As most people know, Zoocheck strongly advocated for the closure of the animal exhibits at Storybook Gardens. We took this position because the park's animal facilities were outdated and inadequate. While a few of the enclosures were relatively recent additions, others were refurbished versions of previously existing exhibits, with the seal pool being a relic from the late 1950s. We have no hesitation in saying that it was the right time for the animal portion of the park to wind down.
The City of London agreed and had already decided to phase out the zoo portion of the park. They couldn’t allocate sufficient funds to bring the facility up to a modern standard and they recognized that it was unacceptable to keep the animals in their existing conditions. The phase out was part of the business plan for Storybook Gardens.
When the decision was finally made in January 2012 to move the animals out, Zoocheck offered to arrange for rehoming and transport of most of the animals and pledged to cover the transportation costs. The only animals we did not agree to transport were the seals. That would be the responsibility of the recipient institution. All of the animals that Zoocheck accepted responsiblity for transporting arrived at their destination institutions safe and sound.
While Zoocheck did not offer to transport the seals, we did conduct a review of potential recipient facilities to find them the most suitable home. That process was conducted, with guidance from the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency that must approve destination facilities and sign off on imports of marine mammals into the US.
After evaluating all possible options, it was determined that the most appropriate recipient facility for the Storybook Gardens seals was the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo had just constructed a large, naturalistic, $18 million dollar facility for seals and sea lions and had decades of marine mammal experience. The NMFS agreed and approved the move. The St. Louis Zoo took responsibility for acquiring permits and for moving the seals from London. Zoocheck did not have a part in arranging or conducting the seal move.
Zoocheck was notified of the “in transit” deaths after they had occurred. Needless to say we were shocked. The purpose of moving the animals was to place them in better conditions where their welfare would be enhanced and their needs would be properly satisfied.
While some people have suggested that the animals should have been left at Storybook Gardens, that was not an option. A decision had already been made to phase out the animal portion of Storybook Gardens. There is no doubt that Zoocheck’s involvement expedited the process of closing the animal exhibits, but we believe it was the right decision at the right time.
Needless to say, we are distraught about the seal deaths. We accepted that one of the premier Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities, with decades of marine mammal experience, would move the seals quickly, efficiently and without mishap. That did not happen.
Zoocheck is now investigating how the move was conducted and exactly why the seals died. Pending the outcome of that review (which will include an examination of the seal necropsy reports), should further action be warranted, we will pursue it vigorously to make sure this never happens again. While that doesn’t help Nunavut, Atlantis and Cri Cri, perhaps their tragedy can help raise awareness and prevent other animals in transit from ever experiencing the same fate.