Thursday, December 17, 2009

How Indpendent will Calgary's Independent Review Actually Be?

After a wake of high profile animal deaths and incidents stretching back several years, the Calgary Zoo has finally announced an independent external review of their facility. While this is something Zoocheck and other animal welfare groups have called for, one has to wonder how independent the independent review will be.

In a videotaped statement on the zoo’s website CEO Clement Lanthier said he would be contacting both the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) and the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) this week to ask them to put together a team of expert reviewers to examine the Calgary Zoo’s practices and procedures. On the surface, this may sound like a reasonable course of action. After all, the two organizations are the accrediting bodies for their member institutions in both countries.

Here’s the problem. The Calgary Zoo is already accredited by both organizations. That the means the zoo has already met or exceeded their accreditation standards which they say are among the toughest anywhere. If they’re already accredited by both organizations and the animal deaths and incidents continue, why go back to those same organizations for another review. Wouldn’t it make more sense to look elsewhere for new expertise?

My faith in the pending independent external review is also undermined by the comments of CAZA national director Bill Peters. In a December 12th Globe and Mail article Mr. Peters said, take out break here….“Yes, there has been a series of unfortunate incidents and they've been looked at and reports have been done in the various occurrences, but is there a pattern? No, I don't think there's a pattern there.”

Given the number of animal deaths and incidents, I find it remarkable that anyone would think there wasn’t a pattern. It seems to me that because they all occurred at the same facility within a fairly compressed timeframe that alone establishes a pattern.

In my view, the deaths of four gorillas in rapid succession is a pattern. Or the presumably preventable deaths of stingrays because of improper oxygen levels, a markhor hanging itself on a rope and the capybara crushed to death in a hydraulic door. If they don’t represent a pattern, I don’t know what does.

Details of the independent expert review are pending. The people involved and the terms of reference are not known. At this point there is one thing I do know. To maintain even a smidgen of credibility the review team must draw extensively from other disciplines, including the animal welfare field. It can’t just be zoo managers reviewing zoo managers.

A few years ago, the National Zoo in Washington D.C. was subject to a review after a string of animal deaths and other missteps were reported in the media. That review involved multiple agencies and individuals, including experts from outside the zoo world.

Will the review be a serious examination or just a public relations exercise? I guess time will tell.

Rob Laidlaw
Executive Director
Zoocheck Canada

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Zoo’s spin on elephant death defeats zoos’ stated purposes

Another neighbor just died, in her prime. Tara, a 41 year old African Elephant, died on the last day of November, at the Toronto Zoo, near where I live. Okay, not a next door neighbor, but I feel as though I knew her as I sketched and photographed her and simply watched her, many times. She is the third elephant to die there in the last 14 months!

The Toronto Zoo has told the media that elephants only life about 40 to 45 years. This from the same industry that claims part of its raison d’ĂȘtre is to educate the public about wild animals. Then zoos should tell the truth. In Kenya . elephants have been known to give birth in their 50s. Elephants in the wild live well into their 60s or longer, and an Asian elephant has lived to age 86.

Tessa, Tequila, Tantor, Toronto, and TW are other elephants who died well before their time at the Toronto Zoo. In fact, friends of mine who track captive elephants predicted Tanya’s passing when Tessa, at age 39, died six months ago. And they have, sadly, predicted more of my elephant neighbors dying in the next little while, as all have reached not maturity, as the Toronto Zoo would have us believe, but are middle aged, and therefore about as old as captive elephants can expect to survive.

For some species, zoo life can be free of hunger, predation and other problems faced in the wild, and as a result, there are a few animals, a dwarf crocodile at Toronto Zoo, for example, whose captive life exceeds what would probably be expected for a wild counterpart. But not many species, most emphatically not including elephants.

While the local media was reporting Tara’s untimely death, it failed to report that India, where the Asian elephant is a native species, had just decided that no elephants should ever be kept in captivity. It is morally irresponsible.

And while zoos and refuges can breed and release a relatively small range of endangered species, that does not apply to elephants. The world’s zoo elephants are not put into the wild, nor would that serve any conservation purpose even if they could be. Breeding is something wild elephants do very well when protected in the wild. The money spent (or, in Toronto, will be spent if the idea of increasing the indoor elephant holding area’s size goes ahead) by zoos would go so much further in conserving elephants if donated to efforts to reduce elephant poaching and fight the demand for ivory that thousands of animals could survive wild and free where they belong, for every pathetic specimen in zoos and circuses. There are viable elephant sanctuaries where elephants could be sent to live a semblance of natural life in social groupings, and maybe have a chance at truly surviving to full maturity.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA United with Animal Protection Institute