Raiders of Noah’s Ark

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1996:

BOSTON–Quick-hit unannounced inspections of zoos in Florida and Nova Scotia won summer headlines for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the Born Free Foundation, and Zoocheck Canada, brought action against the Steel City Petting Zoo in Cottondale, Florida, for alleged cruelty and multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and perhaps backfired to some extent, too, when implications that American Zoo Association-accredited facilities were also substandard were not sustained.

The inspections were the first phase of a joint WSPA/BFF Zoo Inquiry campaign, in planning since a similar series struck at inferior zoos throughout Europe in 1994. Zoo Inquiry urges the public and news media to seek either improvement or closure of bad zoos, and includes distribution of a questionaire for zoo-goers, published on August 6, six weeks after the Florida findings were disclosed.

Accounts based on a June 18 press conference WSPA and BFF held in Tampa made prominent mention that AZA-accredited sites such as Sea World Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay were included in a tour by BFF board member John Gripper, DVM, which according to a foreword to his report authored by WSPA and BFF chief executives Andrew Dickson and Will Travers found that, “Only two of the 21 zoos he inspected were providing their animals with an environment that he felt might pass” inspection under the standards of the British Zoo Licensing Act.

However, Busch Gardens was one of the two zoos that Gripper said would pass, while the major criticism of Sea World was simply that it exhibits marine mammals in a performing-and-contact situation. Of Sea World, Gripper concluded, “Expert independent advice should be sought to determine if Sea World reaches the USDA and U.K. standards for the keeping of cetaceans.”

As critics quickly pointed out, Sea World is routinely inspected and approved by the USDA, so obviously does meet USDA standards; Gripper reprinted the USDA exhibitor regulations as an appendix to his report, indicating acquaintance with them; and as an official Zoo Inspector under the British Zoo Licensing Act since 1981, he supposedly was “expert independent advice” on the U.K. standards.

Taking a more cautious approach, the Zoo Inquiry literature released on August 6 stipulated that “accredited zoos received higher marks” from Gripper, adding that, “For the most part, AZA-accredited zoos and safari parks are meeting their animals’ needs through natural habitat enclosures with environmental enrichment.” The AZA itself is among the harshest critics of common zoo conditions, accrediting only 174 of the 1,937 USDA-licensed animal exhibition sites, and since November 1991 has virtually stopped the sale of “surplus” by member facilities to unaccredited zoos, canned hunts, and other private owners, one focus of WSPA and BFF concern. In several of the few recent documented cases, the zoos and the animals were victims of fraud.

The traffic in animals from roadside zoos, however, has never been stronger, as exotic pet fads and booming canned hunts have made selling “surplus” a lucrative sideline for operators whose breeding isn’t regulated by AZA-managed Species Survival Plans–which exist in part to prevent the births of “genetically redundant” animals.

Why Florida?

Gripper and other WSPA/BFF inspectors are eventually to visit zoos all over the U.S. and Canada. They started in Florida, the August 6 WSPA release said, because, “In a state which is a magnet for tourism, WSPA and BFF expected to find some of the best zoos America has to offer.”

Florida is in fact the long-recognized hub of the roadside zoo industry. Of the 1,937 USDA-licensed animal exhibitors, 230 are in Florida, 209 in California, 153 in Texas, 112 in Illinois, and 109 in New York. Pennsyl-vania has 74; no other state has morethan 60.

Many zoos on the WSPA/BFF tour list have been repeatedly cited by the USDA for substandard conditions, and have been targets of previous humane protests–among them the Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs, fighting correction-or-closure orders since October 1992, and Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm, shut down for eight months in 1992-1993 due to violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

One of the two zoos Gripper found acceptable, Jungle Larry’s African Safari, drew furor in March 1991, after TV stations aired a video of handler David Tetzlaff breaking a thick stick over the head and neck of a caged leopard.

The Steel City Petting Zoo, not on the original 20-site WSPA/BFF itinerary, was added at the insistence of wildlife
rehabilitator May Lenzer, who was appalled at what she saw there in a 1995 visit. “After exhausting all the bureaucrats I could think of,” Lenzer told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “I got in touch with Roger Caras, president of the American SPCA. He referred me to ASPCA wildlife programs coordinator Kathi Travers, and my file was presented to John Walsh of WSPA in Boston. Dr. Gripper was in Florida at the time, and visited the zoo with a camera crew.”

Visiting the Steel City Petting Zoo on March 27, Gripper disclosed his findings at the June 18 press conference. Eight days later, owner Romulus Scalf, 54, was jailed in lieu of $10,000 bond for allegedly feeding live puppies to snakes.
“I mean, which is best?” Scalf reportedly asked Mike Cazalas of the Panama City News Herald a few days earlier. “Just take them out here and set them beside the highway and let cars run over them, and they lay there out on the road in the sun for hours dying? Give them to the humane society and let them bust them in the head and
throw them in an incinerator? Or give them to the snake and let the snake get a meal off of it?”

A USDA administrative complaint against Scalf for multiple alleged Animal Welfare Act violations was already pending.
However, International Primate Protection League president Shirley McGreal reported on September 17 that “a usually reliable source” had told her that “budget-juggling may result in the elimination by the Florida Freshwater Fish and Game Commission of the funds that cover all inspections of wild animals held in captivity in the state of Florida.” If it really happens, the chances of other roadside zoo proprietors being prosecuted for cruelty will be substantially smaller.

Nova Scotia

Not involved in the Florida inspections, Zoocheck Canada clashed on September 9 with just-retired Nova Scotia SPCA provincial inspector Don Marsden over Gripper’s findings at the Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford, the Upper Clements Wildlife Park in Annapolis, the Provincial Wildlife Park in Shubenacadie, and the Acres of the Golden Pheasant Bird Park in Truro. Gripper found them each substandard. Marsden told Chris Lambie of the Halifax Daily News that Ontario facilities are worse. As author of Captive Animals In Ontario, a 1987 report on five notorious zoos that might have been a model for the recent WSPA/BFF reports, Zoocheck Canada director Rob Laidlaw has been acutely aware of the shortcomings of some Ontario zoos for a decade, but doesn’t see them as in any way excusing Nova Scotia zoos.

Marsden, meanwhile, had apparent major violations of humane standards in his own resume. “Although it is opposed by Canada’s Veterinary Medical Association and the Federation of Humane Societies in Sydney,” the May/June 1996 edition of Humane News reported, reprinting an appeal for protest issued by “Nova Scotia activists” via other humane
groups, “the Nova Scotia SPCA uses electrocution to kill its unwanted dogs. The dog is restrained in a homemade metal box and an electrode is attached to its nose.” According to the report, “the Nova Scotia SPCA provincial office recently announced it has no plans to use the more humane, and more expensive, injection for euthanasia.”

Gripper’s inspections began a year behind schedule. The inspections were originally to have been done by British WSPA staffer Stephen Ormrod, a globally recognized zoo expert, and his longtime friend and colleague Sue Pressman, a U.S. wildlife consultant.

Ormrod, however, severely depressed after viewing zoo conditions in eastern Europe, killed himself in May 1995. Pressman withdrew. The project was reorganized under a steering committee including Dickson, Walsh, and Jason Black of WSPA; Will Travers, Virginia McKenna, and Gripper of BFF; Paul Irwin and Silah Smith of the Humane Society
of the U.S.; Kathi Travers (not related to Will Travers) of the American SPCA; and Carter Luke of the Massachusetts SPCA.

Controversy over how the findings were handled caused the Society of Environmental Journalists to add a session on zoo ethics to the mid-October SEJ annual conference, drafting ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton to moderate. Hosted by the St. Louis Zoo, the session will include a tour of the zoo’s Species Survival Plan facilities. Questions from SEJ members will be answered by assistant zoo director William Boever, who also has background in humane work,
director of animal health and research Robert Miller, research coordinator Cheryl Asa, and Kent Robertson and Curt Ransom, director and assistant director of the Humane Society of Missouri, both of whom have extensive experience in probing exhibition-related animal cruelty.
Similar media self-scrutiny and self-education efforts are reportedly underway in Japan, where Virginia McKenna drew attention to the plight of animals at five of the 97 Japanese zoos during early September. Many substandard and abusive situations on McKenna’s itinerary had been shown on TV and in newspaper photos, Japanese reporters admitted, but not in a critical context, partly because Japanese editors try to avoid “negative” coverage of public institutions, and partly because of general lack of knowledge about the needs of animals.

One zoo getting good marks from the advocacy group inspectors is the Kabul Zoo in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Once one of Asia’s best, the Kabul Zoo lost 60 animals including a herd of elephants during the most intense fighting in 1993-1994, but still has four bears, two wolves, two wild boars, several monkeys, a handful of rare birds, and a pair of lions, maintained by keeper Aga Akbar, who lived with them during the 18 months the zoo was itself a battleground. The male lion killed a soldier during the fighting and was disfigured two days later when the soldier’s brother threw a
grenade at him. Other soldiers shared their rations with the animals. Under the circumstances, John Joseph of WSPA told Kathy Gannon of Associated Press, Akbar runs the zoo “the way we would like to see a zoo run if it weren’t in shambles. What Akbar lacks in expertise, he more than makes up for in compassion and care.”

Far East

Not all WSPA and BFF zoo inspections get publicity. Acting as Far East representative for BFF, roving as far as Europe, John Wedderburn of the Hong Kong-based humane group EarthCare visited at least a dozen zoos September 1995 and July 1996, sharing his notes with ANIMAL PEOPLE.

In Vienna, Austria, Wedderburn visited the Schonbrunn Palace Zoo, reputedly the world’s oldest. “The design and layout are aesthetically pleasing from a human point of view,” Wedderburn wrote, “but for the animals,” who “were all in good physical condition,” it must be “like living in shop windows.” Elephants “chained up and bobbing and swaying” were to get a new “elephant park,” then under construction.

In China, Wedderburn described the Beijing Zoo as “a beautiful park full of mature trees and miserable animals, but not
as bad as most Chinese zoos.”

He noted rapid expansion during several trips to the Guangzou Zoo, but the many new cages “are uniformly bleak with concrete walls and floors and iron bars,” he reported. “Most of the animals who were not sleeping showed distressing signs of zoochosis,” or stereotyped behavior. The zoo features circus-style performances, and is adding a dolphinarium, he continued. Offering advisory help, Wedderburn was told by senior veterinarian Chen Hong Han that they were “only interested in receiving help with new reproductive techniques.”

Wedderburn found similar conditions at the Jiaozuo Zoo and Zhengzhou Zoo in Henan province, and in Shanghai at Yeung Po Park, the Shanghai Zoo, and the newly opened Shanghai Safari Park, which at 462 acres is almost twice the size of the Bronx Zoo. Wedderburn preferred a fourth Shanghai facility, the Xi Jiao Sea Life Park, built as an aquarium but–after the fish died–converted into tennis courts and a botanical garden.

On repeated visits to the Thu Le Park Zoo in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wedderburn was horrified by bobbing and swaying elephants, the clouded leopard’s cage, which he termed “the most featureless, dank jail cell you could imagine,” and the rapid decline of a maned wolf, obtained from the Berlin Tier Park in Germany, who couldn’t take the Vietnamese heat and humidity. “I think sending this wolf to Hanoi was an absolute disgrace,” Wedderburn opined. “Berlin
should be severely censured by the World Zoo Federation.” As to the elephants, he said, “Training may be cruel and demeaning, but it’s better than having no stimulation at all.”

At the Taipei Zoo, in Taiwan, Wedderburn found “cages reasonably large compared with other Asian zoos,” except in the Nocturnal Animal House, which he termed “a house of zoochotic horrors,” where foxes, raccoons, and many exotic cats “frantically pace in cages far too small for them.”

Also in Taiwan, Wedderburn observed of the Gaoxiong Zoo: “As high security prisons go, not too bad. One of the tigers jumped up at me when I got too close and seemed to enjoy the game. An elephant took obvious delight in throwing leaves and small stones at me. The pythons were presumably happy to have live chickens sharing their cage. The chickens seemed happy, foraging for food, apparently unaware of their cell mates. The keepers seemed to have a
good attitude. One lady hosed and brushed the sea lions with obvious pleasure all around.”

Apart from the Gaoxiong Zoo staff, however, Wedderburn found that, “Conver-sations with local people showed no sign of sympathy with animals. Street scenes of food animals, pets for sale and stray dogs were very depressing. Fortunately,” he added, “I did not see any manacled orangutans,” often exhibited on street corners until recent years. “Let’s hope they are a thing of the past.”
The best zoo in Asia, according to Wedderburn, is the Singapore Zoo, where conditions are monitored by western-influenced animal rights activists led by Guna Subramaniam. Their work may increase the determination of zoo staff, many of them trained in the west, to meet high standards. “Many of the animals do not have nearly enough space, and lack their environmental needs,” Wedderburn wrote, “but the zoo is obviously making huge efforts at enrichment, hammering home all the right messages.”

Increasing involvement of U.S. zoos with their Chinese counterparts could help improve standards. So could the example of the Moscow Zoo, where according to Ron Popeski of the Reuter news agency, “Tiny cages with rusting steel bars have mostly been replaced by spacious, landscaped enclosures” for Amur tigers, Tibetan bears, and American coyotes, regarded as mythic symbols of America despite their rarity in U.S. zoos. The rebuilding, begun
just this year and still underway, has brought record crowds, despite the first-ever imposition of an admission fee, reaffirming the first precept AZA teaches of successful zookeeping: if the animals look happy, zoos prosper.

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