Thursday, October 11, 2012

Zoos Tell Lies: Animals Suffer

Stealing Belugas Is Not Conservation

Ever hear of a leaf-scaled sea-snake, an Araripe manakin, a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad, or an Amsterdam Island albatross? They are among 100 species of wild animals and plants recently designated as the world’s 100 most endangered species on a list compiled by 8,000 scientists at the World Conservation Congress.

You are more likely to have heard of the beluga whale, also called the white whale. Its population is thought to be from 62,000 to 80,000, by the National Marine Fisheries Service, while others estimate up to 100,000. Most experts believe there is some decline. Just for comparison, we people increase our numbers by 8 million per year. There will be another 300 of us by the time you finish reading this blog.

I consider myself lucky to have seen literally thousands of belugas as I flew in a small seaplane low over the shorelines and estuaries of the west coast of Hudson Bay, some years ago, and I had close-up looks at them in the Churchill River, when they swam over to the boat to gently nudge my hand left dangling over the side. It was the young ones who did this, apparently as a game of their own devising.

Now before we discuss the lies zoos tell, let me assure you that the wild belugas I saw were assemblies of mixed groups young and adults, swimming and diving amid millions of cubic kilometers of sea rich with a huge variety of sea life. Let me also assure you that they, like polar bears, rhinoceroses, elephants and gorillas, had absolutely no trouble breeding; they know how to do it.

Fast forward to late last summer. Georgia Aquarium Inc. applied to the Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a permit to import 18 beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia. Why? Georgia Aquarium’s website says it is committed to beluga conservation, and that its “studies” show that a number can be removed from the Sea of Okhotsk without depleting the population. Yeah, so? You could remove 300 humans from the population every couple of minutes without denting our numbers. But either action would be cruel to the individuals involved.

Belugas don’t breed well in captivity, but they are great favorites among visitors to aquariums. Like dolphins, their mouths are formed in a fixed configuration that makes it look like they are grinning, thus happy. The real thrust of research planned seems designed to better accommodate the species in captivity, but meanwhile, they must continually take animals from the wild. That is a process that in no way benefits belugas, putting stress on the animals forcibly captured and removed from their family and social groupings, and their homes, to spend the rest of their lives, those who survive, swimming around in the beluga equivalent of a jail cell, all for our amusement.

We do threaten belugas, directly by hunting them and indirectly through changes that we impose upon their environment. With global climate change dramatically reducing ice cover in seas belugas call home, we see increases in oil drilling and shipping. Nothing we can observe or learn from belugas swimming around in a concrete tank can teach us how to prevent such risks, the real risks to the ultimate, long-term survival of the species.

Captive breeding and release to the viable habitat can be a means to protect a truly endangered species, although such work is normally done far from public scrutiny, behind the scenes and not involving zoos. One does not need the zoo infrastructure to breed black-footed ferrets or Vancouver marmots for release back to the wild.

But don’t be fooled. Zoos and aquariums want you to believe they are somehow in the vanguard of conservation, but conservation has absolutely no connection to stealing belugas from their homes and imprisoning them so we can gawk at their cute faces.

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How do you complain to people who can't, or won't, recognize a complaint?

An Open Letter to Bill Peters, Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums: THIS IS A COMPLAINT

[Reprinted from]

Bill Peters
National Director
Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Suite 400, 280 Metcalfe Street
Ottawa, ON K2P 1R7

Dear Mr. Peters:

I am a life-long naturalist long involved in animal conservation and protection issues. As I grow older, I am ever more convinced that we must treat other species with respect and compassion. Being a member, active in many cases, of many organizations involved with wildlife, including the Toronto Zoo, it naturally bothered me to read about the plight of animals held in Marineland, Niagara Falls, such as the solitary orca (they are a social species); six out of seven sea lions being blind or with serious vision or eye problems; the death of the baby beluga because no trainers who knew how to separate her from adult males battering her as her mother sought so valiantly to save her were on the site; the fur loss, weight losses; stresses and skin lesions talked about by staff who have quit in protest and, well, you can read the newspaper, and assuming you have done so, you know the litany of complaints, and to date, focused entirely on marine mammals. ( There have, in the last twenty years, been documented many other concerns about other animals, such as bears, and deer, at Marineland.

And here's the problem: when those reports are submitted to CAZA, people like me think that, because CAZA always claims to share our concerns about animals, they will be read. I know my colleague, Julie Woodyer, of Zoocheck Canada, met with you to complain about Marineland, and of course for the last twenty years, and especially the last 14, there have been demonstrations, media releases, and letters sent to CAZA. And yet, three times in three days the Toronto Star reported that you were not aware of any complaints.

How could you not have noticed? I mean, I realize that you can't personally take part in all CAZA inspections, that these inspections of member zoos take place only every five years, and with plenty of prior warning, so maybe during the big day things like injuries, wounds, poor sanitation and water quality, inadequate housing and so on just don't get noticed. Maybe when zoo keepers say "don't go there" the inspectors say "okay" and don't go there; or when zoo keepers say "oh, it's being treated" the inspectors say "okay" and don't make note of the problem. Or maybe the CAZA inspectors really like the people they are inspecting, and don't really want to get them into trouble, especially knowing that the people whose facilities they are inspecting may some day be inspecting their own. I mean, there aren't that many zoos in Canada compared to, say, the United States, so the chances of people all knowing each other are quite high and no one wants to be critical of someone who can be critical back.

What surprises me is that you claim to have received no complaints. I guess the fault lies with the complainers. So what we need to know, Mr. Peters, is what, in your mind, would constitute a complaint? I want to send you one so you know that people who care about animals are deeply concerned about the long history of concerns that there are abused animals and substandard husbandry that has been documented at Marineland. I know other people want to complain, have complained, so since those complaints don't count, how can we make them count? Do we write "THIS IS A COMPLAINT" on the top of the letter? Should it be in red, or underlined or in bold print?

And please understand, Mr. Peters, that this inability to recognize complaints is not restricted to you. Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur, who oversees the Ontario SPCA, is quoted in the newspaper as saying, "I was in tears" when reading about the plight of the animals at Marineland, and wished she had been told. I guess it came as a shock to her, since she apparently didn't read the reports Zoocheck Canada has submitted to her government, and earlier governments, in the past, such as the Commentary on the Canadian Association ofZoos and Aquariums (CAZA) accreditation process: Marineland of Canada Niagara Falls, which was published by the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Zoocheck Canada in January, 2002. Ms Meilleur was only appointed to her present position last year, and I guess no one would have told her about that report, let alone that it was a complaint.

But Mr. Peters, you certainly have been around a lot longer than her, and since the report addresses your organization, did you not notice that it opens by saying, "For many years, Marineland of Canada has been the subject of intense criticism from animal protection organizations in Canada and around the world. A considerable portion of this criticism concerns substandard animal housing and care, and the relatively high level of cetacean mortality at the facility. Marineland has also been extensively criticized for its practice of capturing cetaceans from the wild and importing them into Canada. A detailed articulation of some of these concerns is contained in the Zoocheck Canada publication Distorted Nature: Exposing the Myth of Marineland (1998)"?

Now, I realize that no one wrote "THIS IS A COMPLAINT" on the copies sent to CAZA, so you may have not recognized that it was a complaint, or perhaps you received it and thought it only applied to Marineland, and perhaps (I'm really guessing here, since it's hard for me to understand how you would not think it constituted a complaint) you therefore failed to read the next paragraphs, which mention CAZA, specifically.

And note that it references a document published in 1998, that's fourteen years ago! And all three are still on line. (

I once met a toothless old self-professed "swamp rat" in a Louisiana backwater who was taking me to see some alligators and told me he never read his mail, then said, cackling loudly, "`Cause I just cain't read!" I sort of liked the old geezer notwithstanding his illiteracy, but I'm sure you can read, so maybe there are folks, and you are one of them, who simply don't read their own mail. But surely you noticed news stories on TV and don't have to read them...and saw pictures of people demonstrating at Marineland, and being as it is a zoo, must have been curious about it? It's not too late; they're still available ( There are organizations created entirely to oppose Marineland.

Anyway, here we are with this horrific situation as outlined in the media (for example, and since you are quoted you must have talked to the reporter, and unless she is lying, you told her you have received no complaints, and yet her interview was about complaints, not from me, or animal protection groups, or demonstrators, but from people who actually work, or worked, at Marineland. Do their complaints equal complaints?

I am making this an open letter in an effort to optimize the chances that you will see it, or hear about it. I really want you to know that it is a complaint. I would suggest anyone concerned about the horrific conditions at Marineland do the same, but whether they write to you on paper or e-mail, they should first write "THIS IS A COMPLAINT" and hope that you understand.

Sincerely yours,

Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada

[Watch this blog for the response from the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Barry Kent MacKay's follow up comments.]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Following up on Frogs in a Box

One of the many problems with selling live animals in children’s toy stores and gift stores is that their staff members have no training or experience handling, caring for, or advising potential new pet-owners on their purchases.

As a part of Zoocheck’s investigation into the disturbing Frogs-in-a-box I posed as a potential customer in two stores selling the frog boxes in Toronto. I went with the intention of assessing the level of knowledge among the staff who sell and care for these frogs. Prior to my visits I did a lot of research regarding the natural biology, behaviour and lifestyles of dwarf African clawed frogs, as well as on their captive husbandry and care.

The first store I entered was a popular children’s toy and book store. Lined up on a shelf I found 7 or 8 of the frog boxes near the front. I instantly noticed the algae coated tanks and wondered how long it had been since their water was changed. A laminated sign hung from the shelf warning of the dangers of Salmonella contamination (probably a good idea in a children’s store with the frogs being located at about chest height).

I found the “resident frog expert” as she referred to herself and started asking questions. Her knowledge on how to care for the frogs was limited. She didn’t know they were nocturnal, if they were male or female, where they were bred (incorrectly telling me they were born and raised in Canada), what they can eat other than the manufactured frog food that comes with the kit, or how big they grow. Basically, she wasn’t aware of the frog's requirements beyond what she had read on the written material that accompanied the frogs. The store’s care schedule was feeding them twice a week, and never changing their water. I was told they rarely last three months in the store before being purchased.

The second store I visited was a novelty gift store. This time the frogs were displayed much higher, out of reach of children, and the tanks were much cleaner –although there was no warning about the dangers of Salmonella contamination anywhere. As I started asking questions again, I realized this store owner knew a little bit more about dwarf African clawed frogs, and was more diligent about changing the water in the tanks in comparison to the kids toy store. Despite this, he too was quick to rattle off the erroneous care instructions that came with the frogs. He admitted that despite being told to only feed the frogs two pellets each twice a week, he usually put more in as he found the more dominate frog of the two often ate all the food, leaving the other to starve. Instead of changing the water every three months as advised, he changed them every other month. Ill-advisedly, he was under the impression that these frogs prefer their cramped quarters, stating that even if they were in a larger tank they would be traumatized by it and would hide in the corner. Another customer over heard this and in disbelief questioned him “what if they were in a big tank that had lots of stuff in it?” Again he persisted in his nonsensical claim that this would traumatize the frogs, adding that the energy it would take to swim to the top of the tank to breath would be too demanding for them. In this case, he is partly right; a very tall tank would be too demanding on these little guys, who have to swim to the surface quite frequently to breathe, but large shallow tanks do exist, and more room for any captive animal is always preferable. Furthermore, maintaining stable water chemistry is always easier with a larger quantity of water, which is important to consider given the frogs sensitive skin.

I got the impression that both of these store workers had good intentions for the frogs. Both were owners of their own tanks, and spoke fondly of their pets. Sadly, like other well-intentioned consumers however, they just accepted the care recommendations that came with the frogs as truthful and adequate. It only takes a little bit of time with our reliable friend Google, or even hitting up your local library, to learn what kind of care dwarf African clawed frogs really need and deserve. Once educated on their care and natural history, it’s easy to spot the severe short-comings evident in the care and habitat provided for these doomed frogs.

Zoocheck has sent out letters expressing its concerns about the frog boxes to retailers currently selling them in Ontario. An outline of the actual needs required by this particular frog species to be kept safely and humanely in captivity - as endorsed by amphibian experts - has also been included, along with a health advisory statement regarding the very real threat of Salmonella contamination linked to these frogs. Hopefully with a little more awareness these retailers will recognize the risks and cruelty associated with frogs-in-a-box and pull them from their shelves.

Michelle Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Blame Game or What I Learned About Cormorants This Summer

When I told my parents I'd be working on a Zoocheck campaign to protect Double-crested Cormorants this summer, their immediate response was “oh those birds that eat all the fish!” I have to admit, this surprised me. Unlike my parents I felt very neutral towards this black bird I occasionally saw around the lake, but I was soon to learn that the Double-crested Cormorant is one of the most unjustly hated and vilified birds anywhere.

I’m lucky to have a family cottage up north, and over the past few years I’ve begun to notice the cormorants; usually sighting one or two, most often during boat rides. It’s hard not to be amazed by their distinct way of flying so incredibly low over the water, seemingly skimming the surface with their wing tips. More than once, I’ve found myself envying their ability to effortlessly manoeuver in the water; gracefully diving beneath the surface, incredibly at home in the aquatic world. Standing on webbed feet with wings outstretched, it’s hard to forget the odd sight of a cormorant drying its feathers in the sun and breeze. Up until now this was what I knew of Double-crested Cormorants. Unlike my parents I had avoided the rumour mill, never coming to perceive these native waterbirds as voracious fish-eating machines.

Both my parents are in their late 50’s now, and grew up in a time when there were a lot more game fish to be caught, and a lot less cormorants to be seen. Cormorant numbers plummeted after World War II with increased human persecution and chemical contamination from DDT. As cormorants on this part of the continent reached a point of near complete destruction, the pesticide DDT was banned, and in the 1980s their population numbers started to grow. This was somewhat bad timing, with their successful and somewhat dramatic increase in population, combined with the more conspicuous and landscape altering nature of their nesting habits, has unfortunately coincided with the ever noticeable decrease in desirable game fish –likely providing the opportunity for anglers and wildlife managers to target the cormorant as their scapegoat.

Despite science consistently being on the side of these birds (numerous studies have shown that cormorants may actually aid native fish species by primarily eating small invasive fish like alewives and the incredibly numerous round goby), pressure from hunting and fishing groups resulted in Parks Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources attempting to “control cormorant numbers” through what they call “management programs”.

Since 2000, these ill-defined programs have involved a range of attempts to kill and prevent the reproduction of cormorants through egg oiling, harassment, nest destruction, and most ruthless of all the shooting of parent birds while nesting in colonies on protected park lands. Of course the mass shooting of thousands of defenceless nesting birds sounds horrible, but it wasn’t until I actually witnessed the footage recorded by Cormorant Defenders International (CDI) of the culls carried out by park workers, that it really hit me how brutal and archaic this practice really is.

Cormorants are attentive and protective parents, who take turns incubating their eggs, hunting for fish and alternatively shading their fairly exposed young while in their treetop nests. Cormorants mate and nest in the breeding season at varying schedules which means there is a considerable span of time during which nestlings may be present. Apparently, adult cormorants aren't supposed to be slaughtered while chicks are present. But determining whether a cormorant has a chick or two in the nest is difficult or impossible. Many nests are located high in the trees, and with each pair of birds nesting at various stages, shooters engaged in culling really have no idea if there are young or not in the nests. Inevitably this results in young chicks being left to starve or fry to death in the hot sun where their parents are killed.

If that doesn’t pull at your heart-strings, there are a multitude of scientifically-backed arguments in favour of cormorants. I could explain how cormorants are not an invasive species whose population numbers are out of control, or that they do not, and could not be responsible alone for depleting game fish populations. I could argue that their nesting behaviours - though technically destructive - are a natural process that are far less of an endangerment to trees and vegetation than we humans are, or that the “management of populations” is an expensive and in-effective process of trying to control nature, that ultimately disturbs and threatens other endangered birds nesting in the same colony. Don’t get me wrong, these arguments are important; knowledge is the first step to clarifying myths and raising awareness, which the cormorant is in desperate need of. But to actually witness these beautiful creatures being mercilessly shot at during their most vulnerable time - while attempting to raise and care for their young, with many being left injured to die a slow death – it’s not even necessary to consider all the “facts.” Any compassionate, caring person should organically come to the realization that slaughtering nesting birds, of any species, is morally and ethically wrong, especially in a park or bird sanctuary.

In 2004, over 1,750 dead birds – mostly Double-crested Cormorants – were found dead in breeding colonies at the east and west ends of Lake Ontario in the late summer due to botulism. Type E botulism outbreaks are becoming more common, and are likely connected to increasing temperatures and the growing populations of invasive species introduced to the Great Lakes, such as zebra mussels and round gobies, one of the cormorant’s favourite prey species. As these exotic species essentially reshape the ecology of the Great Lakes, the native species of the area inevitably suffer, cormorants being one of those. Yet despite these troubling signs for the cormorant’s future, anglers and hunters and some government agencies seem hellbent on their eradication.

The myths about cormorants have gained traction and many people now believe they are fact. The reality is that humans almost eradicated the Double-crested Cormorant through direct persecution and the careless use of toxins. Amazingly the birds managed to pull through and re-establish themselves. Now we intentionally start killing them again. If we’re not careful, perhaps when I’m in my late 50s I may have to explain to my children how the now endangered or even extinct Double-crested Cormorant was once intentionally shot at and harassed because a few vocal people erroneously believed they were out-of control. Nature is not ours to control or manage, perhaps it’s time we recognize this. We should stop scapegoating the Double-crested Cormorant for the problems we’ve caused.

Michele Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Frogs in a Box?

Novelty item for kids feature live animals

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along comes something else that boggles the mind. “EcoAquariums”, sometimes called “Frog-O-Spheres” are the current live animal fad in kid’s toy stores and gift shops throughout Canada and the US. They’re miniscule plastic cubes that measure 6 inches (15 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm) and contain two dwarf African clawed frogs, a bamboo stalk, gravel, “living gravel”, and a rock. They are mainly produced and distributed in the United States and marketed as self-contained ecosystems, perfect as low-maintenance, educational pets for young children.

At first glance these tiny “frogs in a box” might seem like the perfect solution for a puppy-begging child, but on closer inspection it becomes quite obvious that these small plastic cubes are ill-conceived, inhumane and if that’s not enough, they can pose a human health risk as well.

It should be obvious to most people that the size of the cube is far too small to maintain two dwarf African clawed frogs in a way that allows them to behave normally (meaning that they can do at least some of what they would do in a more natural and/or expansive setting) and remain in good health. Frog care literature generally recommends that each frog of this species be given at least one (preferably two) gallons of water each, that’s 277 – 554 cubic inches, instead of the 24 cubic inches the cube provides.

The potential problems become more obvious if you examine the natural lifestyle of these frogs. In the wild, they are a prey species that seek dimly lit areas to conceal themselves or hide under or around natural objects to evade perceived threats. In a tiny plastic cube, they may be unable to properly retreat and therefore endure repeated ” frights” resulting in chronic stress which can lead to illness and suffering.

Dwarf African clawed frogs are an ectothermic species, which means they are unable to regulate their own body temperature, so in captivity they require an external heat source (i.e., heater) and a thermometer should be used to monitor and maintain their preferred temperature range of 78° to 82°F (25° to 28°C). The frogs in a box have no opportunity to engage in normal thermoregulatory behaviours so they are at the mercy of their custodians.

The average household ambient temperature, which can fluctuate greatly by season (I know mine does), is not usually high enough for the frogs, and if the cube is located on a heater or a windowsill, the frog’s fate could be overheating or freezing to death. The care instructions that accompany the frogs suggest wrapping a blanket around the cube but this will do little to address the thermal needs of the frogs.

The producers claim the frogs only need to be fed two pellets twice a week, and that 75% of the water needs to be changed every 3 to 4 months due to the filtration abilities of the “living gravel” provided. In reality, shed skin, uneaten food, and feces can overwhelm the capacity of the biofiltration processes of the living gravel in the cube. Instead of the infrequent and drastic changes of water, which can shock the frogs, 10-20% of the water should be replaced periodically, possibly weekly.

Just like us, dwarf African clawed frogs do better on a diet that is high in variety and available regularly. Because these frogs’ dietary needs can fluctuate, it is generally recommended that the frog’s pellet diet be supplemented with random feedings of a variety of foodstuffs such as frozen mosquito larvae, and live food items like water fleas.

Even if we accept the claims that the frogs can be kept alive if the care instructions are followed, is living in a plastic cube really something any animal should be subjected to?

In 2009, after numerous complaints about the frogs, animal protection organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals conducted an undercover investigation of Wild Creations, the company that produces Ecoaquariums. The video footage they obtained shows hundreds of overcrowded frogs stored in stagnant unfiltered tubs of water for days on end, without any food. Staff members were filmed roughly handling and improperly packaging the frogs, as well as mistaking ill frogs for dead ones, throwing them in the garbage. It was later discovered (due to customer complaints over missing limbs) that the frogs were resorting to cannibalism in an attempt to survive these conditions VIDEO FOOTAGE.

In addition to the threats these mini-tanks can pose to the frogs they confine, they can also pose a risk to human health, and to the health of our natural, native ecosystems. Dwarf African clawed frogs are known to carry potentially pathogenic organisms (a normal part of the internal flora and fauna of many reptiles and amphibians) which have been connected to declining rates of wild amphibians in many parts of the world. Release of these frogs into the wild, or improper disposal of a dead frog, can lead to disastrous consequences to local ecosystems and wild amphibian populations. Stagnant water filled with urine, feces, shed skin, and uneaten food also provides favourable conditions for bacterial growth, including Salmonella.

As of July 18, 2011, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has been investigating an ongoing nationwide outbreak of Salmonella linked to the dwarf African clawed frog and the water from their tanks. A total of 241 individuals have been infected across 42 states since 2009, with 69% of the victims being younger than 10 years old. In an attempt to reduce the zoonotic threat of these frogs, the town of Markham, Ontario recently made an amendment to their Animal Control By-Law, in which they added the dwarf African clawed frog to their list of prohibited animals for both retailers and consumers.

The frog cubes are not an appropriate item for toy and gift stores. Keeping captive aquatic amphibians requires specialized care and their acquisition should not be an impulse decision – dwarf African clawed frogs are not toys, decorations, or novelty items - they are living animals that deserve the forethought, research, and responsibility that is required when deciding to become a pet owner. It doesn’t matter how small an animal is or how cheap they may be to purchase, their full range of needs should be considered.

My intuition is that these frog cubes teach many kids that some animals are disposible, and they can be mistreated, controlled, and exploited for profit. Despite the threats they face in nature, many frog species are still relatively abundant in North America, even in urban ponds, rivers and wetlands. If we’re interested in educating children about ecosystems or amphibians, we can take them outside to explore a real ecosystem as it was meant to be… in the wild, not in a bedroom or on a desk or windowsill.

The frog cubes are a popular seller for the moment, but they’ve also sparked outrage. Petitions and boycotts have appeared across the internet, and as a result many retailers have already pulled the product from their stores, including Brookstone, Magic Beans, Target, Toys R Us, Rite Aid, JC Penney, Albertsons, and Mastermind Toys. Unfortunately they are still widely available through a variety of locations and dealers including,,, Green Earth Stores Ltd, Learning Express, Rolo Store, Pick of the Crop, and Scholar’s Choice.

If you think it’s inappropriate for two small frogs to live out their lives in 24 sq inch plastic cube, then please send the various retailers in Ontario (listed below) a polite email and let them know what you think. Copy your email to

Scholar’s Choice
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Green Earth Stores Ltd
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Pick of the Crop
Oakville and Milton, ON

Rolo Store
Toronto, ON

Minds Alive
Collingwood and Midland, Ontario

Peek-A-Boo Kids Sales Ltd
Toronto, Ontario

Mind Games

Turtle Pond Toys
Dundas, Niagra Falls, Waterloo, and St. Catherines, Ontario

Michelle Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ontario SPCA inspection of Marineland welcome, but not the answer to problems

While a great deal of media attention has been focused on a pending investigation of Marineland by the Ontario SPCA, some important facts are being overlooked. Chief among them are the fact that the Ontario SPCA Act is designed to deal with the symptons of the problem, rather than the problem itself.

The key issue in Ontario at present is the lack of any upfront regulation and oversight of wildlife in captivity facilities or dangerous wild animals owned by private citizens. What Ontario needs is a tough system of licensing, high standards of animal management, care and safety that evolve with the times, a reporting system that requires inventory reports and other information on an annual basis, regular inspections and a legitimate process for dealing with public complaints. What won’t solve the problem is a one time inspection of one facility because it's in the news.

The alarming circumstances at Marineland highlighted in news reports are nothing new and similarly bleak conditions are endured by a multitude of animals in other facilities across the province. What many people forget is that the owners and operators of these facilities are only doing what the Province of Ontario allows them to do.

Ontario's lack of protection for wildlife in captivity is a long-standing issue and has been recognized as a problem since the late 1970s. Since that time there have been bills introduced, study groups convened, internal government initiatives carried out, investigative reports released, tens of thousands of letters, postcards and emails submitted to government, and a broad range of other actions, but a succession of Ontario governments have turned a blind eye to the suffering.

In the Marineland case, while an SPCA inspection is welcome, there are no comprehensive, objective standards for the organization to enforce. The few standards that do exist under the OSPCA Act are vague and inadequate. So the potential for long-lasting change, or even any change at all, is low.

There’s also been some talk about additional amendments (some were made in 2009) to the OSPCA Act. In fact, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, who is responsible for the Act, suggested that changes might be a possibility. However, while changes to OSPCA Act are welcome, they are not the answer.

What Ontario needs to protect the animals at Marineland and all other facilities in the province is a proper regulatory regime that requires everyone to obtain a license, satisfy its conditions and that makes them accountable for their actions. Models for this kind of regulatory system exist in other jurisdictions and have already been developed in Ontario but never implemented. It's time they were. The responsibility for making that happen falls to one person, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. I hope he hears from his constituents and Ontarians across the province.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Down East Politics of Coyote Pelting

Our Coyotes Are Bigger Than Your Coyotes, Unfortunately

When Born Free USA sent me to Halifax, Nova Scotia, last month, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’ve been to the province many times before, but now I was scheduled to join local environmentalists in a meeting with the provincial minister of natural resources, Charlie Parker, and some of his staff. The issue was the government’s controversial “pelt incentive program,” which pays trappers $20 for every coyote pelt they turn in. One official (unfortunately absent from our meeting) is quoted in the media as saying, “Trappers must check their traps every day, and their presence in the woods, and the traps they set, send a regular message to the coyote population that humans should be avoided.”

Huh? Is this message via e-mail? Phone calls? Word, or perhaps yelp, of mouth? Coyotes are very smart compared to, say, some wildlife management biologists, but surely they don’t go around saying to each other things like, “Say, did you hear what happened to Larry? Got caught in a trap and killed, so that must mean that we’d better stay away from those humans — they are so dangerous!” Wouldn’t an increase in humans habituate them to, not against, humans?

I don’t mean to make light of the problem. Of all the millions of encounters between coyotes and humans there have been two that led to human deaths, and one of those happened in Nova Scotia, on Oct. 27, 2009, when 19-year-old Toronto-based folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked, apparently by two or more coyotes, as she hiked the beautiful Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island. By all accounts this talented young woman was a wonderful person and her loss is a horrific tragedy. Also by all accounts she was a devoted nature-lover whose own family opposes the idea of a bounty put on natural predators.

In the adjoining province of New Brunswick there is a far more enlightened attitude toward coyotes, and recognition that while coyotes may pose a rare threat to humans, bounties don’t work, and never have worked in 200 years, to end conflicts between coyotes and people.

I came to think that Parker and his staff knew that. The pelt incentive is one part of a four-part plan, the rest of which includes public educational initiatives, training 13 trappers to specifically capture known aggressive individual animals when needed, and adding a wildlife conflict biologist to the staff.

Coyotes are relatively new to eastern Canada, with the first positive record for Nova Scotia established a mere 35 years ago. Darwinian evolution is at work and already eastern coyotes are distinctly larger than their western brethren. In fact, I believe that they are evolving to occupy the ecological role of larger predators, such as wolves and pumas, long ago wiped out in Atlantic Canada. Bigger coyotes have a survival edge over the smaller ones, partly thanks to their ability to prey on numerous white-tailed deer. But they are not wolves, a species who is notoriously retiring in the presence of humans. Several people, recently including one child grabbed by the head, have been bitten. The statistical likelihood of such an encounter is still extremely remote, but it exists.

The bounty is not expected to reduce the population, the claim being that its purpose is to teach coyotes to fear humans. Whatever they say, I don’t think Parker’s staff believes such silliness, and the real reason for the bounty is more nuanced. It serves a social/political function. Its cost to the provincial budget is relatively small and Nova Scotians are not complaining about it, so from a political standpoint it “works.” Something can be said to be being done; voters aren’t complaining.

But of course voters are also being told that trapping will “teach” coyotes to avoid humans. The degree of public acceptance of the scheme is at least partly a result of misleading them, thus serving a political, not pragmatic, function that the taxpayers fund. As long as the voters are misled, it’s a politically efficacious solution to “the coyote problem.”

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Seal Deaths and the End of the Storybook Zoo Era

Everyone at Zoocheck was shocked and sickened by the news about the two seals, Nunavut and Atlantis, who died while being transported from Storybook Gardens in London to the St. Louis Zoo. A third seal named Cri Cri also didn’t survive the trip. Peanut, the sole survivor of the London four, made it to St. Louis safe and sound.

As most people know, Zoocheck strongly advocated for the closure of the animal exhibits at Storybook Gardens. We took this position because the park's animal facilities were outdated and inadequate. While a few of the enclosures were relatively recent additions, others were refurbished versions of previously existing exhibits, with the seal pool being a relic from the late 1950s. We have no hesitation in saying that it was the right time for the animal portion of the park to wind down.

The City of London agreed and had already decided to phase out the zoo portion of the park. They couldn’t allocate sufficient funds to bring the facility up to a modern standard and they recognized that it was unacceptable to keep the animals in their existing conditions. The phase out was part of the business plan for Storybook Gardens.

When the decision was finally made in January 2012 to move the animals out, Zoocheck offered to arrange for rehoming and transport of most of the animals and pledged to cover the transportation costs. The only animals we did not agree to transport were the seals. That would be the responsibility of the recipient institution. All of the animals that Zoocheck accepted responsiblity for transporting arrived at their destination institutions safe and sound.

While Zoocheck did not offer to transport the seals, we did conduct a review of potential recipient facilities to find them the most suitable home. That process was conducted, with guidance from the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency that must approve destination facilities and sign off on imports of marine mammals into the US.

After evaluating all possible options, it was determined that the most appropriate recipient facility for the Storybook Gardens seals was the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo had just constructed a large, naturalistic, $18 million dollar facility for seals and sea lions and had decades of marine mammal experience. The NMFS agreed and approved the move. The St. Louis Zoo took responsibility for acquiring permits and for moving the seals from London. Zoocheck did not have a part in arranging or conducting the seal move.

Zoocheck was notified of the “in transit” deaths after they had occurred. Needless to say we were shocked. The purpose of moving the animals was to place them in better conditions where their welfare would be enhanced and their needs would be properly satisfied.

While some people have suggested that the animals should have been left at Storybook Gardens, that was not an option. A decision had already been made to phase out the animal portion of Storybook Gardens. There is no doubt that Zoocheck’s involvement expedited the process of closing the animal exhibits, but we believe it was the right decision at the right time.

Needless to say, we are distraught about the seal deaths. We accepted that one of the premier Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities, with decades of marine mammal experience, would move the seals quickly, efficiently and without mishap. That did not happen.

Zoocheck is now investigating how the move was conducted and exactly why the seals died. Pending the outcome of that review (which will include an examination of the seal necropsy reports), should further action be warranted, we will pursue it vigorously to make sure this never happens again. While that doesn’t help Nunavut, Atlantis and Cri Cri, perhaps their tragedy can help raise awareness and prevent other animals in transit from ever experiencing the same fate.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blame the AZA, not Bob Barker

In response to the recent Toronto Star editorial titled The Toronto Zoo’s departing elephants have squashed its accreditation. Thanks, Bob Barker.

Don’t blame either the elephants or Bob Barker for the Toronto Zoo’s loss of American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) accreditation. Blame the AZA.

The AZA does not accredit sanctuaries, and surely, after years of dutifully entertaining zoo visitors the three Toronto elephants deserve the high level of care that AZA accredited facilities cannot provide. The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) is not merely “endorsed” by Barker (who has no vested interest in any of this; on the contrary it’s costing him money Toronto won’t spend) but by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), and City Councillors such as Michelle Berardinetti, who actually visited PAWS and saw for herself what the sanctuary can provide.

AZA has allowed zoos to keep accreditation even after sending “surplus” animals to auctions, where some wound up on game farms, to be shot by sportsmen. Your contention that the AZA finds it “unacceptable to send elephants to an unaccredited facility” is simply wrong. Other zoos have sent elephants and other animals to sanctuaries without losing accreditation. The AZA , whose accreditation recognizes only minimum standards well exceeded by the Toronto Zoo, is playing a mean-spirited political game in which elephants are pawns. It is not AZA’s job to do what is best for animals, but to promote traditional zoos even if they provide limited space in unsuitable climate.

Ironically the AZA action came just as the Calgary Zoo announced a welcome policy that elephants would not be kept there, in recognition that in time, these tropical and subtropical animals fare poorly in our climate, and from limited mobility.

The Toronto Zoo’s three elephants have reached the age where seriously painful arthritic foot problems occur, and death soon follows. These problems are well documented for elephants in zoos in temperate climates with cold winters. Toronto Zoo had ample time to come up with an AZA accredited alternative to PAWS, but failed; traditional zoos are not good for elephants, hence the need for sanctuaries.

How sickly twisted the situation is if you’re right: putting the welfare of animals first is “bad publicity” for zoos. The Toronto Zoo could and should embrace a more compassionate approach to animal husbandry. And we should be grateful to Barker for doing what the city should have done, and picking up the tab. He cares, and so should we all. There are excellent zoos who spurn AZA accreditation altogether and so should the Toronto Zoo.

Barry Kent MacKay

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Toronto Conservation Authority Shows Insight, Leadership, Intelligence

Cormorants in Toronto

Unaccustomed though I am to publicly praising any government agency’s wildlife management policies, most of which so often seem predicated on the theory that only the views of people who hate or fear wildlife count, there are exceptions. The Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is one.

In the beginning — and I’m just old enough to actually remember that beginning — there was, where Toronto’s Don River meets the north shore of Lake Ontario, a wonderfully huge freshwater marsh. It was filled with wildlife, including the now apparently extinct dark-color morph of the least bittern, known as the “Cory’s least bittern.”

Sadly, that marsh was filled in. And they kept on filling, dumping landfill form excavations throughout Toronto, day after day after month after year after decade. The East Toronto Headland, which incorporates Tommy Thompson Park, and is popularly known as the Leslie Street Spit, extends many kilometers out into Lake Ontario.

And a rather wonderfully strange thing happened. A process ecologists call “natural succession” took over, and plants and animals begin to colonize and transform the barren earth and stone landscape into an area of grassy fields, small marshes and nascent woodlots. Huge colonies of birds moved in, including gulls, terns, herons and, inevitably, double-crested cormorants. Foxes, mink, coyotes, deer, various songbirds and waterfowl all live there. Each weekend and public holiday it is open to the public, no cars allowed, but hikers, bikers, birders, dog walkers and photographers all stroll along the road that runs out to the automatic lighthouse perched at the tip, well out in the gray waters of Lake Ontario.

Among birds, and not excluding crows, starlings and pigeons, none generates more fear and hatred than double-crested cormorants. The concerns center on the fact that the cormorants eat fish, and nest in large colonies whose excrement kills trees and other vegetation. Around molehills of truth, sport and commercial anglers build mountains of myth articulated with hyperbolic vigor based mostly on fallacy. Sadly, state, provincial and federal governments are all too willing to comply, especially in the United States, where massive lethal culling of nesting cormorants are commonplace. Here in Canada we’ve been able to stop most such culls, or prevent others, although culling on private land still occurs, and resentment against cormorants runs high.

But, at the risk of sounding terribly elitist, and not withstanding its current mayor, Toronto is home to numerous universities, colleges, libraries, museums, the Ontario Science Centre, naturalists’ groups and, well, a diverse and intelligent community. Although I live just outside the city, I was born there and am proud of the community. And while I regret the destruction of the Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh all those years ago, I am also proud of the approach the TRCA has taken on cormorants.

Yes, the TRCA, responding to a plethora of interest groups, including a yacht club that seems to be adverse to the wondrous diversity of life all around (in contrast to boaters I’ve known), do manage the Spit, to some degree controlling and directing its character in terms of vegetation and wildlife. But to its enduring credit, TRCA has not only resisted calls to kill off cormorants, it has gone one bold step further and recognized them for what they are: a native species very much a part of the environment, even though its influence on the environment is more obvious than other species. And instead of indulging in misinformation, the TRCA has sought to identify the cormorant as part of the environmental whole, a fascinating creature in its own right. In fact, it has even set up a webcam in the colony, soon to be activated for the season.

TRCA has set aside a sanctuary for the cormorants. It is trying, successfully, to encourage the cormorants to nest on the ground, where they don’t damage tree growth important to the nesting success of what is now the largest colony of black-crowned night-herons in the Great Lakes. Night-herons are notoriously fickle, and often leave favored nesting sites, but as long as they are on the spit, they need trees. They are also negatively affected by climbing raccoons, who steal eggs and babies, so one strategy being developed is to place sheets of metal around the trees to deter the raccoons from reaching the nests.

Common terns, a species in some decline, nest there, but since they can’t compete with gulls on the mainland, floating rafts covered in sand have been placed offshore. That worked until last year, when a mink swam out to the raft and wiped out the baby terns. Once more metal sheeting will be employed, this time as flashing around the raft, to prevent mink from climbing up out of the water.

It’s a dynamic, exciting place to visit and one that is doing truly progressive work in trying to help people and wildlife co-exist in the urban environment.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Canada

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lions, Eagles and Owls, , What are Zoos Teaching Us About Them?

Ash died suddenly and violently in front of many onlookers, including children. “It was over in seconds,” one woman reportedly stated. “People were horrified. Women and children were screaming. My little boy was in tears.”

Ash was 9 years old and her death seemed to amuse some other folks, according to letters to the editor in response to the news reports.

And what did we learn? The death did happen at a facility that, we are told, is educational.

Ash was a barn owl, and her death occurred on Jan. 28, 2012, at Colchester Zoo, in England, where she lived and brutally died. It happened as she was being flown as part of a falconry exhibit. According to subsequent reports, the hapless bird flew into a window, landed on a ledge in the African lion enclosure, where, dazed, she was subsequently batted down to the floor of the cage by one of the lions. The other proceeded to eat her.

It was not unlike a similar incident in June 2008 when a magnificent golden eagle was being flown as part of a zoo’s falconry display, this one at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in British Columbia. The 4-year-old eagle was harassed by a flock of crows. Crows often will “mob” large raptors. According to media reports, the golden eagle landed on the ground in the lion enclosure, about 100 meters from where the falconry display took place. Two lionesses snuck up on the eagle, but their attack missed. The eagle flew, but did so straight into the jaws of a lunging third lioness. As was true of the demise of Ash, the attack on the eagle, identified as a “star performer” in the zoo’s raptor show, was over in moments.

Zoos feel under attack from increasingly vocal critics of the idea of keeping animals who are wild by nature in captivity — often, as is the case with such species as African lions, barn owls and golden eagles, in quarters that are a tiny fraction of the space utilized by their wild counterparts. Studies of animal behavior increasingly show that animals are not merely instinctively induced automatons unthinkingly reacting to various stimuli. They can think, have emotions and display stress as a result of confinement and boredom inherent to many zoo situations.

As a result, zoos seek to provide increased benign stimuli, called “enrichment,” for captive animals, while claiming that there are solid reasons we can support the incarceration of wild animals. The dominate theme is that zoos serve two socially desirable functions: conservation and education.

The conservation function is supposedly twofold. One, the public learns to appreciate endangered species by virtue of seeing them in zoos, and as a result of such appreciation, takes steps to save them. And, two, captive breeding assures that the species won’t go extinct.

I would challenge both contentions, and certainly whatever risks faced by barn owls, golden eagles and African lions (of which only the later would, arguably, qualify as currently endangered), they are not resolved by putting them in zoos. The number of species whose slide into extinction has been reversed certainly include some who have benefitted from captive breeding and release programs, but those programs did not require zoo infrastructure, and indeed, often occurred outside of zoos and involved species that would be quite unfamiliar to most zoo visitors. Even those that did involve zoos, such as the Mauritius pink pigeon, involved one or only a few zoos. Ask 100 American zoo visitors what they know about the Mauritius pink pigeon and you will get at least 99.99 blank stares or shrugs of the shoulders. (But we’ll help educate you: go here.).

It is the contention that zoos educate that I’d especially challenge, and such incidents as Ash’s demise serve to illustrate my point.

An essential part of every animal’s life is feeding. The range of the African lion, greatly diminished since historical times (a point I make because zoos usually don’t — there’s no reason for this essay not to be a little educative) overlaps that of barn owls. Lions (the term “African” being misleading; lions are also found in India, the last of a once-extensive Eurasian distribution; they once even lived in southern Europe, although not in the past 2,000 years) are opportunistic carnivores, so their natural prey might include the odd owl, as well as other birds right up to the size of ostriches (the biggest of all living bird species), and mammals ranging in size from mice to elephants, and including reptiles and fish, and at times even large insects.

Let me quote the lion’s feeding technique from a recent source, “Handbook of Mammals of the World, Vol. 1,” chief editors Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2009: “Individual differences in prey selection and killing techniques are discernible in different prides in the same area, indicating that learning plays a strong role in the lion’s hunting behavior; i.e. hunting of the brown fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) on the Namibian coast.”

Did you get that? Different prides (essentially family groupings) of lions will use different methods of killing prey, depending on what is available where they live, and an example that is given is the way in which lions on the desert coast of Namibia have learned to eat fur seals. Some zoos may say that in signs, although I don’t recall ever seeing it, but most zoo visitors don’t read signs. Researchers have tracked the amount of time that visitors spend reading signs, and it’s very brief, with most zoo visitors pretty well avoiding reading more than the name of the animal, at most, and that is pretty well all that many zoos will tell you about many species.

And zoos don’t educate their human visitors about how lions obtain food, and no wonder: The handbook continues, “Lions do not take account of wind direction when stalking prey; however, they will often try to cut prey off by running ahead of it. Speeds of 46 to 60 kilometers per hour may be achieved in a rush for up to a few hundred meters (usually not more than 100 to 200 meters). The attack is delivered to the rump or shoulders, with the weight of the lions often bringing the prey to the ground. Sometimes the prey’s neck is broken in falling. As soon as the prey is down it is seized by the throat or muzzle to effect strangulation. The lions feed at the site of the kill or drag it to the nearest cover. The belly is ripped open and the stomach and intestines pulled out.”

That is, emphatically, not what people go to zoos to see, nor could they, since by definition the zoo confines the lion, thus would confine the prey and create an artificial circumstance, which, of course, already pertains to zoo-kept lions. In the wild, attempts by lions to capture prey are only successful perhaps one time out of three, and sometimes the lions are injured in the process, such injury potentially being fatal as there is no way for them to be medically treated.

What, within a herd of ungulates, is captured by lions is a function of a multiplicity of interrelated factors that are the stuff of evolution, with predators and prey co-evolving through time. Too successful and the prey would be wiped out, to the detriment of the predator, but not successful enough and the predator becomes extinct, anyway. The resulting dynamic is what makes species evolve in the first instance, and it is missing from zoos. Not only does it not happen, it cannot. It requires all the diverse elements of the real world, in which predator and prey also interact with other species, diseases, parasites, weather, accidents, topography and events from cosmic to minutia that form a diversity that compares to a zoo enclosure as the number of sand grains in the Kalahari Desert compares to those in a child’s sandbox.

“Disgusting!!!” wrote one person, using the name “wearebeingwatched,” responding to the news story about Ash’s abrupt demise. “What did that owl ever do poor thing. What I want to know is why did the keepers not step in and stop the lions?”

Clearly, whatever number of lions “wearebeingwatched” has seen in whatever number of zoos, she or he is hopelessly uneducated as to lions’ feeding behavior to think keepers could “step in and stop the lions.” And of course, while the barn owl had done nothing to “deserve” death, neither had the animals who are routinely fed to the lions, or, for that matter, those who had been fed to the barn owl herself, before her death. Barn owls are also predators, although zoos are more likely to feed them mice or culled baby chicks than the horses or cows that normally are fed to the big cats.

There was the usual bantering among the e-mails responding to the story before the delightfully named “Squidward Tenticals” said, “Well done to Colchester Zoo for showing the reality of life to the crying women and children. How did they you (sic) think they hunt in the wild?”

That is the question. The answer might well be that they didn’t know by virtue of seeing lions, or owls, fed in zoos. Lions in the wild may eat carrion at times, but that’s all they eat in zoos, but for the odd wild animal entering their pens, or accidents such as those that terminated the lives of the barn owl in England or the golden eagle in Vancouver.

Or for that matter there was the baby binturong — big-eyed, super-cute whiskered little creatures — who was torn apart by two lions at the Chessington World of Adventure, a zoo in Surrey, England, a year earlier. For the children looking on in horror I don’t know what the lesson was — binturongs don’t live where lions live the wild, so aren’t “natural” prey. Presumably one does not have to see one animal tear up a baby binturong to know that the former is a predator.

Some quick questions: Lots of zoos have binturongs. Name two countries of the many where they might be found in the wild. We don’t know as much about their habits as we should, but we have a good idea of what they eat in the wild. What would that be? They belong to the family of animals known technically as Viverridae, or Viverrids; name one other species of Viverid.

If you are a naturalist, or a mammalogist, you may have had little difficulty with these very simple questions. It’s not as if I asked complex questions about breeding biology or anatomy or what have you — just basic stuff. But if you stumbled over one or another answer, and have visited any zoo in which there was a binturong on display, clearly you learned very little, if anything, about binturongs. I’d be willing to guess that many who have seen these animals in zoos don’t even remember specifically what they look like.

It’s not that zoos can’t educate. Those, myself included, who are fascinated by animals will certainly enrich our thirst for knowledge by virtue of at least some of what we’ve seen in zoos, although I must admit that precisely because of my interest in animals, I tend to get depressed by many aspects of my zoo visits. That’s because I can recognize certain conditions of stress.

Last winter I visited the Toronto Zoo with an educator who wanted to get my impressions of zoo animals. We paused at the exhibit of the Sumatran tigers. The Sumatran tiger is a subspecies of tiger native, as its name implies, to the island of Sumatra, where it is considered to be critically endangered, with maybe a few hundred wild animals left. To again quote the “Handbook of Mammals of the World, Vol. 1,” “Tiger populations have declined over many parts of Asia because of illegal hunting, commercial trade in tiger bone and derivatives, a declining prey base, and loss and degradation of habitat. ...The problem is being attacked on many fronts, including threats of sanctions against countries that do not control trade in tiger parts, establishing protected reserves, training and deployment of anti-poaching teams, identification of critical conservation units, working with traditional Chinese medical practitioners to find alternatives to tiger parts, public education campaigns deploring the use of tiger parts, habitat restoration projects, economic incentives to locals, development of suitable survey and monitoring methods, and initiation of baseline ecological research projects.”

It was hard to see how these animals were contributing to any of that, or how any zoo visitors were. We knew that this was an endangered species, but we weren’t involved in any effective conservation initiative. The city that owns the zoo was complaining about the cost to the public coffers, and looking to sell it. As for the tigers, “That’s stereotypic behavior, isn’t it?” asked my companion, as the Sumatran tiger paced up and down. I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be pointing out my concerns, but the fact is, I had seen that tiger so often, even pointed my camera exactly where it would step into focus as it steadily paced, so predictable was this stress-induced behavior that I was inured. I was taking it for granted.

A week later the younger, male Sumatran tiger lunged at the throat of the older female and crushed her trachea, killing her. Editorials exonerated the zoo on the grounds that such things happen, but that’s the point — they happen because the zoo is not the wild, it is not a place where animals choose their own mates, or have room to avoid those who might endanger them. Yes, the mortality of all animals, captive or wild, is 100 percent, but I don’t think the attack was the educational moment claimed by zoo apologists. We learn nothing of value from it, if we at least don’t learn that zoos are not the solution to endangerment they so vociferously claim to be.

It was also at the Toronto Zoo where, a few months earlier, a female polar bear killed one of three prematurely born cubs. The two were quickly removed, one died, the other survived. But at the time it was reported that polar bear males are known to kill their young in the wild. Yes, they are, but not the moms. That’s what I mean by mis-teaching. In fact, it is rare for a male to kill a young bear, and usually happens when food is scare. Food is increasingly scarce for polar bears as a result of global warming, but I don’t see how zoos are stopping that!

Zoos entertain. They rarely teach much, and much of what they teach is simply wrong or misleading. They have options, but I think it requires a revolution in thinking, a move away from putting animals in cages with signs they hope folks will read, and using technological advances to create interactive, truly educational scenarios that may or may not involve live animals. We have moved some distance from the old menagerie style of 19th and early 20th century zoos where animals were simply stockpiled, behind bars, to be gawked at, but that paradigm still dictates the underlying premise that somehow, by putting a live animal in front of a zoo visitor, education and conservation occur.

Ash’s death in the lion’s den was not a good teaching moment for anyone. She deserved better. So did the lions. They still do.

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Canada

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An End to a Storybook Chapter

Soon there will be no more wild animals at Storybook Gardens, a children’s amusement park in London, Ontario. Once the last four harbour seals, 2 beaver, 2 lynx, 1 otter and several birds of prey are relocated to more appropriate accommodation in other facilities, a chapter in Storybook’s history will come to an end.

The relocation of the remaining Storybook Gardens animals is a cooperative initiative of Zoocheck and the City of London, with Zoocheck helping to identify suitable recipient facilities and covering the costs of transport.

There have been a mulitude of animals at Storybook Gardens over the years. I remember seeing bears, crocodiles, monkeys and a range of other animal species in the park. Apparently, there was even a baby elephant for a time.

But Storybook Gardens was probably most famous for Slippery the sea lion. Slippery, wild caught in California, was shipped to the park in 1958. Just one day into his captivity he escaped into the Thames River. He swan downriver and out into Lake St. Clair, then down the Detroit River and out into Lake Erie. Slippery’s escape and subsequent sightings created a media frenzy and generated interest around the world.

Eventually Slippery was captured near Sandusky, Ohio and sent to the Toledo Zoo. Negotiations led to Slippery being sent back to Canada. 50,000 people atttended a special Welcome Back Slippery parade and 5,000 more crowded around the entrance to Storybook Gardens. Slippery survived for approximately 10 years at the park.

The entire Slippery saga has been told and retold as a quirky, happy story, but the reality is that it wasn’t a happy story for Slippery at all. Today, we know better.

Once the last of Storybook’s wild animals are relocated, the park can be reinvented into something more vibrant and modern. That’s great news for the animals, for Storybook Gardens and for the City of London.

Thank you to everyone who voiced their opinion, to the London-based Friends of Captive Animals who helped generate awareness and to the city officials who took action to do what was best for the animals.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada