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.