoliti, heads the Toronto Zoo board’s Panda Task Force, and assures us that the money can be raised without costing Toronto taxpayers a penny. China rents out pandas for about $2 million per year. Expensive special caging will have to be provided, at a cost originally estimated to be $15 million, since reduced to $10 million. Corporate sponsors will pick up part of the tab, the rest coming from admission fees, plus a special fee — the amount to be determined — to see the pandas, on top of the zoo grounds’ admission price.

The giant pandas are due in Toronto in 2012. They will be here when Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games in 2015, which could generate extra attendance. However, Mammoliti’s optimistic estimate that the pandas will boost zoo attendance by 450,000 per year is countered by the zoo’s own 2009 study that predicts that large an attendance boost only for the first year, falling to 150,000 the second year, 75,000 the third, and none at all for the final two years.

The whole thing is an exercise in hype, diplomacy, economics and the appeal of what conservationists refer to as the “charismatic megafauna.” Giant pandas are cute, and while the odd one has been known to take an irritable bite out of an annoying human, they are, compared to some of their ursine relatives, ever so cute and cuddly. I get that.

But as is true of tigers, people are creating two discreet populations of giant pandas. One exists in the wild as a group of further divided subpopulations inhabiting a series of reserves containing suitable habitat. The other is a captive group of animals who bring in millions, who often are bred using artificial insemination, and who have their natural, predominately bamboo diet augmented with higher-energy manufactured food. There is risk that the captive animals, like the wild ones, will not have enough room. We can create more zoos, but creating more habitat is what is needed to save the wild ones, and that’s the problem. There’s not enough habitat to provide a year-round supply of natural food for a larger number of wild pandas. What habitat there is already is populated with the wild animals whose total population size is unknown, the most optimistic assessment being as many as 3,000 pandas — twice the more-conservative estimates.

I am not sure there are enough millions of dollars to save the giant panda in the wild, and a human-dependent captive population of caged animals is perhaps all that will be left one day. I hope I’m wrong, but meanwhile those millions of dollars to be spent on giant pandas visiting Canada could do ever so much to save other species who are less charismatic, less well-known, but salvageable if we make the effort.

A couple of weeks earlier than the giant panda rental announcement, some 15,000 people convened in Nagoya, Japan, for the 10th conference of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity to try to stem the greatest extinction spasm since the loss of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, and the only one caused by a single species: us. Experts estimate that extinction rates are now between 100 and 1,000 times the “natural” rate, prior to human population explosion and the massive impact of industry and technology. I’ll leave it to environmental journalist George Monbiot to give his opinion of the effectiveness of the conference. He wrote:

“It strikes me that governments are determined to protect not the marvels of our world but the world-eating system to which they are being sacrificed; not life, but the ephemeral junk with which it is being replaced. They fight viciously and at the highest level for the right to turn rainforests into pulp, or marine ecosystems into fishmeal. Then they send a middle-ranking civil servant to approve a meaningless and so far unwritten promise to protect the natural world.” In short, nothing much happened.

Growing pandas in cages and using them as tools of currency generation and diplomatic prestige is not going to protect that natural world, or the plethora of non-cute, not-charismatic fauna and flora that is circling the drain, headed to eternal oblivion as we practice business as usual.

Barry Kent MacKay
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Big Polar Bear Push

Around the world, the polar bear is a symbol of Canada, along with beavers, mounted police and maple syrup. So people are often surprised to find out that prior to the mid -1990s, polar bears were dumped into foreign zoos with little regard for their welfare.

The bears came from Churchill, Manitoba, the self-proclaimed “polar bear capital of the world.” The Churchill town site lies in the middle of an area where polar bears have historically gathered each year while they wait for the Hudson Bay pack ice to form. Once it does, they move out onto the ice to hunt seals.

Some of the adult bears that repeatedly entered the town site or a larger area around the town known as the Primary Control Zone were designated as problem bears and became candidates for capture and shipment to zoos around the world. Orphaned cubs could also be caught and face the same fate.

For years, the Government of Manitoba claimed the exported bears were ambassadors for Manitoba and the north. They said they were all sent to good homes. And, because no one checked, they got away with it.

After learning about the exports, Zoocheck launched an investigation that involved visits to zoos around the world. That investigation found many of the exported bears ended up in horrendously bad conditions. Some died of disease or neglect. A Canadian bear in the Taipei Zoo in Taiwan was one of them. An undiagnosed skin condition, presumably climate induced, caused severe hair loss and extensive scabbing of the skin. The poor bear looked more like a rat than a polar bear and the itchiness of the condition caused her to rub her forelegs raw. After years of suffering, she eventually died.

The Taipei bear wasn’t alone in her misery. We found Canadian bears languishing in the heat of Beijing, a young bear in a Mexican zoo confined off-exhibit because his leg had been amputated, and three Canadian bears who endured the insufferable heat of Latin America and the Carribbean for years in a traveling circus.

The rest of the bears ended up pacing back and forth in undersized grotto-style zoo displays in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

In recent years, polar bears have become highly controversial animals, both in the wild and in captivity. There’s good reason for this.

With massive changes to the Arctic pack ice, and much more in future, caused by global climate change, wild bears face serious challenges to their survival.

The challenges of captivity are different but just as formidable to the individual bears who endure it. As the widest ranging terrestrial carnivores on earth (with home ranges measuring from 2,300 sq km to nearly 600,000 sq km), they need enormous amounts of space. As intelligent animals, they need high levels of stimulation and as a northern species, uniquely adapted to arctic environments, they need a cold climate. These are all things they rarely, if ever, get in a zoo.

That’s a major reason why captive polar bears are almost always seen pacing back and forth, swinging their heads from side to side. These behaviours, called stereotypies (meaningless repetitive movements), are never seen in the wild. Equally abnormal are the polar bears who just sit, lie or sleep their lives away. One study found polar bears in zoos were inactive 70% of the time.

A 2003 paper in the prestigious scientific publication Nature revealed that wide-ranging animals (such as polar bears) show the most evidence of stress and/or psychological disfunction in captivity. I’ve seen polar bears in zoos around the world, so I know just how true that is.

Zoocheck’s investigation exposed the Manitoba polar bear export program facade in the late 1990s and it stopped. New policies were put in place and then in 2002 the Polar Bear Protection Act was passed. The Act stipulates that only orphaned cubs under two years of age are to be considered for zoo placement and that zoos must satisfy a set of housing and husbandry standards before they can be considered a potential polar bear recipient. As minimal as the Act’s standards were (and still are), most zoos didn’t meet them.

But there’s now a strong push by the zoo industry and its supporters to once again take bears from Churchill and send them to zoos in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

There’s no doubt that zoos want polar bears because they believe they boost attendance. Even they say that. But there may be another reason they want the bears.

Polar bears are an icon in the global effort to deal with climate change. The incarceration of polar bears in cages is almost always followed by zoo claims that the bears are helping to spread the word about climate change and that the zoo visitors who view them are miraculously affected and changed. Zoos are using polar bears to position themselves as green institutions devoted to enviromentalism and conservation.

Right now, zoos all over the world are spending tens of millions of dollars to retrofit old, or to construct new, polar bear displays. Unfortunately, most of them are grossly undersized, modernized versions of the old concrete grotto exhibits.

And the bears are still stereotyping. In the Toronto Zoo’s new polar bear exhibit, constructed at a reported cost of $10 million, the bears still pace back and forth, and in the Kansas City zoo’s new multi-million dollar display, the bears swim repetitively, another abnormal behaviour common in the world of captive polar bears.

Last year, the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba received $31 million from the Manitoba government. They’re now in the process of constructing a new Arctic complex, complete with a polar bear exhibit and something they’re calling the International Polar Bear Conservation Center (IPBCC).

The idea is to keep up to six polar bears on display in Winnipeg with additional bears, “rescued” (aka “captured”) from the wild, going to the IPBCC “transition” center. They say they’ll accept bears from other facilities, but they’re quite willing to accept wild cubs and adult bears from northern Manitoba and elsewhere.

Apparently, the transition center bears are to be “rehabilitated” and then sent to other zoos. But removing an animal from the wild so they can spend the remainder of their life in captivity isn’t really a rescue and it certainly isn’t rehabilitation, at least not by any conventional definition of the terms.

The fact is that zoos want polar bears. So zoos in Canada, the US and elsewhere have jumped on board and are supportive of the plan. In fact, a number of US zoos have already stated that they hope to get polar bear cubs from Manitoba.

There are other supporters as well. One wildlife group claims bears in captivity are great ambassadors (we’ve heard that before), that they help encourage people to adopt climate-friendly behaviours and that one day a captive population of polar bears may play a role in repopulating the north.

Of course, most of it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Once a good portion of the Arctic ice, which polar bears need to hunt seals, has melted away, it could take hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years to come back (assuming of course that the causes of climate change have been dealt with). Anyone who thinks captive polar bears could be returned to the wild after even a fraction of that time is dreaming.

The sad reality for polar bears is that with the diminishment of the Arctic ice pack there will be a significant reduction in their numbers, possibly up to two thirds of the existing global population. Few experts believe polar bears are threatened with extinction in the wild, but there does seem to be consensus about their numbers dropping substantially, and, at this point, there’s not much that can be done to stop it.

So, why on earth have zoos and their supporters waited so long? During the past 30 years, tens of thousands of papers and articles have been written about climate change, hundreds of books have been produced, thousands of television news pieces and dozens of documentaries, including the Academy Award winner An Inconvenient Truth, have been made. Today, most experts now believe that climate change is irreversible, that it’s occurring faster than anyone ever thought possible and that all we can do is try to mitigate the damage.

After thirty years of publications; after the climate change discussion is thoroughly entrenched in the public consciousness; after the debate is over and the effects are irreversible, only then do zoos and their supporters jump on the climate change bandwagon and they want to do it on the backs of polar bears.

Unfortunately, a lot of what zoos and their supporters say sounds good to people who don’t know any better. Those people don’t know there’s no proof that people looking at caged bears gain any understanding of the scope and intensity of the threats facing wildlife and wild places or that there’s no proof that the viewers of caged bears change their behaviour in any meaningful way.

It’s clear that zoos exploit polar bears to attract visitors and then claim they’re doing the bears a favour. But whether they do that to Manitoba bears is up to the Province of Manitoba.

Manitoba’s Polar Bear Protection Act says that anyone wanting a polar bear must acquire a permit. In theory, zoos can only get a permit for “legitimate” education, conservation or scientific reasons. But it appears the zoos have never had to prove they make a real contribution in any of those areas. Whatever they’ve said has just been accepted as fact.

Zoos also have to satisfy the Polar Bear Protection Act captivity standards, but those standards are now outdated, inadequate and need to be revised. Remarkably, the standards only require an area the size of 33 parking lot spaces for a polar bear that would normally inhabit a home range thousands of square kilometers in size. They also allow bears to be locked in small cages after hours and sent to hot climates. And they’re essentially unenforceable beyond Manitoba.

The best way to help polar bears isn’t to incarcerate them in zoos. If rehabilitation is possible, it should take place in proper rehabilitation facilities, preferably in the north, so the bears can quickly be reintroduced back into the wild once they regain their health. For some bears, specialist rescue centers and sanctuaries that provide large natural living spaces may be an option. These facilities are very unlike traditional urban zoos. And if there are a few bears that are beyond help, we owe it to them to humanely end their suffering. They shouldn’t be sentenced to a miserable lifetime of captivity because it’s the easy and profitable thing to do.

The pro-captivity forces are lobbying to convince the authorities that a caged bear is a good thing. Many zoos seem confident they’ll be receiving polar bears from Manitoba.

Historically polar bears have been given a raw deal by the zoo industry. They've been the victims of an exploitive, one-sided relationship that doesn’t look like its going to change anytime soon. Instead of seizing the opportunity to radically change the captive polar bear paradigm for the benefit of bears, zoos are tinkering with the failed designs, concepts and ideas of the past.

I’ve often thought about what even a fraction of those hundreds of millions of dollars now being spent on polar bear exhibits could actually do if it were applied to real conservation. But instead of focusing on real solutions to real problems, instead of seizing the opportunity to become true vehicles of conservation action, zoos continue to perpetuate the deception of caged animals as conservation, soft peddle critical issues so they don’t “turn off” visitors and, with few exceptions, provide inconsequential support to initiatives that can actually make a difference.

When it comes to polar bears, the sad reality is that zoos continue to have one foot in the past and one in the cash register.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lucy Ruling Didn't Address Welfare

Contrary to the claims of City of Edmonton officials and representatives, the August 20th ruling of Associate Chief Justice John D. Rooke in the Zoocheck/PETA legal action against the City did not in any way vindicate the Valley Zoo’s treatment of Lucy.

In fact, Rooke was very clear that his ruling was not addressing Lucy’s housing, care and health. He said, “While this litigation before the Court makes allegations about the health and care of Lucy, this Decision does not address those allegations. Rather, it addresses the health of the legal system to properly consider such allegations.”

What’s particularly unfortunate in all this is that the overwhelming affidavit evidence from a cadre of world renowned elephant experts confirming Lucy’s poor living conditions and inappropriate social isolation was never heard.

The Valley Zoo didn’t have to defend their nonsensical claims about Lucy that fly in the face of accepted science, zoo industry knowledge and common sense.

They also didn’t have to explain the seemingly undiagnosable, "phantom" illness they claim relegates Lucy to a lifetime of loneliness in the north. They dodged a bullet, for now.

Meanwhile, just this week, yet another major North American zoo announced their decision to transfer their two elephants to another facility citing an inability to properly provide for their needs.

It’s unfortunate Lucy doesn’t have such enlightened people in charge.

The keeping of elephants in captivity has become increasingly controversial around the world. Zoos defend the practice but they do acknowledge that some of the relatively routine practices of the past need changed. One area of where there is universal agreement is the inappropriateness of keeping single female elephants. Almost every published zoo standard in the world says elephants must be kept in groups.

The Valley Zoo and City of Edmonton claim Lucy is fine all by herself and that she’s happy and healthy (although too sick to be moved, of course). On this issue, the keeping of a highly social female elephant in permanent social isolation, the Valley Zoo and City of Edmonton seem to stand alone.

The Valley Zoo has even claimed Lucy is a non-social elephant, although they’ve produced no evidence to suggest that their claim is true. During a recent trip to India, I asked a leading Asian elephant research scientist if he could conceive of a situation in which a female elephant might be non-social. He laughed and said, “There’s no such thing as a non-social female elephant. That animal doesn’t exist.”

Why the Valley Zoo and the City of Edmonton are so out of step with the times and fight so vigorously to keep Lucy is baffling. It’s like they’re living in a time warp and haven’t realized things have changed. The whole world is moving forward, but apparently not in Edmonton.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Friday, June 18, 2010

Report Blasts Calgary Zoo: Vindicates Zoocheck

Yesterday the Calgary Zoo held a media conference to release the findings of a joint review of their facility conducted by members of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The review was initiated by embattled Calgary Zoo CEO Clement Lanthier who promised the process would be transparent and the results made public.

Lanthier called the review after years of accidents, mishaps and blunders at the zoo, stretching back to the start of his predecessor’s tenure as CEO. While Lanthier and zoo management repeatedly said the voluminous number of incidents were all unfortunate, usually unpreventable, accidents that were in no way connected to each other, Zoocheck consistently said otherwise. After more than 25 years of zoo campaigns, we knew there were systemic problems at the zoo and that an independent review was required.

For nearly five years Zoocheck has been campaigning to draw attention to the zoo and to change the Calgary Zoo’s focus from an entertainment business model to one that is focused on the animals themselves. We believe the zoo lost its way, but that under the direction of former CEO Peter Karsten the zoo was moving in the right direction, doing at least some of things the things that zoos should do. For example, Karsten was moving away from some of the more problematic animals, such as polar bears, and focusing efforts instead on animals that could be more easily accommodated in Calgary. He was also pushing involvement in legitimate conservation initiatives.

But everything changed when Karsten retired and money-man Alex Graham replaced him. It seemed clear when Graham pushed the $30 million Destination Africa project, an abominable complex of artificial exhibits in which four gorillas died in just one year, that the zoo had changed. Instead of intelligently pushing forward with a facility that placed animals as its highest priority, it became focused on money and attractions. It became a business, the animals started to die and the zoo’s reputation eroded year after year.

When current CEO Clement Lathier took over, after a hasty departure by Graham, it was business as usual. The problems got worse. Eventually, there were so many that at least a few of the more astute Calgarians started to ask what was going on in their zoo.

The whole process was facilitated by a city council that blindly accepted whatever the zoo said and defended them against their critics (i.e., Zoocheck). There was a culture of arrogance and denial and the problems at the zoo got worse. After each mishap, the zoo said they knew what they doing and that everything was fine. Well, things weren’t fine and the scathing review report by the Calgary Zoo’s own peers show that things are even worse than anyone thought.

The report mentions an unusually high death rate (higher than comparable facilities), poor collection planning, inadequate staff training, poor communcation, as well as inadequate animal care procedures, security and infrastructure maintenance. It also says the zoo was focused on acquiring attraction animals that it didn’t have the expertise to care for and that enhancing the visitor experience was often accomplished to the detriment of the animals.

The zoo sat on the review report for quite some time, presumably so they could come up with an action plan for change that, my guess is, they hoped would mitigate some of the damage they knew would be caused when the report finally came out.

During that time, career staff member Cathy Gavalier resigned her post, something the zoo is now latching on to as a sign of change.

At their media conference yesterday, the zoo attempted to re-frame at least a few of the items in the review report, dispute or downplay several of the statistics and suggest that some of the problems are associated with staff structure and City of Calgary staff that have been assigned to the zoo. I guess if I were in their shoes, I’d do the same.

While Zoocheck believes the terms of reference for the report were too narrow, we’re nevertheless pleased with its content. It vindicates everything Zoocheck has been saying for years. We believe that if the zoo follows through with every point in their action plan, then at least some aspects of the zoo will improve, but we don’t think it’s enough.

Ultimately, as the senior staff person at the Calgary Zoo the responsibility for its culture, practices, missteps and mistakes fall at the feet of the CEO. For that reason, we believe Clement Lanthier should resign his post.

Further, with so many serious systemic problems uncovered, the Canadian and American zoo associations should suspend Calgary Zoo’s accreditation until every one of them is addressed.

Finally, the Calgary Zoo should abandon its costly, nonsensical plan to acquire Giant Pandas, another manifestation of their focus on attractions and box-office animals. If they’re serious about the future, they will.

So, are things now changed at the Calgary Zoo? Are they a renewed institution looking forward or are they just saying what they have to say to get through this latest debacle? I guess time will tell.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Elephant's Limbo: Edmonton's Lucy

On May 4th, a motion brought forward by the City of Edmonton to dismiss our court action on behalf of Lucy the elephant was heard. Edmonton’s lawyer argued, amongst other things, that Zoocheck and PETA don’t have the legal authority to bring forward an action to help Lucy. That’s the usual first response by corporations challenging legal actions initiated by animal or environmental organizations, especially when they want to avoid discussing the merits of the case (i.e., Lucy’s suffering). If the motion is defeated, then the case continues. If not, then we’ll be pursuing another course of action. The judge’s decision should be forthcoming in the very near future. In the meantime, it’s worth looking back at a few of the realities of Lucy’s past and current life at the Valley Zoo.

Lucy is just entering the early stages of middle age, so she could potentially live for a very long time. The oldest documented Asian elephant was Lin Wang who died at the age of 86 years. There are currently a small number of elephants in India that are believed to be their mid-90s. African elephants have shorter lifespans, but they still live a long time, with wild individuals living well into their 60s. In Kenya's Amboseli National Park, there are even females who have had calves in their late 50s. If Lucy is moved to more elephant-friendly conditions elsewhere, it’s possible she could have many potential years ahead of her. If she stays at the zoo, she’ll probably experience the same fate as the majority of other elephants in zoos – death in her late 30s or early 40s.

While the Valley Zoo states that Lucy is happy and healthy, there is nothing to support that contention. In fact, a number of the world's leading elephant experts., who have either observed Lucy directly and/or examined her management and medical records, all agree that she is grossly overweight, suffering from a range of chronic medical conditions, lacks the social environment she needs, is suffering and stands a good chance of dying prematurely. These are people who have spent their lives observing and working with elephants.

In looking at the keeping of elephants in captivity, it is critically important to consider normal elephant biology, behaviour, natural lifestyle, and best husbandry practices in other facilities around the world that keep elephants. Having done that it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be acceptable for Lucy to stay at the Valley Zoo. While there are a multitude of challenges faced by any facility wanting to keep a tropical animal in a cold weather environment, there are three major obstacles the Valley Zoo would have to overcome in order to maintain Lucy in a way that satisfies her needs. As far as I can tell, these challenges are insurmountable.

The first is the climate. As an Asian elephant born in the wild in Sri Lanka, Lucy is not physically structured to cope with Edmonton's winter weather and that almost certainly aggravates some of her ongoing health issues (i.e., chronic arthritis) and psychological issues (i.e., stereotyping - rocking, swaying - because she spends exteneded periods inside during colder weather). While the zoo argues that Lucy is acclimated to her environment, there is no evidence to suggest that that is actually true.

A look at extinct cold weather elephant species (as well as other cold weather terristrial species, both past and present) show animals that are hair covered with thick subcutaneous fat layers, as well as a range of other adaptations that favour comfort and survivability in cold environments. In fact, there was a recent discovery of special blood components in mammoths that helped keep them warm. Lucy doesn't have any of those adaptations. Of course, that's to be expected since she was born in the wild in a tropical country.

Lucy can tolerate a certain amount of cold and can spend a limited amount of time outside during periods of cold weather. While this is probably better than permanent confinement indoors, it is certainly not ideal, especially when one considers the fact that elephants are typically active 18-20 hours per day, much of that time moving over very large areas. Except for providing a small heated indoor space, there is little the Valley Zoo can do to mitigate the effects of climate.

The second major challenge is that the Vally Zoo elephant paddock is too small (1/2 acre or less), in addition to being sparsely equipped and having substrate that is predominantly hard and unvegetated. While the Valley Zoo has the room to construct a decent sized elephant paddock, with required pasture areas, if they were to annex a number of the existing ungulate paddocks and amalgamate them into a single elephant compound, they do not have the finances (or, it seems, the desire) to do so. Reformatting the physical footprint of the zoo would require substantial funds and a major rethinking of the zoo plan. Having said that, if they did construct a large, properly equipped elephant paddock, they would still be faced with the problem of climate.

The third challenge is providing a proper social environment. The minimum recommended group size for captive elephants according to the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (an organization comprised entirely of zoo elephant managers and keepers) is three elephants. The Coalition for Captive Elephant Wellbeing recommends a minimum of 5 Asian elephants be kept together. Every zoo association recommends that female elephants never be kept alone and that it is preferable to keep them in groups. The reason for these recommendations is that all female elephants live in stable family groups, usually consisting of 5 - 10 or more individuals, their entire lives in the wild. Elephant lives are built around these stable family groups, so it's imperative that elephants be kept in appropriate groups in captivity. The Valley Zoo has already said they do not have the space for additional elephants and that they will not be acquiring any additional elephants in the future.

The Valley Zoo acknowledges that female elephants are social, but they also say that Lucy's keepers are her family and that because that is all she has known (except for a brief period as an infant), she is better left where she is. If you examine the natural lives of elephants, that doesn't make sense.

Elephant families stay together 24 hrs a day, while Lucy's keepers go home at the end of the work day, leaving Lucy alone in the barn (although they now claim to have extended their hours with her marginally). Elephant families don't disband at night and then reassemble the next morning. Traditional mahouts in southeast Asia live, work and sleep beside their elephants in an attempt to satisfy their social needs. A number of the elephant orphanages have keepers that sleep in the same quarters as the elephants they care for. That doesn't happen at the Valley Zoo.

Elephants are active 18-20 hours each day. Physical and social activity does not stop at the end of the work day but continues late into the night. Neither of these critical facets of elephant life are addressed in Lucy's case. In addition, if you consider the fact that elephants communicate with each other through audible sounds, infrasound (that humans can't hear), body postures, touching, chemical cues and seismic vibrations nearly all of their waking hours, it's easy to see how inadequate Lucy's situation is. Even if the keepers wanted to address Lucy's social needs, they wouldn’t be able to do so. The suggestion that human keepers can fill the gap left by the absence of contact with other elephants is wishful thinking. Since the criticism of the zoo has become more intense, they've made an effort to spend more time with Lucy and to walk her more, but it isn't enough to properly address Lucy's needs.

Lucy's living conditions and management are almost certainly major factors in her poor health. According to the zoo's own records, Lucy has suffered for many years from arthritis (starting at a very early age), foot infections, abscesses, undiagnosed respiratory problems and colic. She is also grossly overweight. The zoo has not been able to resolve most of these problems. These are all conditions that have led to the death of other captive elephants in their late 30s and early 40s. There is every reason to believe that Lucy will suffer the same fate if she is left where she is. It's clear that Lucy's conditions are chronic and that her physical environment is an ongoing major factor in her poor health. If she were moved to better accommodation with room to roam, things to do and other elephants to socialize with, her mental state would be enhanced and her health would improve through exercise and normal movement. Regarding the zoo's claim that moving Lucy would be dangerous, there is no substantive evidence to suggest that that is true. In fact, considering the history of captive elephants like Lucy, the biggest risk is keeping her where she is in a compromised state of health. The best reason for moving Lucy is her chronic poor health, it is not a reason for keeping her where she is.

Zoocheck has offered to pay for a team of world-renowned elephant veterinarians (each member subject to the Valley Zoo's approval) to come to Edmonton to properly examine Lucy and her health. The Valley Zoo has refused, even though it wouldn't cost them a cent. I know if I had an elephant in chronic poor health with a long-term, undiagnosed condition, I'd jump at the offer.

The Valley Zoo staff and City of Edmonton have been close-minded and have refused to discuss viable options for Lucy right from the start. And their refusal to allow independent third party assessment of Lucy's health should be a red flag to anyone concerned about Lucy's health and welfare. Unfortunately, the zoo's close-mindedness has led to the current legal action.

I’m baffled as to why the Valley Zoo and the City of Edmonton are fighting so hard to retain one lone, sickly elephant in their small, moribund zoo. It takes nothing more than a review of a child’s book about elephants to see how inappropriate Lucy’s life and living conditions are. Perhaps they’ve defended themselves for so long, they feel they’d look stupid if they backed down and did the right thing. Perhaps it’s a misguided sense of civic pride. No matter what the reason, it’s Lucy that’s paying the price.


Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ueno Zoo in Cherry Blossom Time

Last week I visited Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. It was a warm sunny day, the cherry blossoms were out in full force and throngs of people filled every corner of the zoo grounds.

Ueno Zoo is one of Japan's premier facilities and is comparable to almost any major North American zoo. Its wide pathways, tall trees, well-tended gardens, refreshment outlets around every corner and multitude of shady rest areas make Ueno Zoo a wonderful place for visitors. And that's the problem.

Like so many other zoos throughout the world, the Ueno Zoo is a people place. One would think that with a large collection of animals from the four corners of the globe the zoo would be a place for animals, but it's not. It's a place for people.

Unlike the wonderful facilities for visitors, the animal enclosures were small, bland and most of the animals were just sitting or lying around. Those that were active were often engaged in stereotypic pacing or some other abnormal behaviour.

It was obvious the zoo had made some attempt to spruce up some of the cages by adding bark chip substrates, furnishings and objects to manipulate, and I expect those things made the staff feel better, but they didn't seem to do much for the animals. The space and complexity the animals need just wasn't there.

Like most other zoos in the world, visitors noisily filed past one exhibit after another, registering one animal in their mind before moving on to the next. If the animals were inactive, many visitors didn't even stop, they just glanced toward the animals as they walked by.

As I moved through the zoo I tried to imagine what the animals felt with so many hundreds of eyes watching their every move. At a bear cage, the visitor pathway wound around the top of the exhibit allowing people to surround the animals. And there were multiple glass viewing stations at ground level as well. There was no where for the bears to get away from public view. Many other animals had it the same and some had it worse.

Studies show that many animals, ranging from lizards to gorillas, can be very stressed by being watched. That seems obvious to me. But it doesn't seem obvious to the people who build the cages and care for the animals.

Zoos have a totem pole of priorities that place the needs of visitors first, staff second and animals third. That totem pole should be flipped on its head so the needs of the animals come first, the staff second and the public third. Zoos claim they are devoted to animal wellbeing but the reality says otherwise. There needs to be a new zoo paradigm.

As I exited Ueno Zoo I couldn't help but think that a zoo is no place for animals.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Monday, March 1, 2010

Death and Life in Orca World: The Show Must Go On

Sea World has resumed their orca shows after the recent death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The trainers aren’t allowed to enter the water with the animals and they work under a new set of rules, but I expect it’s just a matter of time before things return to normal.

After all, orca shows are the foundation on which the Sea World empire is built and it will take a lot more than a trainer’s death to stop them. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Ms. Brancheau’s death by whale is unfortunate, but it wasn’t unexpected. The whale in question, Tilikum, is linked to two previous deaths. Even without that history, the fact remains that orcas are one of the world’s largest predators, so one could logically assume that being around them poses a risk.

If you factor in the reality that captive whales like Tilikum are compressed into spaces millions of times smaller than they would experience in the wild, that their natural movements and behaviours are almost entirely eliminated, that they are forced to live in the most unnatural of social environments and that they are frustrated, bored and out of shape, one could reasonably assume all of that might exacerbate the risk.

No one really knows if Tilikum was angry, demented after living so long in those kinds of conditions or just innocently looking for a diversion from the monotony of his daily life. What we do know however, is that Tilikum is a 12,000 lb predator living a very unnatural life.

I expect Ms. Brancheau got into the whale training business because she loves whales, especially the particular whales she worked with. But I find it hard to believe the relationship was reciprocated in any way. I just can’t get past the feeling that if a relationship does exist, it’s not one between friends, but between keeper and captive.

If you look at the biology, behaviour and lifestyles of orcas, it seems obvious why they are among the worst candidates for captivity. There’s almost nothing about their natural lives and habitats that can be replicated, even in the world’s best captive conditions. Life for a captive whale doesn’t seem like much of a life at all. It seems more like a long, slow prison sentence where the only escape is death.

I’d like to think that Ms. Brancheau’s death will result in a period of reflection and a reassessment of whale keeping by the bigwigs at Sea World and other aquariums. But I know that’s wishful thinking, because marine parks and aquariums are businesses that are there to generate a profit. And when money is involved, the show must go on.

Rob Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Win One, Lose One: When will they listen to us?

Six years ago, in court, Norman Buwalda emerged victorious against a challenge to his interests. Earlier this month, that victory caused Buwalda, age 66, his life.

Buwalda, who lived in the southwestern Ontario community of Southwold, was Chairperson of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association (CEAO). He loved to keep exotic pets his neighbors recognized as being very dangerous.Such fears were amplified six years ago when a 10-year-old boy was seriously mauled by one of Buwalda’s Siberian tigers. The child survived, apparently minus his esophagus. According to reports at the time, the boy, now sixteen, will probably have to be tube-fed for the rest of his life. We’re not sure exactly what happened to the youngster because soon after the boy virtually vanished, presumably his mother having been paid off to avoid a lawsuit, but we just don’t know for sure. The boy apparently was attacked when the tiger, on a leash, was brought out of its cage for photographs to be taken.

There is nothing unprecedented in any of this. For example in 1994, in another small Ontario town, Wiarton, a 16-year-old boy was attacked by a tiger at a private animal display and died of his injuries. In 2003 another 16-year-old, a girl working at a small private zoo in Grey County, was injured by a lion attack. And three years later lions attacked visitors, twice, in another small zoo near another small Ontario town, Leamington.

So after Buwalda’s tiger attacked the 10-year-old, the township finally listened to Buwalda’s neighbors and enacted a bylaw (which is the Canadian term for what Americans call an “ordinance”) to prohibit privately keeping dangerous exotic animals. My friend and colleague, Julie Woodyer, advised the council on how to effectively word the bylaw, but her advice was ignored. The text was badly written, and sure enough, Buwalda successfully defeated it in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Buwalda is still listed as Chairperson of CEAO on its website where it ever so grandly describes itself as “... individuals with varied backgrounds in animal husbandry, agriculture, biology, research, tracking and rescue work, education and awareness programs, zoology, endangered animal breeding successes, conservation’s [sic], rehabilitation and release programs, who [sic] efforts, experience and information have combined to develop and implement minimum standards.” Minimum standards for what is not made clear, but presumably they refer to how exotic animals are kept.

After that the grammar becomes too tormented to quote, except to say that, ironically, CEAO’s second goal is: “To assist municipalities and keepers with the safe and humane housing of exotic animals a. by keeping animals safely, this in turn protects the public and the animal keepers.” There is no plan “b”. In fact these and other goals listed for CEAO seem never to have been met, although it’s hard to say since the only contact person listed is Buwalda, now both dead and, surely, discredited as an authority on keeping people safe from potentially dangerous exotic animals.

I am disappointed with the town council of Southwold, six years ago, for ignoring the sound advice it was presented. When are people going to understand that we in the animal protection business really do know what we’re talking about?

And my concerns now are for both Buwalda’s animals and for Buwalda’s neighbors.The latter still very understandably feel that they are at risk. With Buwalda gone no one seems to know who is taking care of the animals, or how competent they are at preventing the big cats — two lions, two tigers, and a puma — from getting loose. This is an upscale community of established professionals who deserve better than to have to suffer the fears they now have for their children, their pets, and themselves. No one is blaming the tiger for being a tiger and doing what tigers can be expected to do, but they quite understandably want to be safer.

Now the council will try again. Will it listen to us?

Certainly the government of Ontario never has. Every province except Manitoba, where it so far has not been an issue, and Ontario, which has approximately a third of the country’s population, has at least some level of legislation banning or controlling the keeping of dangerous exotic “pets.” There is no such legislation in the far north, but neither is it an issue in such regions. So more than the late Mr. Buwalda, or the Southwold town council of six years ago, I am most angry at the provincial government of Ontario for constantly ducking the issue. Outside of communities that have passed the kind of bylaw the Southwold council will again try to achieve, throughout Ontario you can buy, own, or sell tigers, lions, pumas, crocodiles, spitting cobras, boa constrictors, or any other kind of dangerous animal without having to demonstrate any ability to do so safely.

It’s time for Ontario to do the right thing, and we stand ready to assist.

Barry Kent MacKay
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA
http://www.bornfreeusa.org/weblog.php?p=2284&more=1

Friday, January 22, 2010

How many deaths before action on exotics?

Last year British Columbia introduced new rules for keeping exotic animals. Those rules were prompted by the 2007 death of Tanya Dumstry-Soos, who was mauled through a barrier by a caged tiger while her children stood and watched. It remains to be seen how effective BC’s rules will actually be, but at least the government responded.

Here in Ontario, injuries and deaths don’t seem to matter. Just a short while ago, exotic animal keeper Norm Buwalda was killed by one of his pet tigers. That same tiger attacked and very seriously injured a boy in 2004. Those two incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

When asked about the exotic pet situation, Premier Dalton McGuinty opined that the problem was the responsibility of individual municipalities. It’s clear his government isn’t going to do anything.

While municipalities have the authority to enact bylaws to control and, to some extent, regulate, the keeping of animals, my guess is they’re more comfortable dealing with dogs, cats and maybe even livestock, than they are with big cats, primates and venomous reptiles.

Municipalities just don’t have the expertise and resources to develop and enforce rules and regulations governing wild animals, including the multitude of dangerous species common in the pet trade. They also lack the background knowledge necessary to counter arguments made by highly visible, very vocal, local exotic pet proponents who come out of the woodwork to oppose regulation. But many municipalities forge ahead nonetheless and do their best to formulate rules or they opt to prohibit certain kinds of wild animals altogether.

Unfortunately, many bylaws are poorly written and there’s no uniformity. Some jurisdictions prohibit certain species, while neighbouring municipalities don’t. Some have housing standards, while others have none. Many jurisdictions don’t have any laws at all, so if an animal owner runs into a problem in one municipality, they just move into the municipality next door. It’s a patchwork mess.

The list of incidents begins more than two decades ago. A 16 year old boy killed by his uncle’s pet tiger. A teenager’s arm torn off by a lion at a private zoo. A 2 year old boy bitten on the head by a pet cougar. A tiger jumps out of a cage and remains on the lam for more than 2 days. A “stray” baby tiger turns up on a porch in a small Ontario town. An escaped lion runs after a jogger near Belleville. Two lions break out of a barn near Niagara Falls. The list gets longer every year.

It’s difficult to understand why people want to keep animals that can seriously injure or kill them, but they do. And it’s astonishing how many wild animal pet owners dismiss, ignore or seem unaware of the risks their animals pose. They house them in unsafe cages, play with them, take them for walks outside or for a ride in the car. They calmly and routinely put themselves and the public at risk. It’s amazing.

There’s no legislating against stupidity and I suppose people are free to endanger themselves in all kinds of ways. But the exotic wild animal crowd's imperviousness to reality shouldn’t put children, bystanders, neighbours and community members, including livestock and companion animals, at risk too.

Since the early 1980s the Ontario government has known there’s a problem. In fact, it would be hard for them not to know. Over the years there have been hundreds of media stories and government ministries have received thousands of letters. Numerous private members bills have been pushed, government committees and working groups formed, meetings held and countless other initiatives come and gone. Every political party has acknowledged there’s a problem, but none have taken definitive action. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Premier McGuinty is just the latest premier to shrug off any responsibility for the situation.

Today anyone can still acquire almost any exotic wild animal they want and no license is required, no questions asked. They can house their animals in cramped, crappy, unsafe, homemade cages and they don’t need any expertise or experience in caring for or handling their animals. No matter which way you look at it, it’s insane. How many deaths will it take before the Government of Ontario acts? Your guess is a good as mine.

Rob Laidlaw

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Fate of Elephants at the Toronto Zoo

On February 18, 2010, the Toronto Zoo Board of Management will discuss a feasibility study undertaken in 2008 regarding the future requirements of caring for elephants at the zoo and for maintaining a herd of elephants into the future. Despite four elephant deaths in four years, a grossly inadequate physical facility, lack of space and an inappropriate climate, people associated with the zoo have already said they want to continue to keep elephants.

Information obtained by Zoocheck suggests the zoo may try to bring their facility up to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) standard for elephants by making modifications to their existing enclosure. But these so-called improvements will be minor, cost millions of dollars and won’t make much difference to the animals.

The AZA standards are behind the times and ignore key facets of elephant biology and behaviour. For example, although all species of elephants have large home ranges in the wild and spend up to 20 hours each day engaged in a complex array of movements and behaviours, the AZA outdoor space requirement for a single elephant is a mere 1,800 sq. ft. That’s more than 60,000 times smaller than the smallest home range of elephants in the wild. And making things worse is the fact that elephants in northern zoos often can't use outdoor space when it's too cold.

The AZA also says a minimum of three elephants should be kept together. Far better than one, but a far cry from an elephant’s natural extended family group with its multitude of lifetime relationships.

Under close examination, the AZA standards seem geared more to the convenience of zoos than to the welfare of elephants. That may be why early mortality, infanticide, rejection, disease, abnormal behaviours and a range of other problems are ubiquitous in North America’s urban zoos.

I expect Toronto Zoo officials will claim elephants are being poached in the wild, so they need to help raise awareness and conserve them, even though they seem to have great difficulty keeping them alive. Of course, they’re not alone. The North American zoo elephant population is declining every year and, without recruitment from the wild, the population will gradually fizzle out of existence. It’s safe to say that if saving elephants is reliant on zoos, they are most certainly on the fast track to extinction.

Not too long ago, the Central Zoo Authority in India decreed that all elephants in zoos must be released to the wild or moved to sanctuaries. They chose this course of action after a great deal of study and consultation. They determined that elephants in Indian zoos, where the climate is perfect and there is hundreds of years of experience in caring for elephants, were suffering and that their incarceration contributed little, if anything, to elephant conservation.

India has the longest history of keeping elephants in captivity and more wild elephants than any other home range country. If zoos in India can’t do it right, it’s hard to believe that half a world away elephants living in postage stamp-sized pens on hard surfaces in unnatural social groups, enduring alien, hostile climates, can do well.

If the Toronto Zoo were truly interested in the welfare of individual elephants and the conservation of both African and Asian elephants, they would phase out elephant keeping altogether and instead provide real support to legitimate elephant conservation programs. Providing funds to in-situ elephant conservation initiatives in stable elephant home range countries will do far more to safeguard the species than all the elephant exhibits in North American zoos combined.

The Toronto Zoo Board of Management will soon discuss the fate of elephants at their zoo. Will they be a rubber stamp committee who just regurgitates whatever the zoo feeds them? Will they tow the party line about how the zoo needs elephants, how well cared for they are and what a pivotal role they can play in elephant conservation? I hope not. With the lives of the animals at stake, as well as millions of dollars, it would be nice to think the members of the board have actually done some research into the reality of elephant lives in urban zoos and are prepared to ask some tough questions and make some tough decisions.

Rob Laidlaw

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Little Concern for Sharks

Last week Ripley Entertainment Inc. publicly announced their intention to build a 150,000 sq. ft. aquarium at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto. The proposal is the latest in a string of aquarium proposals, including a previous one from Ripley, going back almost 10 years.

Apparently, the Ripley aquarium was going to be constructed in Niagara Falls, but increased security measures at the border, and the inevitable delays for US tourists crossing into Canada resulting from them, bumped the project to Toronto instead.

As usual, money talks and it seems the City of Toronto is behind the aquarium plan. It’s unfortunate that so many people are quick to jump on the aquarium bandwagon. While aquariums are often perceived as relatively benign institutions, they come with a number of very legitimate concerns, including animal welfare, that should be very carefully considered.

One of the biggest issues in recent years is the confinement of whales and dolphins. These wide-ranging, deep diving, highly intelligent, extremely social sea mammals are arguably among the worst candidates for captivity. Their physical and social environments are impossible to replicate in even the best captive situations. Whales and dolphins in captivity are typically relegated to impoverished lives in bathtub-like conditions that bear no resemblance to the environments they evolved over millennia to inhabit.

Ripley Entertainment hasn’t released a list of the animals they want to display, but their two US-based facilities don’t display whales or dolphins. Instead, they feature sharks and that’s what they’re talking about for Toronto.

Sharks are certainly a lot less controversial than whales and dolphins, but they’re not entirely controversy free. During the past few years, considerable concern has been expressed about the keeping of giant filter-feeding sharks (i.e., whale sharks) in captivity. These massive creatures travel thousands of miles in the wild foraging for plankton and small fish, but swim endlessly in tiny circles in captivity. The various species of pelagic sharks that traverse huge areas of open-ocean are also of concern. Wide-ranging creatures usually don’t do well in captivity.

No matter what shark species are being considered, their confinement in aquaria should not be taken lightly. Shark populations around the world have declined drastically and collection for live display is just one more pressure they don’t need. As well, the welfare of the individuals who are captured (yes, aquariums either capture or pay people to capture their stock) and confined is severely impacted.

While there seems to be increasing concern about the keeping of animals in zoos, most people don’t usually give the welfare of fish and other aquarium inhabitants a second thought. It’s time they did. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so quick to jump on the aquarium bandwagon.

Rob Laidlaw

Monday, January 11, 2010

Owner killed by pet tiger

Today Zoocheck received a flurry of telephone calls from local and national media seeking commentary on the death of big cat owner Norm Buwalda who was killed on the weekend by his 294 kg pet tiger.

Mr. Buwalda was a vigorous defender of big cat keeping, even after one of his tigers attacked and injured a 10 year old boy in 2004. Reportedly, the cat was being taken out on a chain leash, when the boy fell triggering the tiger to attack.

After that incident, Southwold Township passed a bylaw prohibiting the keeping of big cats and other dangerous animals but Buwalda hired a lawyer, fought the law and won. The judge in the case criticized the law as being too broad and he dismissed the Township’s argument that “properly confined” exotic animals were still dangerous.

The judge seemed to miss the fact that not only must the caging of animals be adequate to contain them, and include all of the standard safety measures, such as double door entry gates and secure segregation areas, but the handling and management of animals must also be safe.

Buwalda was listed as the Chairperson of the Exotic Animal’s Owner Association, a group that, among other things, aims “to assist municipalities and keepers with the safe and humane housing of exotic animals.” One has to wonder what that organization promotes when its own Chairperson engages in the rather foolhardy practice of entering a cage containing an adult tiger during feeding time.

Ultimately though, the responsibility for Bulwalda’s death lies with the Government of Ontario. Despite thousands of letters, dozens of reports, hundreds of media stories, four private member’s bills, several internal study groups, several deaths, numerous injuries and loads of dangerous animal escapes, the Ontario government has steadfastly refused to control the trade and keeping of wild animals as pets.

It doesn’t make any sense. Hot dog vendors and taxi cab drivers are regulated to the hilt, but people owning tigers and spitting cobras, that can kill them or their neighbours in an instant, don’t require any license at all.

As it stands now, anyone in Ontario can easily and cheaply acquire a tiger, lion, wolf, monkey or cobra as a pet. There are no laws against it and there are no laws setting standards of housing, care or safety.

It may seem like a no-brainer that these kinds of animals don’t make good pets and can be extremely dangerous. Whether its’ stupidity, ego or another reason, the fact remains that there will always be a segment of society that wants these kinds of animals. Those people put themselves, visitors to their properties, neighbours and communities at risk.

Other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world already prohibit the keeping of big cats and other dangerous animals as pets. It’s time Ontario did the same. Buwalda isn’t the first person to be killed by a wild animal pet in the province, but he should be the last.

Rob Laidlaw