Opening Pandora’s box: ZOO SURPLUS STOCKS CANNED HUNTS, ROADSIDE EXHIBITS, PRIVATE BREEDERS

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

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 “sur-
plus,” 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 merchan-
dise, 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
themselves dealing with the offspring of former zoo animals,
who have typically been bred in disregard of ancestry by self-pro-
claimed 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 popula-
tion explosion that includes speculative booms––and
busts––involving creatures from ostriches (see January/February
1 9 9 4 ) 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 separat-
ed 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 suc-
ceeded former director Steve Graham. (Note sidebar.) Shelby
won high marks for public relations, but when she announced
the zoo would no longer euthanize surplus and would relax trans-
fer 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 pur-
pose 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 neces-
sity when it comes to removing creatures of overrepresented
pedigree from the captive gene pool. With the capture of endan-
gered 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 blood-
lines. 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 embar-
rassed 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 ani-
mal 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 prob-
lems 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 dur-
ing 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 labo-
ratory standards, was far short of zoo stan-
dards. 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 ani-
mals 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 necessari-
ly 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 grim-
ly describe the private exotic breeding busi-
ness 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 acceler-
ating 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 cus-
tomers 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 ani-
mals is driving auction prices up.
Short of trying to buy up all the ani-
mals for euthanasia, which would further
drive up prices and encourage more reckless
breeding, or obtaining laws mandating steril-
ization of exotics in private hands (which
wouldn’t have a hope of passage in Texas,
Missouri, and Arkansas, the states most hos-
pitable 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 breed-
ing 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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