AAZPA crackdown comes too late, opening Pandora’s box

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

AAZPA crackdown comes too late, opening Pandora’s box
Zoo surplus stocks canned hunts, roadside exhibits, private breeders

HOOSICK FALLS, New York–The young Himalayan snow leopard paces the corn crib cage, situated at the edge of a woodlot. As roadside zoos go, his home at the Flag Acres Zoo is fairly good–comparable, even, to some accredited zoos of 30 years ago. But it isn’t where one would expect to find an apparent prime example of a highly endangered species. In fact, the snow leopard is genetically redundant “surplus,” neutered and loaned to Flag Acres by the Seneca Park Zoo of Rochester, New York–a facility accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. According to Seneca Park Zoo director Dan Michalowski, the snow leopard was removed from
the captive gene pool to reduce the risk of inbreeding. A conditional loan to Flag Acres seemed preferable to euthanasia. The Seneca Park Zoo may reclaim him if at any time he appears ill-treated. The deal is a model of the AAZPA-recommended protocol for the disposition of surplus animals.

While the snow leopard’s life is far from ideal, he is lucky. Despite AAZPA efforts to curtail the traffic, zoo-bred animals still turn up shockingly often not only at roadside zoos, but also as living targets in canned hunts, as auction merchandise, in the exotic pet trade, in biomedical research laboratories, and increasingly often as drop-offs at private sanctuaries, humane societies, and sometimes even back at accredited zoos. Even more often, sanctuaries, shelters, and accredited zoos find themselvesĀ  dealing with the offspring of former zoo animals, who have typically been bred in disregard of ancestry by self-proclaimed private species preservationists who also, just by the way, hope to turn a fast buck. When there proves to be little or no market for the animals, and they grow too big to be pets, the owners begin calling around, trying to give them away. Overwhelmed zoo directors–including Michalowski–now include a prerecorded message to would-be animal donors on their answering machines.

Many zoo officials admit that their surplus, whether yesterday’s or today’s, is the origin of an exotic animal population explosion that includes speculative booms–and busts–involving creatures from ostriches (see January/February 1994) to big cats, wolf hybrids, llamas, and potbellied pigs. There’s just the question of how to deal with it, amid a climate of opposition to euthanasia and acrimony over the alternatives.The solution to the zoo surplus end of the problem favored by those who see zoos as animal prisons would be to simply stop breeding. Indeed, not so long ago most zoo surplus was the product of either accidental or deliberate overbreeding. Some zoos like to keep baby animals on display; knowledge of wildlife birth control was limited; and until public consciousness was raised by the animal rights movement, few people objected to the sale of surplus animals to wherever. As recently as the mid-1980s, some accredited zoos even made a regular practice of breeding surplus animals for sale to the exotic pet trade and/or biomedical research.

Ingenuous failures

Though deliberate breeding for sale is officially history at accredited zoos now, ingenuous failures of management still occur, still producing crowd-pleasing babies and a surplus with few if any acceptable markets. “We weren’t able to get the males and females separated in time, and, well, nature does take its course,” interim Detroit Zoo director Khadejah Shelby explained to Robin Fornoff of the Detroit Free Press in August 1991, touting the arrival of 40 infants of various species about eight months after she succeeded former director Steve Graham. Shelby won high marks for public relations, but when she announced the zoo would no longer euthanize surplus and would relax transfer policies, captive breeding program directors cringed. They’re the ones who manage the AAZPA-accredited Species Survival Plans, and other less formal breeding protocols, whose dual purpose is to replenish zoo wildlife populations without resorting to raids on the wild, and to perpetuate species which have often been virtually extirpated from the wild–sometimes by hunting and poaching, sometimes by habitat destruction, and sometimes by the collecting excesses of past generations of zookeepers. The hardest task before SSP administrators isn’t getting animals who only rarely and reluctantly mate in zoos to breed. Rather, it’s winning public acceptance of the constraints of economic necessity when it comes to removing creatures of overrepresented pedigree from the captive gene pool.

With the capture of endangered species from the wild approaching a virtual halt, and cage space scarce, zoos have little practical reason to keep individuals who don’t help maintain an often precarious genetic diversity. Nor can surplus animals be returned to their native habitat when they haven’t been acclimated to survive in wild conditions–or when the habitat no longer exists.Ripped incessantly by activists and even some AAZPA Species Survival Plan coordinators for euthanizing surplus, Graham repeatedly pointed out that any time an SSP declares a particular animal to be redundant, based upon an ongoing review of stud books, it is condemning that animal to death or misery.

“A place does not exist in any legitimate accredited zoo in the U.S. for an animal who is listed as surplus by a Species Survival Plan,” he argued. “These are pariahs.” In a 1991 guest column for the San Diego Union, Graham outlined the many undesireable dispositions of surplus animals by zoos that don’t euthanize, and charged AAZPA with evading the issue. “This topic came to the forefront in 1976,” he recalled, “when William Conway, director of the Bronz Zoo, indicated at an AAZPA national conference that there can be no biologically sound breeding programs without surplus
animals, and therefore euthanasia must be addressed. The membership voted to table the issue, and although various committees were formed and later disbanded over the years, very little progress has been made.”

The amount of surplus created by the adoption of Species Survival Plans seems to be coming down, as coordinated breeding protocols gradually reduce inbreeding and redundancy. Advances in reproductive technology and understanding of wildlife genetics have also helped: fewer animals need be bred now than 15 years ago to insure the survival of particular bloodlines. Intentional overbreeding today mostly involves hooved stock, and is done to give predators their native diets, which keeps them healthier than a diet of slaughterhouse offal does.But the zoo surplus problem is still far from solved. Noted for successful captive breeding, the San Diego Zoo alone moves 1,200 surplus animals per year–and has been embarrassed six times in five years when surplus animals turned up in inappropriate circumstances.

In April 1989, a fisher, a sloth bear, and two palm civets died aboard an overheated truck en route to an unaccredited zoo in Massachusetts; also in 1989, the zoo sold 15 whitetailed deer, three sheep, and a kangaroo to canned hunts in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1990 two Sika deer were sold to a Texas canned hunt–and although the zoo told AAZPA they had been retrieved, the San Diego Union found they were still there five months later.

Quebec canned hunt proprietor Robert Naud bought a boar from the San Diego Zoo in 1991. Then, in 1992, Friends of Animals revealed a routine traffic between the San Diego Zoo and animal dealer Larry Johnson, whose major client is Red McCombs, of Johnson City, Texas. McCombs both runs a canned hunt and breeds exotic animals for sale at auctions that mainly serve other canned hunts.

The San Diego Zoo surplus problems have been well documented by former San Diego Zoo elephant handler Lisa Landres, who took extensive contacts and inside information with her to first the Humane Society of the U.S. and then FoA after she exposed the abuse of an elephant in 1988 and was subsequently pressured into resignation. But similar cases emerging during the early 1990s have involved many other AAZPA institutions. Peace activists in Syracuse in mid-1991 discovered a six-year-old gibbon from the local zoo had been loaned to the State University of New York at Stony Brook for non-invasive research–and housing in a facility that while meeting laboratory standards, was far short of zoo standards. In November 1991, Lota, a 42-year-old elephant belonging to the Milwaukee Zoo, was found at an Illinois elephant ride concession. (She has since been moved to a sanctuary.) In April 1992 the Philadelphia Zoo was
forced by public outrage to remove a giraffe from a Texas canned hunt, where he was on loan for breeding. The National Zoo of Washington D.C. and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo of Colorado also had loaned animals to the canned hunt, also to be bred. Four of the six Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animals soon died–one in transit, one from drowning, and two from a lightning strike.

There were no such high-profile cases in 1993, nor have any become public thus far into 1994. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the traffic has stopped. And even if AAZPA has finally slammed the door, there is still the problem of proliferating exotics bred from former zoo animals, who were usually sold because they weren’t suitable for breeding. Already excessively inbred, the offspring of the former zoo stock is now so much more inbred that some biologists
grimly describe the private exotic breeding business as a sort of uncontrolled experiment in how much inbreeding a species can suffer.
Ironically, the current drive to stop the sale of exotics to dubious destinations is accelerating the private breeding, because the past availability of exotic wildlife from zoos helped create the canned hunt, roadside zoo, and exotic pet markets in the first place. The markets are largely speculative; most customers are mainly interested in becoming breeders, building breeder pyramids that enrich those who get in and out first. But a lack of end markets rarely breaks a pyramid before all the suckers are bankrupt, and meanwhile a diminishing supply of zoo animals is driving auction
prices up.

Short of trying to buy up all the animals for euthanasia, which would further drive up prices and encourage more reckless breeding, or obtaining laws mandating sterilization of exotics in private hands (which wouldn’t have a hope of passage in Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas, the states most hospitable to private exotic breeding), there isn’t much that zoos or anyone else can do about it now beyond public education. Only when people stop buying exotic pets, patronizing canned hunts, pretending to be restoring endangered species, and speculating in “alternative livestock” will
the reckless breeding cease. Anxious to avoid unpopular euthanasias, partly because of pressure from animal rights activists, the zoo community opened a Pandora’s box.

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