Thursday, August 30, 2012

Following up on Frogs in a Box

One of the many problems with selling live animals in children’s toy stores and gift stores is that their staff members have no training or experience handling, caring for, or advising potential new pet-owners on their purchases.

As a part of Zoocheck’s investigation into the disturbing Frogs-in-a-box I posed as a potential customer in two stores selling the frog boxes in Toronto. I went with the intention of assessing the level of knowledge among the staff who sell and care for these frogs. Prior to my visits I did a lot of research regarding the natural biology, behaviour and lifestyles of dwarf African clawed frogs, as well as on their captive husbandry and care.

The first store I entered was a popular children’s toy and book store. Lined up on a shelf I found 7 or 8 of the frog boxes near the front. I instantly noticed the algae coated tanks and wondered how long it had been since their water was changed. A laminated sign hung from the shelf warning of the dangers of Salmonella contamination (probably a good idea in a children’s store with the frogs being located at about chest height).

I found the “resident frog expert” as she referred to herself and started asking questions. Her knowledge on how to care for the frogs was limited. She didn’t know they were nocturnal, if they were male or female, where they were bred (incorrectly telling me they were born and raised in Canada), what they can eat other than the manufactured frog food that comes with the kit, or how big they grow. Basically, she wasn’t aware of the frog's requirements beyond what she had read on the written material that accompanied the frogs. The store’s care schedule was feeding them twice a week, and never changing their water. I was told they rarely last three months in the store before being purchased.

The second store I visited was a novelty gift store. This time the frogs were displayed much higher, out of reach of children, and the tanks were much cleaner –although there was no warning about the dangers of Salmonella contamination anywhere. As I started asking questions again, I realized this store owner knew a little bit more about dwarf African clawed frogs, and was more diligent about changing the water in the tanks in comparison to the kids toy store. Despite this, he too was quick to rattle off the erroneous care instructions that came with the frogs. He admitted that despite being told to only feed the frogs two pellets each twice a week, he usually put more in as he found the more dominate frog of the two often ate all the food, leaving the other to starve. Instead of changing the water every three months as advised, he changed them every other month. Ill-advisedly, he was under the impression that these frogs prefer their cramped quarters, stating that even if they were in a larger tank they would be traumatized by it and would hide in the corner. Another customer over heard this and in disbelief questioned him “what if they were in a big tank that had lots of stuff in it?” Again he persisted in his nonsensical claim that this would traumatize the frogs, adding that the energy it would take to swim to the top of the tank to breath would be too demanding for them. In this case, he is partly right; a very tall tank would be too demanding on these little guys, who have to swim to the surface quite frequently to breathe, but large shallow tanks do exist, and more room for any captive animal is always preferable. Furthermore, maintaining stable water chemistry is always easier with a larger quantity of water, which is important to consider given the frogs sensitive skin.

I got the impression that both of these store workers had good intentions for the frogs. Both were owners of their own tanks, and spoke fondly of their pets. Sadly, like other well-intentioned consumers however, they just accepted the care recommendations that came with the frogs as truthful and adequate. It only takes a little bit of time with our reliable friend Google, or even hitting up your local library, to learn what kind of care dwarf African clawed frogs really need and deserve. Once educated on their care and natural history, it’s easy to spot the severe short-comings evident in the care and habitat provided for these doomed frogs.

Zoocheck has sent out letters expressing its concerns about the frog boxes to retailers currently selling them in Ontario. An outline of the actual needs required by this particular frog species to be kept safely and humanely in captivity - as endorsed by amphibian experts - has also been included, along with a health advisory statement regarding the very real threat of Salmonella contamination linked to these frogs. Hopefully with a little more awareness these retailers will recognize the risks and cruelty associated with frogs-in-a-box and pull them from their shelves.

Michelle Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Blame Game or What I Learned About Cormorants This Summer

When I told my parents I'd be working on a Zoocheck campaign to protect Double-crested Cormorants this summer, their immediate response was “oh those birds that eat all the fish!” I have to admit, this surprised me. Unlike my parents I felt very neutral towards this black bird I occasionally saw around the lake, but I was soon to learn that the Double-crested Cormorant is one of the most unjustly hated and vilified birds anywhere.

I’m lucky to have a family cottage up north, and over the past few years I’ve begun to notice the cormorants; usually sighting one or two, most often during boat rides. It’s hard not to be amazed by their distinct way of flying so incredibly low over the water, seemingly skimming the surface with their wing tips. More than once, I’ve found myself envying their ability to effortlessly manoeuver in the water; gracefully diving beneath the surface, incredibly at home in the aquatic world. Standing on webbed feet with wings outstretched, it’s hard to forget the odd sight of a cormorant drying its feathers in the sun and breeze. Up until now this was what I knew of Double-crested Cormorants. Unlike my parents I had avoided the rumour mill, never coming to perceive these native waterbirds as voracious fish-eating machines.

Both my parents are in their late 50’s now, and grew up in a time when there were a lot more game fish to be caught, and a lot less cormorants to be seen. Cormorant numbers plummeted after World War II with increased human persecution and chemical contamination from DDT. As cormorants on this part of the continent reached a point of near complete destruction, the pesticide DDT was banned, and in the 1980s their population numbers started to grow. This was somewhat bad timing, with their successful and somewhat dramatic increase in population, combined with the more conspicuous and landscape altering nature of their nesting habits, has unfortunately coincided with the ever noticeable decrease in desirable game fish –likely providing the opportunity for anglers and wildlife managers to target the cormorant as their scapegoat.

Despite science consistently being on the side of these birds (numerous studies have shown that cormorants may actually aid native fish species by primarily eating small invasive fish like alewives and the incredibly numerous round goby), pressure from hunting and fishing groups resulted in Parks Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources attempting to “control cormorant numbers” through what they call “management programs”.

Since 2000, these ill-defined programs have involved a range of attempts to kill and prevent the reproduction of cormorants through egg oiling, harassment, nest destruction, and most ruthless of all the shooting of parent birds while nesting in colonies on protected park lands. Of course the mass shooting of thousands of defenceless nesting birds sounds horrible, but it wasn’t until I actually witnessed the footage recorded by Cormorant Defenders International (CDI) of the culls carried out by park workers, that it really hit me how brutal and archaic this practice really is.

Cormorants are attentive and protective parents, who take turns incubating their eggs, hunting for fish and alternatively shading their fairly exposed young while in their treetop nests. Cormorants mate and nest in the breeding season at varying schedules which means there is a considerable span of time during which nestlings may be present. Apparently, adult cormorants aren't supposed to be slaughtered while chicks are present. But determining whether a cormorant has a chick or two in the nest is difficult or impossible. Many nests are located high in the trees, and with each pair of birds nesting at various stages, shooters engaged in culling really have no idea if there are young or not in the nests. Inevitably this results in young chicks being left to starve or fry to death in the hot sun where their parents are killed.

If that doesn’t pull at your heart-strings, there are a multitude of scientifically-backed arguments in favour of cormorants. I could explain how cormorants are not an invasive species whose population numbers are out of control, or that they do not, and could not be responsible alone for depleting game fish populations. I could argue that their nesting behaviours - though technically destructive - are a natural process that are far less of an endangerment to trees and vegetation than we humans are, or that the “management of populations” is an expensive and in-effective process of trying to control nature, that ultimately disturbs and threatens other endangered birds nesting in the same colony. Don’t get me wrong, these arguments are important; knowledge is the first step to clarifying myths and raising awareness, which the cormorant is in desperate need of. But to actually witness these beautiful creatures being mercilessly shot at during their most vulnerable time - while attempting to raise and care for their young, with many being left injured to die a slow death – it’s not even necessary to consider all the “facts.” Any compassionate, caring person should organically come to the realization that slaughtering nesting birds, of any species, is morally and ethically wrong, especially in a park or bird sanctuary.

In 2004, over 1,750 dead birds – mostly Double-crested Cormorants – were found dead in breeding colonies at the east and west ends of Lake Ontario in the late summer due to botulism. Type E botulism outbreaks are becoming more common, and are likely connected to increasing temperatures and the growing populations of invasive species introduced to the Great Lakes, such as zebra mussels and round gobies, one of the cormorant’s favourite prey species. As these exotic species essentially reshape the ecology of the Great Lakes, the native species of the area inevitably suffer, cormorants being one of those. Yet despite these troubling signs for the cormorant’s future, anglers and hunters and some government agencies seem hellbent on their eradication.

The myths about cormorants have gained traction and many people now believe they are fact. The reality is that humans almost eradicated the Double-crested Cormorant through direct persecution and the careless use of toxins. Amazingly the birds managed to pull through and re-establish themselves. Now we intentionally start killing them again. If we’re not careful, perhaps when I’m in my late 50s I may have to explain to my children how the now endangered or even extinct Double-crested Cormorant was once intentionally shot at and harassed because a few vocal people erroneously believed they were out-of control. Nature is not ours to control or manage, perhaps it’s time we recognize this. We should stop scapegoating the Double-crested Cormorant for the problems we’ve caused.

Michele Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Frogs in a Box?

Novelty item for kids feature live animals

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along comes something else that boggles the mind. “EcoAquariums”, sometimes called “Frog-O-Spheres” are the current live animal fad in kid’s toy stores and gift shops throughout Canada and the US. They’re miniscule plastic cubes that measure 6 inches (15 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm) and contain two dwarf African clawed frogs, a bamboo stalk, gravel, “living gravel”, and a rock. They are mainly produced and distributed in the United States and marketed as self-contained ecosystems, perfect as low-maintenance, educational pets for young children.

At first glance these tiny “frogs in a box” might seem like the perfect solution for a puppy-begging child, but on closer inspection it becomes quite obvious that these small plastic cubes are ill-conceived, inhumane and if that’s not enough, they can pose a human health risk as well.

It should be obvious to most people that the size of the cube is far too small to maintain two dwarf African clawed frogs in a way that allows them to behave normally (meaning that they can do at least some of what they would do in a more natural and/or expansive setting) and remain in good health. Frog care literature generally recommends that each frog of this species be given at least one (preferably two) gallons of water each, that’s 277 – 554 cubic inches, instead of the 24 cubic inches the cube provides.

The potential problems become more obvious if you examine the natural lifestyle of these frogs. In the wild, they are a prey species that seek dimly lit areas to conceal themselves or hide under or around natural objects to evade perceived threats. In a tiny plastic cube, they may be unable to properly retreat and therefore endure repeated ” frights” resulting in chronic stress which can lead to illness and suffering.

Dwarf African clawed frogs are an ectothermic species, which means they are unable to regulate their own body temperature, so in captivity they require an external heat source (i.e., heater) and a thermometer should be used to monitor and maintain their preferred temperature range of 78° to 82°F (25° to 28°C). The frogs in a box have no opportunity to engage in normal thermoregulatory behaviours so they are at the mercy of their custodians.

The average household ambient temperature, which can fluctuate greatly by season (I know mine does), is not usually high enough for the frogs, and if the cube is located on a heater or a windowsill, the frog’s fate could be overheating or freezing to death. The care instructions that accompany the frogs suggest wrapping a blanket around the cube but this will do little to address the thermal needs of the frogs.

The producers claim the frogs only need to be fed two pellets twice a week, and that 75% of the water needs to be changed every 3 to 4 months due to the filtration abilities of the “living gravel” provided. In reality, shed skin, uneaten food, and feces can overwhelm the capacity of the biofiltration processes of the living gravel in the cube. Instead of the infrequent and drastic changes of water, which can shock the frogs, 10-20% of the water should be replaced periodically, possibly weekly.

Just like us, dwarf African clawed frogs do better on a diet that is high in variety and available regularly. Because these frogs’ dietary needs can fluctuate, it is generally recommended that the frog’s pellet diet be supplemented with random feedings of a variety of foodstuffs such as frozen mosquito larvae, and live food items like water fleas.

Even if we accept the claims that the frogs can be kept alive if the care instructions are followed, is living in a plastic cube really something any animal should be subjected to?

In 2009, after numerous complaints about the frogs, animal protection organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals conducted an undercover investigation of Wild Creations, the company that produces Ecoaquariums. The video footage they obtained shows hundreds of overcrowded frogs stored in stagnant unfiltered tubs of water for days on end, without any food. Staff members were filmed roughly handling and improperly packaging the frogs, as well as mistaking ill frogs for dead ones, throwing them in the garbage. It was later discovered (due to customer complaints over missing limbs) that the frogs were resorting to cannibalism in an attempt to survive these conditions VIDEO FOOTAGE.

In addition to the threats these mini-tanks can pose to the frogs they confine, they can also pose a risk to human health, and to the health of our natural, native ecosystems. Dwarf African clawed frogs are known to carry potentially pathogenic organisms (a normal part of the internal flora and fauna of many reptiles and amphibians) which have been connected to declining rates of wild amphibians in many parts of the world. Release of these frogs into the wild, or improper disposal of a dead frog, can lead to disastrous consequences to local ecosystems and wild amphibian populations. Stagnant water filled with urine, feces, shed skin, and uneaten food also provides favourable conditions for bacterial growth, including Salmonella.

As of July 18, 2011, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has been investigating an ongoing nationwide outbreak of Salmonella linked to the dwarf African clawed frog and the water from their tanks. A total of 241 individuals have been infected across 42 states since 2009, with 69% of the victims being younger than 10 years old. In an attempt to reduce the zoonotic threat of these frogs, the town of Markham, Ontario recently made an amendment to their Animal Control By-Law, in which they added the dwarf African clawed frog to their list of prohibited animals for both retailers and consumers.

The frog cubes are not an appropriate item for toy and gift stores. Keeping captive aquatic amphibians requires specialized care and their acquisition should not be an impulse decision – dwarf African clawed frogs are not toys, decorations, or novelty items - they are living animals that deserve the forethought, research, and responsibility that is required when deciding to become a pet owner. It doesn’t matter how small an animal is or how cheap they may be to purchase, their full range of needs should be considered.

My intuition is that these frog cubes teach many kids that some animals are disposible, and they can be mistreated, controlled, and exploited for profit. Despite the threats they face in nature, many frog species are still relatively abundant in North America, even in urban ponds, rivers and wetlands. If we’re interested in educating children about ecosystems or amphibians, we can take them outside to explore a real ecosystem as it was meant to be… in the wild, not in a bedroom or on a desk or windowsill.

The frog cubes are a popular seller for the moment, but they’ve also sparked outrage. Petitions and boycotts have appeared across the internet, and as a result many retailers have already pulled the product from their stores, including Brookstone, Magic Beans, Target, Toys R Us, Rite Aid, JC Penney, Albertsons, and Mastermind Toys. Unfortunately they are still widely available through a variety of locations and dealers including,,, Green Earth Stores Ltd, Learning Express, Rolo Store, Pick of the Crop, and Scholar’s Choice.

If you think it’s inappropriate for two small frogs to live out their lives in 24 sq inch plastic cube, then please send the various retailers in Ontario (listed below) a polite email and let them know what you think. Copy your email to

Scholar’s Choice
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Green Earth Stores Ltd
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Pick of the Crop
Oakville and Milton, ON

Rolo Store
Toronto, ON

Minds Alive
Collingwood and Midland, Ontario

Peek-A-Boo Kids Sales Ltd
Toronto, Ontario

Mind Games

Turtle Pond Toys
Dundas, Niagra Falls, Waterloo, and St. Catherines, Ontario

Michelle Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ontario SPCA inspection of Marineland welcome, but not the answer to problems

While a great deal of media attention has been focused on a pending investigation of Marineland by the Ontario SPCA, some important facts are being overlooked. Chief among them are the fact that the Ontario SPCA Act is designed to deal with the symptons of the problem, rather than the problem itself.

The key issue in Ontario at present is the lack of any upfront regulation and oversight of wildlife in captivity facilities or dangerous wild animals owned by private citizens. What Ontario needs is a tough system of licensing, high standards of animal management, care and safety that evolve with the times, a reporting system that requires inventory reports and other information on an annual basis, regular inspections and a legitimate process for dealing with public complaints. What won’t solve the problem is a one time inspection of one facility because it's in the news.

The alarming circumstances at Marineland highlighted in news reports are nothing new and similarly bleak conditions are endured by a multitude of animals in other facilities across the province. What many people forget is that the owners and operators of these facilities are only doing what the Province of Ontario allows them to do.

Ontario's lack of protection for wildlife in captivity is a long-standing issue and has been recognized as a problem since the late 1970s. Since that time there have been bills introduced, study groups convened, internal government initiatives carried out, investigative reports released, tens of thousands of letters, postcards and emails submitted to government, and a broad range of other actions, but a succession of Ontario governments have turned a blind eye to the suffering.

In the Marineland case, while an SPCA inspection is welcome, there are no comprehensive, objective standards for the organization to enforce. The few standards that do exist under the OSPCA Act are vague and inadequate. So the potential for long-lasting change, or even any change at all, is low.

There’s also been some talk about additional amendments (some were made in 2009) to the OSPCA Act. In fact, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, who is responsible for the Act, suggested that changes might be a possibility. However, while changes to OSPCA Act are welcome, they are not the answer.

What Ontario needs to protect the animals at Marineland and all other facilities in the province is a proper regulatory regime that requires everyone to obtain a license, satisfy its conditions and that makes them accountable for their actions. Models for this kind of regulatory system exist in other jurisdictions and have already been developed in Ontario but never implemented. It's time they were. The responsibility for making that happen falls to one person, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. I hope he hears from his constituents and Ontarians across the province.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Down East Politics of Coyote Pelting

Our Coyotes Are Bigger Than Your Coyotes, Unfortunately

When Born Free USA sent me to Halifax, Nova Scotia, last month, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’ve been to the province many times before, but now I was scheduled to join local environmentalists in a meeting with the provincial minister of natural resources, Charlie Parker, and some of his staff. The issue was the government’s controversial “pelt incentive program,” which pays trappers $20 for every coyote pelt they turn in. One official (unfortunately absent from our meeting) is quoted in the media as saying, “Trappers must check their traps every day, and their presence in the woods, and the traps they set, send a regular message to the coyote population that humans should be avoided.”

Huh? Is this message via e-mail? Phone calls? Word, or perhaps yelp, of mouth? Coyotes are very smart compared to, say, some wildlife management biologists, but surely they don’t go around saying to each other things like, “Say, did you hear what happened to Larry? Got caught in a trap and killed, so that must mean that we’d better stay away from those humans — they are so dangerous!” Wouldn’t an increase in humans habituate them to, not against, humans?

I don’t mean to make light of the problem. Of all the millions of encounters between coyotes and humans there have been two that led to human deaths, and one of those happened in Nova Scotia, on Oct. 27, 2009, when 19-year-old Toronto-based folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked, apparently by two or more coyotes, as she hiked the beautiful Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island. By all accounts this talented young woman was a wonderful person and her loss is a horrific tragedy. Also by all accounts she was a devoted nature-lover whose own family opposes the idea of a bounty put on natural predators.

In the adjoining province of New Brunswick there is a far more enlightened attitude toward coyotes, and recognition that while coyotes may pose a rare threat to humans, bounties don’t work, and never have worked in 200 years, to end conflicts between coyotes and people.

I came to think that Parker and his staff knew that. The pelt incentive is one part of a four-part plan, the rest of which includes public educational initiatives, training 13 trappers to specifically capture known aggressive individual animals when needed, and adding a wildlife conflict biologist to the staff.

Coyotes are relatively new to eastern Canada, with the first positive record for Nova Scotia established a mere 35 years ago. Darwinian evolution is at work and already eastern coyotes are distinctly larger than their western brethren. In fact, I believe that they are evolving to occupy the ecological role of larger predators, such as wolves and pumas, long ago wiped out in Atlantic Canada. Bigger coyotes have a survival edge over the smaller ones, partly thanks to their ability to prey on numerous white-tailed deer. But they are not wolves, a species who is notoriously retiring in the presence of humans. Several people, recently including one child grabbed by the head, have been bitten. The statistical likelihood of such an encounter is still extremely remote, but it exists.

The bounty is not expected to reduce the population, the claim being that its purpose is to teach coyotes to fear humans. Whatever they say, I don’t think Parker’s staff believes such silliness, and the real reason for the bounty is more nuanced. It serves a social/political function. Its cost to the provincial budget is relatively small and Nova Scotians are not complaining about it, so from a political standpoint it “works.” Something can be said to be being done; voters aren’t complaining.

But of course voters are also being told that trapping will “teach” coyotes to avoid humans. The degree of public acceptance of the scheme is at least partly a result of misleading them, thus serving a political, not pragmatic, function that the taxpayers fund. As long as the voters are misled, it’s a politically efficacious solution to “the coyote problem.”

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.