Friday, January 22, 2010

How many deaths before action on exotics?

Last year British Columbia introduced new rules for keeping exotic animals. Those rules were prompted by the 2007 death of Tanya Dumstry-Soos, who was mauled through a barrier by a caged tiger while her children stood and watched. It remains to be seen how effective BC’s rules will actually be, but at least the government responded.

Here in Ontario, injuries and deaths don’t seem to matter. Just a short while ago, exotic animal keeper Norm Buwalda was killed by one of his pet tigers. That same tiger attacked and very seriously injured a boy in 2004. Those two incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

When asked about the exotic pet situation, Premier Dalton McGuinty opined that the problem was the responsibility of individual municipalities. It’s clear his government isn’t going to do anything.

While municipalities have the authority to enact bylaws to control and, to some extent, regulate, the keeping of animals, my guess is they’re more comfortable dealing with dogs, cats and maybe even livestock, than they are with big cats, primates and venomous reptiles.

Municipalities just don’t have the expertise and resources to develop and enforce rules and regulations governing wild animals, including the multitude of dangerous species common in the pet trade. They also lack the background knowledge necessary to counter arguments made by highly visible, very vocal, local exotic pet proponents who come out of the woodwork to oppose regulation. But many municipalities forge ahead nonetheless and do their best to formulate rules or they opt to prohibit certain kinds of wild animals altogether.

Unfortunately, many bylaws are poorly written and there’s no uniformity. Some jurisdictions prohibit certain species, while neighbouring municipalities don’t. Some have housing standards, while others have none. Many jurisdictions don’t have any laws at all, so if an animal owner runs into a problem in one municipality, they just move into the municipality next door. It’s a patchwork mess.

The list of incidents begins more than two decades ago. A 16 year old boy killed by his uncle’s pet tiger. A teenager’s arm torn off by a lion at a private zoo. A 2 year old boy bitten on the head by a pet cougar. A tiger jumps out of a cage and remains on the lam for more than 2 days. A “stray” baby tiger turns up on a porch in a small Ontario town. An escaped lion runs after a jogger near Belleville. Two lions break out of a barn near Niagara Falls. The list gets longer every year.

It’s difficult to understand why people want to keep animals that can seriously injure or kill them, but they do. And it’s astonishing how many wild animal pet owners dismiss, ignore or seem unaware of the risks their animals pose. They house them in unsafe cages, play with them, take them for walks outside or for a ride in the car. They calmly and routinely put themselves and the public at risk. It’s amazing.

There’s no legislating against stupidity and I suppose people are free to endanger themselves in all kinds of ways. But the exotic wild animal crowd's imperviousness to reality shouldn’t put children, bystanders, neighbours and community members, including livestock and companion animals, at risk too.

Since the early 1980s the Ontario government has known there’s a problem. In fact, it would be hard for them not to know. Over the years there have been hundreds of media stories and government ministries have received thousands of letters. Numerous private members bills have been pushed, government committees and working groups formed, meetings held and countless other initiatives come and gone. Every political party has acknowledged there’s a problem, but none have taken definitive action. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Premier McGuinty is just the latest premier to shrug off any responsibility for the situation.

Today anyone can still acquire almost any exotic wild animal they want and no license is required, no questions asked. They can house their animals in cramped, crappy, unsafe, homemade cages and they don’t need any expertise or experience in caring for or handling their animals. No matter which way you look at it, it’s insane. How many deaths will it take before the Government of Ontario acts? Your guess is a good as mine.

Rob Laidlaw

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Fate of Elephants at the Toronto Zoo

On February 18, 2010, the Toronto Zoo Board of Management will discuss a feasibility study undertaken in 2008 regarding the future requirements of caring for elephants at the zoo and for maintaining a herd of elephants into the future. Despite four elephant deaths in four years, a grossly inadequate physical facility, lack of space and an inappropriate climate, people associated with the zoo have already said they want to continue to keep elephants.

Information obtained by Zoocheck suggests the zoo may try to bring their facility up to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) standard for elephants by making modifications to their existing enclosure. But these so-called improvements will be minor, cost millions of dollars and won’t make much difference to the animals.

The AZA standards are behind the times and ignore key facets of elephant biology and behaviour. For example, although all species of elephants have large home ranges in the wild and spend up to 20 hours each day engaged in a complex array of movements and behaviours, the AZA outdoor space requirement for a single elephant is a mere 1,800 sq. ft. That’s more than 60,000 times smaller than the smallest home range of elephants in the wild. And making things worse is the fact that elephants in northern zoos often can't use outdoor space when it's too cold.

The AZA also says a minimum of three elephants should be kept together. Far better than one, but a far cry from an elephant’s natural extended family group with its multitude of lifetime relationships.

Under close examination, the AZA standards seem geared more to the convenience of zoos than to the welfare of elephants. That may be why early mortality, infanticide, rejection, disease, abnormal behaviours and a range of other problems are ubiquitous in North America’s urban zoos.

I expect Toronto Zoo officials will claim elephants are being poached in the wild, so they need to help raise awareness and conserve them, even though they seem to have great difficulty keeping them alive. Of course, they’re not alone. The North American zoo elephant population is declining every year and, without recruitment from the wild, the population will gradually fizzle out of existence. It’s safe to say that if saving elephants is reliant on zoos, they are most certainly on the fast track to extinction.

Not too long ago, the Central Zoo Authority in India decreed that all elephants in zoos must be released to the wild or moved to sanctuaries. They chose this course of action after a great deal of study and consultation. They determined that elephants in Indian zoos, where the climate is perfect and there is hundreds of years of experience in caring for elephants, were suffering and that their incarceration contributed little, if anything, to elephant conservation.

India has the longest history of keeping elephants in captivity and more wild elephants than any other home range country. If zoos in India can’t do it right, it’s hard to believe that half a world away elephants living in postage stamp-sized pens on hard surfaces in unnatural social groups, enduring alien, hostile climates, can do well.

If the Toronto Zoo were truly interested in the welfare of individual elephants and the conservation of both African and Asian elephants, they would phase out elephant keeping altogether and instead provide real support to legitimate elephant conservation programs. Providing funds to in-situ elephant conservation initiatives in stable elephant home range countries will do far more to safeguard the species than all the elephant exhibits in North American zoos combined.

The Toronto Zoo Board of Management will soon discuss the fate of elephants at their zoo. Will they be a rubber stamp committee who just regurgitates whatever the zoo feeds them? Will they tow the party line about how the zoo needs elephants, how well cared for they are and what a pivotal role they can play in elephant conservation? I hope not. With the lives of the animals at stake, as well as millions of dollars, it would be nice to think the members of the board have actually done some research into the reality of elephant lives in urban zoos and are prepared to ask some tough questions and make some tough decisions.

Rob Laidlaw

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Little Concern for Sharks

Last week Ripley Entertainment Inc. publicly announced their intention to build a 150,000 sq. ft. aquarium at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto. The proposal is the latest in a string of aquarium proposals, including a previous one from Ripley, going back almost 10 years.

Apparently, the Ripley aquarium was going to be constructed in Niagara Falls, but increased security measures at the border, and the inevitable delays for US tourists crossing into Canada resulting from them, bumped the project to Toronto instead.

As usual, money talks and it seems the City of Toronto is behind the aquarium plan. It’s unfortunate that so many people are quick to jump on the aquarium bandwagon. While aquariums are often perceived as relatively benign institutions, they come with a number of very legitimate concerns, including animal welfare, that should be very carefully considered.

One of the biggest issues in recent years is the confinement of whales and dolphins. These wide-ranging, deep diving, highly intelligent, extremely social sea mammals are arguably among the worst candidates for captivity. Their physical and social environments are impossible to replicate in even the best captive situations. Whales and dolphins in captivity are typically relegated to impoverished lives in bathtub-like conditions that bear no resemblance to the environments they evolved over millennia to inhabit.

Ripley Entertainment hasn’t released a list of the animals they want to display, but their two US-based facilities don’t display whales or dolphins. Instead, they feature sharks and that’s what they’re talking about for Toronto.

Sharks are certainly a lot less controversial than whales and dolphins, but they’re not entirely controversy free. During the past few years, considerable concern has been expressed about the keeping of giant filter-feeding sharks (i.e., whale sharks) in captivity. These massive creatures travel thousands of miles in the wild foraging for plankton and small fish, but swim endlessly in tiny circles in captivity. The various species of pelagic sharks that traverse huge areas of open-ocean are also of concern. Wide-ranging creatures usually don’t do well in captivity.

No matter what shark species are being considered, their confinement in aquaria should not be taken lightly. Shark populations around the world have declined drastically and collection for live display is just one more pressure they don’t need. As well, the welfare of the individuals who are captured (yes, aquariums either capture or pay people to capture their stock) and confined is severely impacted.

While there seems to be increasing concern about the keeping of animals in zoos, most people don’t usually give the welfare of fish and other aquarium inhabitants a second thought. It’s time they did. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so quick to jump on the aquarium bandwagon.

Rob Laidlaw

Monday, January 11, 2010

Owner killed by pet tiger

Today Zoocheck received a flurry of telephone calls from local and national media seeking commentary on the death of big cat owner Norm Buwalda who was killed on the weekend by his 294 kg pet tiger.

Mr. Buwalda was a vigorous defender of big cat keeping, even after one of his tigers attacked and injured a 10 year old boy in 2004. Reportedly, the cat was being taken out on a chain leash, when the boy fell triggering the tiger to attack.

After that incident, Southwold Township passed a bylaw prohibiting the keeping of big cats and other dangerous animals but Buwalda hired a lawyer, fought the law and won. The judge in the case criticized the law as being too broad and he dismissed the Township’s argument that “properly confined” exotic animals were still dangerous.

The judge seemed to miss the fact that not only must the caging of animals be adequate to contain them, and include all of the standard safety measures, such as double door entry gates and secure segregation areas, but the handling and management of animals must also be safe.

Buwalda was listed as the Chairperson of the Exotic Animal’s Owner Association, a group that, among other things, aims “to assist municipalities and keepers with the safe and humane housing of exotic animals.” One has to wonder what that organization promotes when its own Chairperson engages in the rather foolhardy practice of entering a cage containing an adult tiger during feeding time.

Ultimately though, the responsibility for Bulwalda’s death lies with the Government of Ontario. Despite thousands of letters, dozens of reports, hundreds of media stories, four private member’s bills, several internal study groups, several deaths, numerous injuries and loads of dangerous animal escapes, the Ontario government has steadfastly refused to control the trade and keeping of wild animals as pets.

It doesn’t make any sense. Hot dog vendors and taxi cab drivers are regulated to the hilt, but people owning tigers and spitting cobras, that can kill them or their neighbours in an instant, don’t require any license at all.

As it stands now, anyone in Ontario can easily and cheaply acquire a tiger, lion, wolf, monkey or cobra as a pet. There are no laws against it and there are no laws setting standards of housing, care or safety.

It may seem like a no-brainer that these kinds of animals don’t make good pets and can be extremely dangerous. Whether its’ stupidity, ego or another reason, the fact remains that there will always be a segment of society that wants these kinds of animals. Those people put themselves, visitors to their properties, neighbours and communities at risk.

Other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world already prohibit the keeping of big cats and other dangerous animals as pets. It’s time Ontario did the same. Buwalda isn’t the first person to be killed by a wild animal pet in the province, but he should be the last.

Rob Laidlaw