Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unbelievable! A Land Conservancy and Conservationist Who Value Nature

The Extraordinarily Unusual Really Should Be The Norm

My colleagues who have formed an organization to protect a native species of bird from being shot in large numbers while nesting were shocked to read that a “land conservancy” agrees with us. So does a conservationist.

You may think you misread that paragraph. What organization set up to protect land would want to slaughter nesting birds? Who would do that in the name of conservation?

Well, if the bird is the double-crested cormorant, the default position of “conservation” agencies is all too often that they just don’t belong and their numbers must be “controlled” to prevent the natural consequences of their very existence.

Double-crested cormorants are native. They have been here all along, but they have been so demonized, ironically because they were once endangered, that reason and logic do not prevail here in eastern North America.

I think the problem is, paradoxically, that the cormorant is vulnerable to persecution, and was therefore twice eliminated from large swaths of North America. The first time, of which there is very little evidence, but it does exist, was during a period of uncontrollably aggressive wildlife slaughter through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, when unregulated slaughter of wildlife saw the reduction or extinction of a variety of species in eastern North America.

And, long before recovering from that loss, the cormorant suffered again when, as it was attempting to re-establish itself in eastern North America, there were large declines as a result of the use of DDT after World War II. Although the exact mechanics of how it happened are a matter of debate, several top-of-the-food-chain, fish-eating species went into decline coincident to the spread of DDT, and rebounded when use of the pesticide was reduced or eliminated.

But the core belief among many hunting and fishing organizations is that the cormorant is an “invasive” species that competes with them for desirable “game” fish. Ironically many of those “game” fish are themselves, unlike the cormorant, totally alien to the waters where they were put to provide “sport” for recreational anglers.

Study after study has shown that the cormorants mostly have little or no negative impact on “desirable” species of “game” or “commercial” fish. That message has yet to permeate in the United States, where wildlife management agencies bow to the anglers’ lobbies and slaughter tens of thousands of double-crested cormorants. But in Canada we have had a little better luck. While less-educated fishing interests still rant and rave against cormorants, at least the federal and provincial wildlife management agencies have pretty much abandoned that argument, knowing it’s bogus.

But they have glommed on to another argument: Cormorants, they claim, destroy habitat. If you think about it (which cormorant detractors avoid doing) suggesting that a cormorant colony destroys vegetation is like saying a herd of bison, or African antelopes, tramples and consumes grassland. It’s true, but also part of an ecological realty that dates back millions of years and leads to no permanent loss. There is nothing less “natural” about a colony of birds than there is about trees on islands and headlands they inhabit.

But that is not understood, or at least not acknowledged, by either federal or provincial government agencies in eastern Canada, especially in the Great Lakes region. That is what is so delightfully astounding about the news out of Kingston, Ontario.

Let me explain that most lake islands that could host cormorant colonies, don’t. But when cormorants do appear the change in vegetation, as a result of the cormorants’ presence, can be rapid and dramatic.

Snake Island is only two-tenths of a hectare in size, and Salmon Island is only half that , both donated to the Land Conservancy for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, near the east end of Lake Ontario.

The islands were donated to the conservancy, and guess what? They are going to be left natural! That means cormorants, or any other native birds, other animals or plants, are expected to be protected there, to do as they’ve always done as part of the natural processes by which species have existed and evolved for literally billions of years before humans appointed themselves as tin gods dictating what the environment “should” look like, in deference to the hook-and-bullet fraternity.

And three cheers and hat’s off to Mary Alice Snetsinger, a conservation biologist who recognizes that the donors wanted the islands to remain natural, and to Vickie Schmolka, president of the conservancy, who is quoted as saying, “Overall, the land conservancy’s approach is to preserve land and let nature take its course.”

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Canada

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guzoo gets yet another chance!

As you probably already know by now, on April 1, 2011, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) issued a provisional 60 day permit to Guzoo Animal Farm in Three Hills, Alberta. The issuance of a conditional permit came after thousands of private citizens, including thousands of Alberta residents, saw pictures of the Guzoo facility posted on Facebook and flooded SRD and the Alberta SPCA with calls and emails just prior to the zoo’s annual permit renewal date.

A media release issued by SRD on April 1st says an “independent third party verification process for assessing zoo animal health to give all parties the confidence that health standards are being met" will be conducted. Of course, this should have been done years ago, but better late than never, although SRD's wording is a bit concerning (more about that later).

The release also quotes the Alberta SPCA Executive Director, "There are a number of different complex issues that need to be looked at carefully." I agree that any facility housing wild animals has complex issues, but there have been many issues identified at Guzoo, some that have seemingly persisted for years, that are not complex, such as providing nutritive food, clean water, species-appropriate shelters, heat, etc.

Since it first opened approximately two decades ago, Guzoo Animal Farm has generated controversy and a steady flow of complaints. In a 1993 Calgary Herald article, reporter Vicki Barnett describes animals “on the windswept prairie, locked in cages offering little shelter.” Former SPCA President Joy Ripley was quoted as saying, “the wellbeing of the animals is being seriously compromised by problems with lack of disease control, dirty conditions, inadequate caging and inappropriate winter shelters. There is also a real concern for public safety.”

Since that time, Zoocheck Canada, in association with local and national animal welfare groups, have sent a steady stream of experts (e.g., veterinarians, zoo professionals, wildlife rehabilitation specialists) to evaluate conditions at Guzoo and have pushed for the relevant agencies to take action.

For years, SRD responded by sending staff out to inspect Guzoo, but they always seemed incapable of identifying anything beyond the most superficial of problems. The Alberta SPCA has also been sending inspectors out to Guzoo for years and, at times, they’ve taken some action, but their efforts don't seemed to have produced substantive results.

So, eighteen years after that Calgary Herald article appeared, the complaints are still rolling in and they're pretty much the same. Inadequate caging, filthy conditions, frozen water bowls, lack of shelter, illness, injury, the list goes on.

The Alberta Government and the SPCA have not identified who exactly will be doing the new investigation or what they will be examining, but if history is any indication, one could be forgiven for thinking that critical husbandry and care considerations, like cage design, substrates, structural enhancements, furnishings, enrichment, privacy, species-appropriate shelters, bedding, the provision of appropriate environmental conditions (particularly heat, light, humidity, ventilation for birds and reptiles), diet, food presentation, food storage, the provision of potable water, social context, and the behavioural indicators of stress and suffering, to name just a few, may not receive the attention they deserve. I hope I’m wrong, but looking at the past, cynicism is warranted.

Perhaps the most astounding fact in this whole situation is that in 2006, Alberta brought in its own zoo regulations to govern the keeping of wild animals in captivity, the result of a multi-year effort by Zoocheck Canada to obtain regulations that would address zoo problems across Alberta, including at Guzoo. Ensuring compliance with the standards is the responsbility of SRD and the Alberta SPCA. The regulations require that permitees satisfy a broad array of conditions. From what we can tell, compliance is poor.

So, getting back to the SRD claim that the 60 day conditional permit was issued so that an “independent third party verification process” for animal health assessment can take place. In my view, their wording is cause for concern.

There is so much more to wild animal housing and care than “animal health,” however that is defined. Will the authorities look only for obvious illness and injury? Will they consider all of the other housing and husbandry factors that must be met to make life bearable for captive animals? Will this be a transparent, comprehensive review conducted by a team of experts who actually know a thing or two about evaluating wildlife in captivity conditions?

One question that surfaces again and again is why has this situation been allowed to fester for years and years? Why didn't anyone in the Alberta government simply say no? Why didn't they just say to Guzoo, come up to a professinal standard within a certain period of time or no permit? As someone who has looked at zoos around the world for more than two and a half decades and who is familiar with Guzoo, I'm suprised its been allowed to go on for so long.

It's sad that it's taken thousands of regular people clogging phone lines and email boxes to bring the Guzoo issue into the public spotlight again. I hope everyone who expressed outrage monitors this inspection process very closely and, if it results in nothing more than a slap on Guzoo’s wrist, that they continue to work vigorously to bring this very sad story to an end.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada