Sunday, November 17, 2013

Something Fishy Going On, Impressions of My Aquarium Visit

Question: Why would you take a wild, innocent animal and stick it in prison?

Variation: Is it justifiable to imprison a wild, innocent animal for entertainment or to make money?

Those questions are too general to answer properly, but let me try: To question one I’d say when it is in the better interest of the animal or when it is in the better interest of the species to which the animal belongs, and maybe, just maybe, when it helps educate people to better care for the either individual animals or species entire species, the latter consideration captured by the term, “conservation”, it is justifiable to confine wild animals. The zoo and aquarium industry tries to convince us that they contain animals in captivity not just to profit and to amuse us, but to educate us and to conserve species.

To the second question I’d personally answer “no”, while recognizing many people would answer “yes”. Both answers reflect value judgements.

Toronto recently opened Ripley’s Aquarium, in which some 16,000 animals live in some 5.7 million litres of carefully maintained, very clean water. Presumably it will make money and will amuse and entertain visitors. But does it educate? Does it provide conservation?

A visit to the website ( provides no clue, although we are assured that it is “dedicated to developing and supporting unique initiatives that promote environmental awareness and aquatic ecosystem literacy” and its “team aims to foster a culture of sustainability that supports the environmental protection and conservation goals of the organization and the greater public, while building a strong legacy of ecological stewardship.”

I couldn’t tell what those environmental protection and conservation goals might be, but those of the greater public have, to date, resulted in the greatest extinction spasm in some 65,000,000 years with the loss of the over 90 percent of the large, predatory fish essential to the well-being of fish stocks overall. ( I think Ripley’s might want to aim higher, and maybe a good place to start would be with convincing people to not indulge in practices inimical to the welfare of fish species.

An aquarium representative told me that being new, they are “still solidifying our conservation and sustainability programs before we roll them out completely and develop displays for them,” and some “species status and conservation signage & videos” are in place. There will be partnerships with the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Region Conservation Authority, Water Brothers (I had to look that one up; it appears to be an “eco-adventure” TV show) and the Vancouver Aquarium, adding, “all our curriculum-linked educational programs incorporate a conservation message and call to action.” I don’t recall any such call to action during my visit.

There is no doubt that a person equipped with pen and paper, a recording device or total recall could, upon touring the aquarium, come back with a wealth of factoids that might qualify as “education”, many of the “gosh-wow” nature of the old Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” feature most folks are too young to remember. But I’d wager that few of the visitors could, upon exiting, give the English name of even a dozen species of fish they saw…at most maybe generic or family names, like shark, ray, bass or trout. However, I think visitors, especially kids, might agree that they got value for their entertainment dollar.

I remember one section mentioning how the first Europeans to fish the waters off eastern Canada could dip a container overboard and pull it up filled with fish. That’s about the only suggestion that aquatic species face anything that could be called a conservation concern I recall, beyond stickers put besides the names of species that are threatened and, I think, a reference to shark finning. I saw some videos but irritatingly unpleasant “music” piped through the entire facility drowned out commentary, if there was any.

I saw very few people read the educational material provided, and most spent little time viewing the various displays or looking at the names and connecting them to the fish. While I saw a lot of fake coral, I came away not recalling any references to the various threats, from siltation to climate change to crown-of-thorns starfish, threatening the world’s coral reefs or an explanation of why it matters; I recall one exhibit featuring fake mangrove roots, but no mention of how the destruction of mangroves is affecting the foundation of ocean food chains; I recollect no reference to the above-mentioned decline in large predatory fish; I recall no mention of the threats posed by the ubiquitous aquarium trade, and how poisons and explosives are sometimes used to acquire fish for home aquariums; I recall no mention of the disruption of essential migratory movement by dams across rivers; I recall no mention of how deforestation is affecting salmon survival in breeding rivers; I recall no concerns about fish farms or genetically altered fish, nor exotic introduced species; I remembered no mention of how so-called traditional oriental medicine and food is threatening seahorses and other fish and other marine species; I recall no mention of how ocean-side tourism development is destroying sea turtle habitat. I recall nothing being mentioned about the threat of plastics and other marine debris to both fresh water and sea life, nor reference to cut-away drift nets, abandoned crab and lobster traps and the destruction of dolphins, sea turtles and other species as unwanted discards of commercial fishing. I recall no concerns about the decline of the queen conch, the humpback wrasse, the Patagonian toothfish, the Chinese paddlefish or so many other marine species in decline worldwide.

I recall no indication of just how diverse speciation is: that there are, for example, hundreds of species of sharks, or nearly two hundred known congers or over two hundred and fifty sculpins, or so many thousands of fish species about which little or nothing is known. I saw no mention of deep sea marine life, below the level reached by light, and the subsequent use of bioluminescence. And while there were beautiful displays of jellyfish and a few invertebrates, a visitor gets no real hint of just how vast and diverse marine life is, from bryozoans to belugas (whales or sturgeon).

And that’s because aquariums are not really educational. They can’t be; it’s not their function. And while they, like any individual or organization, can contribute to conservation, they do not inherently do so. There is no need to breed fish and release them in order to prevent extinction, any more than there is a need to do that for polar bears, and yet the zoo and aquarium industry wants us to think otherwise.

Last stop upon exiting the aquarium is the gift shop, of course, sort of a filter designed to remove a bit more cash from your wallet. But all it offered was glitzy toys, key chains, bracelets, stuffed toys and cheap bric-a-brac designed for pre-teen tastes, with lots of sequins and sparkly bits. It was mostly fish-themed, yes, including the book section, but sadly nothing to interest an adult or teen with an interest in ichthyology, oceanography, marine biology or sea life conservation. I hope they look at the gift shop and book selection offered by places like the Monterey Aquarium or Smithsonian Institute, where those of us interested in such things can find worthwhile purchases.

I came away thinking claims to be educational or important to conservation were, at best, weakly supported. The aquarium could become a player in real, effective conservation efforts, like promoting protection for certain over-exploited commercial fish stocks. Meanwhile, it strikes me as being more a part of the problem of human hubris – the belief and actions that derive therefrom – that the world beyond our own exists for us, to amuse, entertain or be exploited by us for commercial gain. It may have been an attitude without negative consequences through most of our evolutionary history, but now works against our own ultimate survival and against the interests of all the vast majority of other creatures out there, suffering from our exploitation, ignorance and indifference.

I’m grateful there are no marine mammals or birds in the facility, it’s a start, but for now it is entertainment detached from anything that fairly could be called either conservation or education.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Letter to Minister Madeleine Meilleur and Premier Kathleen Wynne regarding "province taking action to enhance animal welfare" announcement

The Honourable Madeleine Meilleur
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services
18th Floor, George Drew Building
25 Grosvenor Street
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1Y6

The Honourable Kathleen Wynne
Premier of Ontario
Main Legislative Building, Queen’s Park
Toronto, Ontario, M7A 1A3

Dear Minister and Premier:

On behalf of our thousands of members, supporters and constituents throughout Ontario, we would like to express our profound disappointment in your recent announcement regarding the protection of animals and the enhancement of animal welfare in Ontario, particularly with regard to wildlife in captivity.

While we have no issue with increased funding for the Ontario SPCA, your October 25, 2013 announcement failed completely to address the long-standing core issues regarding the keeping of wild animals in zoos, menageries, aquariums and by private individuals in Ontario. In fact, not a single key point discussed in your consultation conducted earlier in 2013 was included in your announcement. Wildlife in captivity in Ontario will remain largely unmonitored and unregulated and the fall out from lack of regulation will be left for the Ontario SPCA to deal with.

After so many similar kinds of discussions and consultations on the wildlife in captivity issue, going back almost 30 years in this province, we find it remarkable that your announcement took so long to be made and that it was devoid of substantive measures to address wildlife in captivity issues.

The key points discussed that needed to be implemented to deal with this issue, and that were generally agreed upon by the NGOs attending your consultation, were entirely absent from your announcement. I will describe them below.

1. The key component of any wildlife in captivity regulatory system is an upfront licensing/permitting regime for all zoos, aquariums, private menageries and wild animal collections. Anyone wanting to acquire wild animals or establish an animal collection should be required to meet a set of criteria prior to a license/permit being approved. The license/permit serves as a filter to weed out the bad and irresponsible operators, rather than letting them establish their businesses and/or personal animal collections, letting them fester and then leaving it to a private charity to deal with the fallout. License/permit revocation is then also available as a sanction for dealing with those facilities who will not or can not maintain acceptable standards over the long term. The suggestion that a voluntary registration program and spot inspections for non-registering facilities will be sufficient is naïve and will do little, if anything, to control the proliferation of wild animals in captivity in Ontario. Anyone will still be able to acquire animals, open a captive facility or keep exotic wild animals as pets. As well, the Ontario SPCA already has the authority to enter zoo premises, without a warrant, to conduct inspections.

2. Comprehensive, enforceable standards for the operation of zoos, aquariums, private menageries and animal collections or for the housing, husbandry and care of wildlife in captivity are essential. The current standards under the Ontario SPCA Act are brief, non-specific, highly subjective, inadequate and, in some cases, unenforceable. Your announcement did not include any mention of more comprehensive standards for wildlife in captivity in Ontario.

3. Although NGOs at your consultation agreed that a prohibition on the keeping of whales and dolphins was warranted and in step with other progressive jurisdictions around the world, your announcement merely stated that experts would be consulted and a set of standards developed and publicized sometime in 2014. There was no information about who would develop the standards or what they would be based on. The concerns about marine mammals in Ontario and the voices of tens of thousands of Ontarians who spoke out have been largely ignored. What is particularly alarming is your statement that regulatory standards will consider the economic and tourism impact on affected communities.

4. Your announcement made no mention of a prohibition or any controls whatsoever on the keeping of dangerous wild animals, such as big cats, bears and giant constricting snakes. Any citizen of Ontario will still be able to buy these animals for personal amusement purposes, impacting animal welfare and endangering family, friends and community members.

5. NGOs at your consultation agreed that transparency and accountability were integral to any regulatory scheme to make it more effective and to create public confidence and support for it. There will be no change to the current system whereby members of the public find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain information about “official actions”.

6. Whistleblower protection was another important issue that was discussed in your consultation. However, whistleblower protection that would encourage the very people who are best positioned to report on animal abuse and neglect, compassionate staff and volunteers at animal facilities, was not even mentioned. Instead, those brave individuals who do speak out to help animals will continue to be faced with intimidation and legal threats by the facilities who keep animals.

As you know, Ontario has a proportionately greater number of zoos, menageries and aquariums than any other province in Canada and that situation is due, in large part, to the fact that wildlife in captivity facilities have never been properly regulated. Your announcement will not change that situation.

You probably already know that support for increased oversight and regulation of Ontario’s zoos, menageries and aquariums is very strong. A 2013 Nanos poll found 83% of Ontarians support regulation, while a 2012 Broadview Group poll showed 82% support and a 2010 Oracle poll showed approximately 90% support. Other polls indicate similar levels of support.

We strongly encourage you to revisit this issue. You stated repeatedly over the past year that you were committed to doing whatever has to be done to address the wildlife in captivity issue in Ontario. The tens of thousands of Ontarians who spoke out on this issue deserve better and, it should go without saying, the animals do too.


Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sumatran Rhinos and Zoos

A Case History of Zoos and Wildlife Conservation

Fourteen years ago, I was among a group of conservationists sitting in the board room of Toronto Zoo, discussing the fate of proboscis monkeys in distant Borneo (the only country where they occur in the wild). Wildfires had destroyed much of the monkeys’ habitat and the zoo wanted to bring some to Toronto “to conserve the species.” But, when I asked if any of the captured monkeys or their offspring would ever be returned to the forests of Borneo, I was told no; being raised in captivity would effectively prevent them from ever being returned to the wild. When I pointed out that domesticating yet another animal species had nothing to do with “conservation,” I received an odd, honest reply from one of the zoo curators. “But,” he said, after some thought, “I’m a zoo man and I just naturally think of zoo-based solutions.”

In the end, the monkeys stayed in Borneo.

As I pointed out in my previous two blogs, yes, captive breeding can be an important conservation tool for a small number of endangered species—but it does not require traditional public zoo facilities in our towns and cities. Quite the contrary. And yet, zoos imply that, in some way, the act of breeding endangered species protects them. Just last week, a local Ontario zoo, African Lion Safari, announced the captive birth of an Asian elephant, naturally conceived to parents who were, themselves, captive born. But overall, elephants are dying in North American zoos faster than they are being born. The National Zoo says, “Within the next fifty years, there may not be elephants in zoos.” For there to be zoo elephants, wild imports will be required, and they are usually animals orphaned by culls in areas where encroachment has reduced land available to elephants, or orphaned by poaching. Ironic, then, that the very forces that are endangering elephants serve the zoo community’s ability to display elephants. That’s not “conservation.”

Currently, the most critically endangered large mammal in the world is the once widely distributed Sumatran rhinoceros: a small, hairy, and little known two-horned rhino which has been slaughtered for its horn, used in traditional medicine in Asia, and has had much of its habitat destroyed, especially by palm oil plantations. Although the Sumatran rhinoceros has been kept in zoos from as early as 1872, it doesn’t survive well away from its jungle home.

No matter; in the 1980s, the zoo community took 40 of these rare animals out of the wild and placed them into zoos around the world. That was a sizeable portion of the entire population. All were registered in a captive breeding program, and we were told that the zoo “experts’” research into the rhinos’ reproductive biology would assure their survival and propagation. This is called “ex situ” conservation: literally off-site conservation.

But, by the late 1990s, just prior to Toronto Zoo coveting proboscis monkeys, those of us who opposed the program knew that our fears had merit. Not a single Sumatran rhinoceros was born to any of those 40 animals. In fact, half of them had died! By 1997, the three animals remaining in U.S. zoos were united in Cincinnati, where, with special hormonal treatments, young calves were finally born and shipped to Sumatra, where it is possible to keep the animals “in situ” (meaning that they are captive, yes, but “on site” within their native habitat and thus able to develop necessary skills to survive in the wild).

There is still the issue of poaching and deforestation, neither issue requiring those of zoos to be solved. For some endangered species, it may well be that hosting countries will, in the end, lack the ability to protect in situ captive animals from poaching, local warfare, or natural disasters. But oh, if only all of those Sumatran rhinos had not been wasted, and if only the money spent on shipping them across the planet had been focused on where they belong, then maybe, just maybe, there would be more of them, and they’d have a better chance of survival.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Monkeys for sale, no questions asked

First take on the IKEA monkey trial

I am guessing that Yasmin Nakhuda has never heard of "acquisitive mimetic desire", even though she displayed it to an absurd degree, thus contributing to an odious form of animal abuse: the exotic pet trade. It's the desire to have something because someone else has it, and is often used by advertising agencies and marketers to push products that people don't really need.

I sat just behind Nakhuda last week, as she sobbed nearing the end of a trial she had instigated. She had gone to court seeking to reacquire "Darwin", the baby Japanese macaque whose image was flashed on You Tube and on TV screens and newspapers internationally when he appeared in a faux-shearling coat in an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, last winter. He was dubbed "the Ikea Monkey". Nakhuda was crying because lawyer Kevin Toyne, defending the Story Book Farm primate sanctuary, suggested she had known what she was doing in signing Darwin over. The primate sanctuary was where Darwin was taken after being rescued by Toronto Animal Services (TAS). TAS is designed to deal with dogs and cats, not monkeys. Once ownership had been transferred it cleared the way to place Darwin in the sanctuary.

I've not been to Story Book, but I know that it is in its early stages of development, heading toward the high standards we have set with our own primate sanctuary, in Texas. Story Book, now housing 25 primates, needs support, but instead all Nakhuda's followers have done, is criticize it, without actually seeing it for themselves. Sadly, the law prohibits sending these rescued primates into the U.S., but that does not prevent real humanitarians, like the good folks at Story Book, from doing their best. As is true with our, much larger, sanctuary, many of their animals are former exotic pets who became too much for their owners to handle.

Even though she is a lawyer specializing in real estate, thus property rights, Nakhuda claimed she was tricked or coerced into signing the animal over. David Behan, the gently-spoken TAS officer in charge on the Sunday that Darwin escaped from where he had been locked in a dog kennel, in Nakhuda's car in the Ikea parking lot, denied it. Given how often Nakhuda changed her story I would be inclined to believe Behan, a decent chap just trying to do his job. An unhealthy man nearing retirement, he didn't look to me like he could intimidate a chipmunk. Behan's supervisor, phoned at home, told the officer to try to get Nakhuda to sign Darwin over. He did, but no evidence was presented to show he forced her to do so.

There is a real question about the form itself, which is badly written. It, and the bylaw in question, are to be updated to prevent any such confusion in the future. But none of that prevented Nakhuda from just saying "no", although she still could not have legally kept Darwin in Toronto. She claims she now has an offer on a house in one community that allows keeping of non-human primates, conditional on her winning the case. That community, Kawartha Lakes, plans to pass its own legislation to prevent the keeping of primates.

Throughout this mess Nakhuda constantly has referred to Darwin as her son, her baby. But he had a real mother who has been forgotten in all this. There are two ways that baby primates enter the exotic pet trade: in the wild it is normally the result of the mother being killed and the baby stolen. Otherwise she fiercely holds on to her baby. In captivity the baby is simply forced from the mother, against her will. But her emotional trauma didn't seem to touch Nakhuda or her small but loyal band of supporters.

We know nothing of Darwin's origins before he showed up in a filthy diaper, harness and doll-sized coat at the Ikea parking lot. At first Nakhuda said she had been given Darwin on the street in Montreal. That was later changed to a dealer in Toronto she met while looking to buy a hyacinth macaw. After swearing an affidavit that Darwin was a "gift" she admitted that, well, no, the dealer wanted ten thousand dollars, in cash, but settled for five up front. Oh, but he said he'd give it back, making Darwin a "gift" to Nakhuda's weird way of thinking. He actually never has returned the money. Some gift.

And why, while looking for an endangered parrot to buy, did Nakhuda purchase a baby macaque? The dealer didn't have a hyacinth macaw handy, but he had a couple of monkey species, one a capuchin. They're cute. Ah, but no; Yasmin had seen a You-Tube video from showing a Japanese macaque in Japan, the only country where they naturally occur, taught to do simple waiting chores in a restaurant. Wow, a monkey acting like a waiter.that was all the reason she needed! Talk about an acquisitive mimetic desire and I thought guys who thought they could pick up sexy dates if they drank the right brand of beer were pushovers!

Within a couple of days, voila, from Vancouver or Montreal or who knows where, suddenly there is a baby Japanese macaque, no questions asked. No documentation, either. No health certificate. No receipt. No concerns. Any problems about Darwin being a species it is illegal to keep in Toronto and the dealer would wave his magic permit. But when the excrement hit the rotating blades he didn't, telling Yasmin to "walk away", according to her testimony, and he'd return the cash. Yeah, sure.

As I write, the judge is determining whether Darwin can stay at the sanctuary, or must be returned to Yasmin, no doubt to be dressed in silly clothes and, who knows...maybe wait on her table in her new home in Kawartha Lakes? The judge is constrained by the law. Because of the bizarre nature of the case, and its look into the sordid world of the exotic pet industry, I'll return to this issue in future blogs.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Monday, June 10, 2013

My Last Middle Island Blog, Yes, But Just For Now A Tale of Just Two Innocent Creatures

Published 06/06/13 Born Free USA

My last two blogs dealt with the days spent in a boat anchored just offshore of Middle Island, in the southern end of Lake Erie, the very southernmost land still in Canada, mere yards from where the country ends and the United States begins. I was there with my colleague, Liz White, to monitor and record Parks Canada's deadly assault on nesting double-crested cormorants. Staff armed with small calibre rifles and accompanied by spotters would walk up and down the island's length, usually hidden from our view by thick vegetation, shooting the nesting cormorants, and in the process causing havoc among the great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, Canada geese and herring and ring-billed gulls also trying to make nests, lay eggs and raise babies on the otherwise uninhabited island. Great egrets were there, too, but the shooting has driven them completely away, even though they are noted for "nest site tenacity", the quality of staying with their nest even under duress.

One Parks Canada staffer would stay aboard the boat that brought the crew over from the mainland, an hour and a half trip. The shooters were trying to kill the cormorants with head shots, aiming carefully at a small, moving target. Birds who had their beaks clipped by bullets or were otherwise wounded by in ways that allowed them to fly, would flee to die or recover as best they could. But if the bullet brought them down to the ground they would tend to make their way to shore, and often into the water. There they would be pursued by the powered boat, diving to get away until, too tired and waterlogged to again dive, they awaited the blast of a 12 gauge shotgun; "euthanasia". Even then some found the energy to dive at the gun's flash, and sometimes it took two or three shots to render the birds dead.

These are nesting birds, bound by an instinctive imperative to maintain a presence at the nest. Except under intense duress one or both parents are always at the nest while there are eggs or young chicks. Cormorants swim and eat fish, but their plumage is not like that of loons, grebes or ducks; it is not entirely waterproof. Therefore they are limited in how long they could stay in the water.

And that was the plight of the two birds we saw on shore that the shooters and spotters had somehow missed reporting. What to do? We had neither the practical means nor the legal right to rescue them. To leave them meant that they would die slowly. Cormorants need to be able to fly to survive and these birds clearly would never fly again. The first was sluggish, perhaps bleeding internally, the second was more alert, but with an obviously shattered wing.

And so we called them in, on the boat's radio. On each occasion the power boat came as close to shore as was safe. With the gunmen on the island, and the boat looming nearer, the birds did what instinct directed, and took to the water. There, in spite of their respective wounds, each was able to swim hundreds of yards, gently chased by the Park's Canada boat, the intent presumably being to tire them. Cormorants can, when shot at with a shotgun, dive at the sight of the flash and be mostly or totally under the water by the time the shotgun pellets arrive. But I suspect, as well, the Parks Canada staff wanted to get the bird away from us and our cameras. Before the booming shots were fired the boat would position itself between us and the wounded bird, and I can't help but think this was intentional.

The wounded birds never had a chance. Their reward for not hurting any of our kind while simply fulfilling natural functions that have evolved through three billion years of life on earth, was to be first wounded, and then relentlessly, inescapably hunted down by the vast power we humans command with our internal combustion engines and high-powered firearms, and killed.

My emotions were mixed. I didn't want to aid the culling or see these birds killed, but on the other hand it would be cruel to let them suffer; we had to report them. But perhaps the most profound emotion of all was a sense of deep shame for my kind, mixed with admiration for the cormorants and anger at Parks Canada. The cormorants do nothing but ask their small share of a world we continually crowd out, and we deny them even that.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Middle Island Mismanagement, Parks Canada Shows How Not to Conserve the Natural Environment

Published 05/23/13 Born Free USA

This is not the place to go into details, but in April and May I found myself on four occasions living in the 21st century, benefitting from GPS navigation, cellphones and my new digital camera, while viewing the bloody results of early 19th century thinking.

Before Charles Darwin, before the basic tenets of evolution and ecology came together, human policy tended to treat the natural world as an entity to be controlled, exploited and defeated by us. We were godly beings apart from nature, hubristic in our right to do as we pleased. Forests felled, species wiped out, native peoples shoved aside and profits made from “resources” evaluated by the amount of money we could earn by their exploitation, destroying what annoyed us.

Our ancestors tended to classify animal species as “good” or “bad” based on their immediate economic value or esthetic interest. “Game” species were good, thus species who ate game species were “bad.” Species who ate species who hurt our economic value could be good; their predators therefore were bad.

We had yet to understand the dynamic interactions between predators and prey. Hawks, owls and fish-eating species were, like wolves and foxes and snakes, bad, unless some economic value could be squeezed from them. Foxes were good, for example, if their skins could be sold, bad if they ate a grouse or raided the hen house. Rabbits were good if properly cooked, bad if munching in the vegetable garden.

Slowly things changed as scientists and naturalists came to realize that predators, all species, played roles in the ecological whole, and that “good” and “bad” were highly subjective designations based on simplistic and short-sighted value systems and quite lacking in scientific objectivity. To at least some degree public policy began shifting in reflection of growing understanding about naturally evolved predator-prey relationships.

Too often wildlife management agencies remain mired in early 19th century thinking. To a major degree this reflects political responses to concerns of a public where ignorance of nature is rampant. We also have immense capacity to resent other beings, and while political correctness is slowly curbing overt bias against humans who are different, animals are seen as ours to hate and abuse on whatever pretext. And few North American species seem to trigger more irrational prejudice than the double-crested cormorant.

In the United States, wildlife management agencies still kill large numbers of these native birds out of concern that cormorants eat too many fish. Study after study essentially indicates otherwise, and here in Ontario, at least, we’ve managed to get that particular argument off the table, simply because it is incorrect.

Indeed, as our boat left the mainland on southern Lake Erie’s northern shore for the hour and a quarter trip to Middle Island, I noted how one saw cormorants here or there, sometimes in flocks, but until we reached their island nursery, most water was empty of them. But we passed mile after mile of buoys and markers indicating a vast network of fishing nets whose consumption of fish dwarfs what the cormorants consume.

But cormorant excrement is high in nutriments that, in concentration, kill vegetation. While none of the trees on Middle Island is anything but common, several species are at the northern end of their range, thus rare in Ontario, where the mainland has been largely denuded of native forests. The great egret, the world’s commonest heron, is also fairly near the limit of its range and so one of the rationales for killing cormorants is to protect the trees for the egrets to nest in.

But Parks Canada managed to chase off the egrets. Nesting birds are vulnerable and even egrets, known for their nest tenacity, couldn’t take the pressure. We saw one on the first day of culling and a pair on the last day, but all were driven away as the gunmen made their way up the length of the island, shooting cormorants off their nests.

In a review of the first five years of culling, Parks Canada claimed that great blue herons were not especially bothered by the fusillades, not leaving their nests for more than 12 minutes. We knew that was utter nonsense, but to prove it when not allowed on the island is difficult. The island is off-limits to all but Parks Canada and their gunners, and after much negotiation involving Parks Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police, we were only allowed to anchor in one location with a limited view of the island.

But our position did provide a good view of one specific great blue heron nest whose owners tried to incubate, but wound up standing beside, or leaving, the nest for literally hours on end. Other great blue herons had to stand on the sand spit that extends off one end of Middle Island, a waste of their time/energy budget that could not help but compromise egg and brood survivability.

Given all the real conservation problems and challenges the world increasingly faces, it seems such a shame to see so much money go into such a cruel and needless exercise as shooting thousands of cormorants off their nests. The cormorants are native; if they kill off some or all of the trees it in no way results in anything other than an offense to the esthetics of some people who want to preserve the trees because they don’t realize or care that the cormorants belong. They say they want to preserve the “Carolinian” species, but there is nothing non-Carolinian about a cormorant colony in the middle of Lake Erie!

After the last shot was fired the birds could settle down and try, as they have done for so many millions of years before we came along, to raise their families. They are not good birds, not bad birds, just birds who belong in nesting colonies on islands in Lake Erie.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

The Species I Fear the Most, Or How I Spent the Past Few Days

Published 05/10/13 Born Free USA

OK. I’ll fill in the details in a later blog, but I here I want to talk about just getting back from Middle Island, a tiny 46-acre island in Lake Erie. I was anchored offshore, meters from the U.S. border, the most southern place one could be and still be in Canada. I was there with colleague Liz White to monitor gunmen as they shot hundreds of double-crested cormorants off their nests.

This was the sixth year the gunmen had done this, disrupting a large, mixed colony of nesting waterbirds: cormorants, night-herons, great blue herons, herring and ring-billed gulls and Canada geese. We had done this the previous Monday, as well; we’ll do it once or twice more this season. There had been egrets nesting there, too, but while we saw one the previous Monday, they seem to have been chased off by the gunfire. This is a national park. Protecting the egrets was part of the goal. I’ll explain all, in a later blog, meanwhile see this. If it sounds brutally insane, yep, I’d say so!

As we drove back we added to the list of road-kills we could identify along the highway: one wild turkey, one American kestrel, several red-winged blackbirds, a couple of opossums, numerous raccoons, a few cottontails and skunks and many undetermined. And then the trucks. One of the problems with being in this business is that you see so much more than others see. What to others is just an anonymous tractor-trailer we know carries 10,000 pheasants jammed close together in tiny crates, no food or water, no protection from the noise and confusion of the highway, or the cold slipstream.

Pheasants? Yes. Chickens are a species of pheasant, but of course we degrade the term “chicken” to mean something not worth worrying about.

We passed trucks in which you could glimpse pigs, so many in miserable discomfort en route to slaughter. At lunchtime we stopped at one of the highway’s pull-offs, called “En Route,” where restaurants sold cooked body parts of similar animals, now at least beyond suffering. Pulled pork? Wings? No thanks.

At home my mailbox contained the long-awaited copy of “Handbook of Mammals of the World, Volume III,” which describes all non-human primate species in the world, with up-to-date data on their population status. My e-mail contained concerns about one primate species, the long-tailed macaque of Southeast Asia and various islands and archipelagos of that region. Some 240,000 live macaques had been exported for “medical, scientific, commercial and breeding purposes from 2004 until July 2010,” according to the book, and according to my e-mail updates, some 100,000 more had been shot as part of a cull.

They, fellow primates, are denied life because they are a nuisance. The ones removed appear to be from the core population; no one knows how many there are, but they have, according to the book, been officially recognized as the first “widespread and rapidly declining” primate species. I can do no better than the quote in my e-mail from an anonymous writer:

“Where to begin? ... Not only do I weep for the inhumane experience the long-tailed macaques experienced before their souls left our planet, I disparage for the plight of our humanity. ... Violence and killing seem to be a strong strain within our collective DNA. ... We do far more damage around this spinning orb that is our home than all the other living species (combined), than proportionally to what these tinier primate cousins of ours are doing to inconvenience the humans in Malaysia. ...

“Every human who knows about this story should feel shame for the fellow humans who perpetrate these heinous encroachments upon others’ habitats and then rationalized their murdering of those effected by the encroachment. ... It’s not too dissimilar to what 'white' Europeans did to the indigenous peoples of the Americas."

And then, remembering that my colleagues and I are working hard to stop the brutal culling of mule deer in central British Columbia, because there are “too many,” I read the news article about 6,000 coyotes killed in Utah’s bounty program, in the hope that there will be more mule deer! They want more deer for the hunters to kill — the human hunters who don’t need to — so the coyotes are slaughtered in absurdly high numbers.

This brutality extends toward our own species. I also read about the horrific case of three young women held captive, raped and abused, in Cleveland, while the story of the terrorist bombing in the Boston Marathon lingered. Isolated incidents involving a few deranged individuals, of course, but also waiting for me was more news from the civil war in Syria, and lest we get all self-righteous, news of a book just out about the detention, also for a decade, of prisoners in Guantanamo never having found guilty of anything other than being of the wrong religion and in the wrong place at the wrong time, held without trial.

What is it about us? Why are so many of us so heartless?

Why is the term “do-gooder” seen as derogatory?

We are to accept that brutal side of our nature in the interest of ... what?

We’re rapidly, recklessly destroying so much, including our planet’s ability to sustain us, and our own ability to survive. We are capable of better. We are the most brutal of species, and never more so than when we reach out to others, our own and other species, to maim and kill.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Time to Rehome Springwater Park Animals

Along with Springwater Provincial Park’s status being changed to non-operational (meaning visitor services are no longer being offered), the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) announced that the animals in the Park’s wildlife zoo would be dispersed to more appropriate accommodation elsewhere. That move is supported by major animal welfare and wildlife protection groups and will almost certainly be applauded by animal loving Ontarians everywhere.

While Springwater’s animal display may have been considered acceptable years ago, that is not the case today. The facility is out of date, inadequate and does not provide many of the animals with an acceptable level of welfare.

The closure of Springwater’s antiquated wildlife zoo fits in with evolving public concerns and sensibilities about animals. In recent years, a series of professional polls have shown that 82% of Ontario citizens support better regulation of wildlife in captivity facilities and improved standards of care. A review of some of the ongoing wildlife captivity controversies in the province is clear evidence that public attitudes are rapidly changing.

Some Springwater visitors seem to have developed a sentimental attachment to the animal display and overlook or fail to recognize its deficiencies. Many have erroneously referred to it as an animal sanctuary. Unfortunately, the display does not satisfy the basic criteria that define true sanctuaries, including restricted public access. Even though it is in a park, the wildlife compound is a zoo.

Advocates of a new Springwater governance model have referred to the wildlife zoo as an attraction and part of the future “revenue stream.” However, to upgrade the facility to an acceptable standard that fully satisfies the animals’ needs would require a substantial influx of funds and result in escalated, ongoing operational costs for whomever is in charge. It’s highly unlikely the zoo could ever generate more than token revenue for the Park and it’s doubtful the capital costs of bringing the facility up to standard could ever be recouped. The reality is that many zoos and zoo-type displays require annual subsidies to survive and ongoing government funding for capital/infrastructure improvements.

As well, the Springwater animals are all common species in Ontario and well represented in zoological facilities throughout the province, including some in the region. There is nothing unique about the Park’s zoo that would make it an attraction and draw people through the gate. In fact, considering current public sentiment, it may keep them away.

While we question the need to increase attendance beyond that required for the simple maintenance of visitor amenities, there are many ways to increase attendance if that is a goal. They include, but are not limited to, interpretive pavilions focused on local nature and history, a native wildlife butterfly garden, a bird feeder trail, a series of self-guided walks focusing on botany, ecology, local history and other subjects, organized insect safaris for kids, nature festivals and other special events, to name just a few ideas. The suggestion that the Park needs a bunch of caged animals to attract people ignores the fact that so much more could be offered.

As a wildlife protection organization, our interest has been and will continue to be the welfare of the Springwater animals. That’s why we are encouraging the MNR to move forward with the closure of the Park’s wildlife zoo and the dispersal of the animals to more appropriate accommodation elsewhere. It shouldn’t be a difficult process. We hope that others who are also concerned about wildlife will contact David Orazietti, Minister of Natural Resources, and urge him to move forward with relocation of the animals. The Minister's email is

The closure of Springwater's wildlife zoo will be applauded by Ontarians across the province and by wildlife advocates everywhere. But the best reason for moving ahead is that it’s the right thing to do for the animals and the right time to do it.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

No Diplomacy for Pandas

A great deal of excitement surrounded the recent arrival of two giant pandas to the Toronto Zoo. On loan from the Chinese government, the bears are meant to celebrate the new foreign investment agreement between Canada and China. This is a practice known as panda diplomacy, whereby an endangered animal species native to China is shipped across the world to symbolize a kinship between humans. Politics aside, the issue of putting live animals on display as a symbol of diplomatic relations between countries is surely an outmoded practice in this day and age, when animal rights and welfare are increasingly a matter of public debate and of growing importance in Canada's legal system. Given our knowledge of animal psychology and behaviour, it is no longer possible for us to ignore the ethical wrong of keeping animals captive in our country's zoos and aquariums.

There has been much controversy in Canada recently over the question of animal welfare in zoos and aquariums, and whether certain species should continue to be held in these facilities. Last April the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to the City of Edmonton’s decision to keep a single remaining elephant at the zoo, despite a widespread campaign to have her transferred to a larger habitat where she could socialize with other elephants. In Ontario the fate of the three remaining elephants at the Toronto Zoo has been an ongoing battle for over three years, while the OSPCA continues to investigate allegations of neglect and mistreatment at Niagara Falls’ MarineLand.

The main lesson to be culled from the problems surrounding our zoos and aquariums is that we need to rethink our practice of keeping animals in captivity for the purpose of exhibition. Proponents of zoos and aquariums often cite two reasons for upholding these institutions, education and conservation, but both arguments are flawed.

Given the rise in animal rights activism and research into the physical and psychological impact of captivity, the lessons we teach our children through zoos say more about our understanding of animals as objects -- or, more simply, our disregard for that impact. As an example we can look to Koshik, the elephant at South Korea’s Everland Zoo who learned to imitate human speech. While the media largely represented this phenomenon as a heartwarming story, the scientists who published their findings in Current Biology speculate that in fact Koshik learned human words out of social deprivation from other members of his species, having spent seven years as the sole elephant at the zoo. Koshik learned to mimic the language of his keepers because it was his only hope at communication. The authors of the study also speculate that social deprivation could be a factor in other cases of animals who “talk” in captivity.

Why then are we misunderstanding their attempts at communication? And how can we purport to use zoos and aquariums as resources to teach people about the lives of animals when we deprive them of their social groups and natural habitats?

The argument for conservation should also be disputed. Indeed many zoos breed animals with dwindling populations in the hopes of one day releasing them back into the wild; this is the stated intention of the Toronto Zoo regarding the incoming giant pandas. The problem, however, is that we can easily lose sight of the well-being of the animals themselves. There is little doubt that conservation can be a worthy cause, but what is often not discussed is the moral dilemma of imprisoning one animal for the potential future generations of animals that may or may not come to fruition. The issue is then whether our desire for conservation outweighs a captive animal's quality of life.

The intentions of most people who support or engage in conservation and zoo-keeping are generally well-meaning and compassionate, but the outcome for the animals involved is not always favourable. Countless studies in animal behavioural science have shown us how captive animals resort to stereotypic behaviours that are repetitive and obsessive in nature, as well as frequently self-destructive. While studies determining the stress impact on captive pandas have been few at this point, scientists have nonetheless reported a number of stereotypic behaviours in zoo pandas which include pacing, head-tossing, self-biting, and regurgitation (repeated vomiting and ingesting of the vomit). It could be argued that the frequency and intensity of such behaviours are augmented by poorer living conditions, but even the best zoos deprive animals like pandas of the space and natural stimulation they would get in the wild. No enrichment activities or increase in enclosure space can compare to the ability to roam free for kilometres on end.

To continue to sell zoos as entertainment is cruel. Moreover, the fact that the exhibits are often directed at young people poses a larger problem. What kind of lesson are we teaching when we encourage them to derive pleasure out of the deprivation of another living being? The time has come to end this practice and start exploring other ways to observe and interact with animals. Surely by the twenty-first century we can stop looking at them in cages.

Vanessa Robinson, PhD
Guest Blogger

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Funds should go to conservation, not cages

Ever since I first learned about Google Alerts, I’ve been receiving dozens of links to articles about zoos on an almost daily basis. Over the past few years I’ve gotten in the habit of printing out articles about new zoo exhibits and the refurbishment of old zoo exhibits, especially if they indicate their cost.

I expect that anyone reading those articles in isolation say to themselves, “Wow, that’s a lot of money” and leave it at that. I suppose it’s a natural reaction since a great many new zoo exhibits range in price from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, certainly a lot of money to most of us. But most people don’t think about the fact that zoos all over North America and around the world are engaged in the same kinds of expensive projects as their local or regional zoos are. And when you start to add up the costs, it’s mind blowing.

Here’s just a small sample of what I’ve come across in the past week or so. The National Zoo recently opened a new elephant exhibit that cost a whopping $56 million. The Oregon Zoo plans to exceed that with their own $58 million elephant exhibit. Meanwhile the Houston Zoo will open a $28 million gorilla exhibit in 2015, while this summer the Dakota Zoo will open a small primate exhibit that, by comparison, is dirt cheap at only $750,000. As I sat down to write this blog, another one came in. The Indianapolis Zoo is planning a $30 million orangutan exhibit. Those few projects come in at a staggering $172.75 million and that’s just the tip of the proverbial “new exhibit” iceberg.

About three years ago I added up all the zoo capital projects that were featured in articles in a 1 month period. I’m sure I didn’t see them all, but what I did see added up to $1.213 billion dollars. They’d house at most a few hundred individuals representing a motley assortment of species. All in the name of conservation.

Most of the zoo promotional material that’s used to rationalize these obscenely expensive exhibits feature vague claims about how important they are to public education, conservation and how they’ll produce a positive conservation outcome that will benefit animals and their wild habitats. Of course, most of that commentary is unsubstantiated, meaningless and self-serving. The reality is that most zoos talk the talk, but when it comes down to putting their money where their mouth is, they don’t do much to help. Instead, they construct monuments to waste and pat themselves on the back for doing it.

There are thousands of conservation projects around the world that are starving for funds. They’re aimed at preserving habitat, conducting anti-poaching patrols, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, fighting the wild animal parts trade and addressing a plethora of other concerns. Pick a handful of these projects at random, look at their cost and at what they can accomplish and it becomes abundantly clear why they should be funded and not the new zoo exhibits.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How The Zoo Industry Shoots Itself In The Foot


There is a wave of apprehension at least, if not outright fear, permeating the internal communications of the zoo industry. They have created an enemy, and the enemy is us, the animal protection movement, which they have elevated to near-mythical proportions, a commanding force poised to destroy them.

I say created because instead of listening to concerns voiced by those of us who work to promote compassion for animals, they assure themselves we are villainous, ill-informed and disingenuous. That, with exceptions to be sure, is the thrust of their propaganda. They also create a narrative for themselves, to justify their own industry.

On both counts they misrepresent. If I were disposed to sell out the animal protection movement and help the zoo industry, I would urge them to do one thing above all else. But I’m willing to do that anyway because I am not the ideologue they have invented; I just care about animals. It is not zoos or keeping animals in captivity that concern me; I want to oppose the abuse of animals and work for the conservation of species. I am not saying that there isn’t a role for zoos to play in helping animals — there is, but too often it is not the one that they claim. And so I’ll call them on it, as will many of my colleagues.

The free advice? Be truthful. Put another way, don’t deceive yourself and if you do, well, don’t be disappointed, angry or resentful if we who care about animals, professionally or otherwise, expose you.

Take Bowmanville Zoo. Bowmanville is located east of Toronto, and claims to be the oldest private zoo In North America, starting in 1919 as the Cream of Barley Park, featuring recreational facilities and a small petting zoo. The late Keith Connell, who used to own it, was a classmate of my mother’s, was the importer of the first potbellied pigs into Canada, and used to keep so many camels that he laughingly called himself “the Camel King of Canada.” He and I were frequent guests on a children’s television show, 30-plus years ago, so I knew the zoo well.

It is now run by Michael Hackenberger, who claims it maintains “the largest stable of trained animals in North America” and “has become a leading supplier of animal talent to the television, movie and entertainment industry.”

“Life of Pi”? It contains scenes with a real, not computer-generated, tiger show Jonas, from Bowmanville Zoo, now dead. He had been shipped to Taiwan for the filming, but later was found to have a large hole in his diaphragm, that the liver passed through, pressing on the lungs. It was a serious congenital defect that had gone undetected until the tiger died on the operating table, well before Oscar night assured the movie’s fame. He had been taken from his mother when only about 8 grams (about 28 ounces).

Bowmanville Zoo has a single Asian elephant, who, in her fourth decade, is near the end of the lifespan for captive elephants in Canada. Hackenberger makes money renting that elephant out, but as we are increasingly aware, Canada is not kind to elephants. Too cold and damp. No matter. He would like another elephant.

So he has applied to import one from the United States. Here’s his problem. It is not legal to simply import elephants for commercial use. So the “leading supplier of animal talent to the television, movie and entertainment industry” wants the elephant for “conservation.”

Conservation? Well, the problem is that under international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), you can’t import certain endangered species, including elephants, “for primarily commercial purposes.” A great many species of wild animal and plant species have become endangered precisely because of their great commercial value. Elephants are no exception. The enormous value of the ivory in their tusks has motivated widespread slaughter. Poaching for ivory is widely recognized as one of two leading causes in precipitous declines in both Asian and African elephants. The other problem is encroachment and subsequent destruction of their habitat.

Keeping an elephant in a private zoo east of Toronto does not address either issue. Therefore, in applying for permission to import Colonel, an Asian elephant from an Oklahoma circus, Hackenberger apparently must claim that the aim is conservation. So he is proposing using the elephant to raise money “to engage and motivate the Punjabi community in the greater Toronto area to commit time and money” to Asian elephant conservation, once those needs have been identified in northwestern India. But you don’t need an elephant to do that, nor is it explained how this will prevent poaching for ivory, or habitat destruction. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund raise multi-millions without using captive animals (or, sadly, stemming the steady decline in either African or Asian elephants).

But wait, there’s more. Bowmanville Zoo also is proposing some sort of breeding, using the sperm of Colonel to inseminate a female elephant in the Calgary Zoo, through artificial insemination. But Calgary Zoo is wisely phasing out its elephants, has its own bull elephant, and Americans are as adept as Canadians at extracting and shipping elephant sperm, although why bother? An inability to breed is not the problem facing wild elephants!

Captive Asian elephants do poorly in our zoos, have high infant mortality, and the North American captive population is not self-sustaining. Data from 1962 to 2006 from North American and European studbooks show that of 349 elephant calves born in zoos, 142 died prematurely.

Zoos are desperately seeking to rationalize keeping wild animals by doing all kinds of research. For example, five elephants of two species from Bowmanville were used to determine “appropriate ibuprofen dosages for elephants.” This, it’s argued, will be useful in “pain management” when you translocate Asian elephants. Other research was into biochemical changes associated with breeding, although I repeat, wild elephants are much better at breeding than captive ones, and none of this research really has anything to do with reversing the decline in these species. It is the ivory trade that is primarily destroying them, coupled with human population growth and subsequent habitat loss.

Last May Dr. Peter Brewer, vice chair of the Zoological Association of America, endorsed moving Colonel to Bowmanville, saying, “Ongoing reproductive research planned with the University of Pretoria and Trent University will continue to elucidate captive and wild strategies for the enhancement of elephant populations.”

That’s the kind of things zoos love to say to justify what clearly appears to be simply a commercial transaction. We know, full well and with vast documentation contained in a plethora of reports and studies, exactly why elephants are endangered. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to breed. Wild elephants are good at that, and when left alone, survive quite well. So when the zoo community seeks to fool us, seeks to suggest that anything new we learn as a result of some bit of enhanced understanding of elephant hormones will invariably enhance conservation, don’t blame us for pointing out just how ridiculous and self-serving that really is.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Saving Lives and Changing Hearts

New Kid's Book is About Animal Sanctuaries

OK, first the requisite disclaimer. The author of “Saving Lives & Changing Hearts: Animal Sanctuaries and Rescue Centres,” Rob Laidlaw, is a close friend and colleague, and the back cover has a blurb by another close friend and colleague, Adam Roberts. The book mentions Born Free USA’s own primate sanctuary, in Texas. That said, the fact is that this is a book I’d praise even if I had no connection to it in any way, because it is something I have longed wished to see, well done. I just wish there were a version for adults.

But this is for kids, one of a series of such books by Laidlaw that introduces young readers to the pluses and minuses of animals, particularly wildlife, in captivity. His two earlier volumes, both recommended, deal with animals in zoos (“Wild Animals in Captivity”) and animals used in entertainment (“On Parade: The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment”). “Saving Lives & Changing Hearts” takes the reader on a tour of animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities around the world.

Laidlaw defines an animal sanctuary as “a place of refuge for unwanted, neglected, abused, injured or abandoned animals,” and breaks them down into three types: those that take in domestic farm animals; equine sanctuaries for horses, donkeys and mules; and wildlife sanctuaries that accommodate any of a wide range of animals wild by nature.

If there is something close to a common denominator linking the animals who wind up in such sanctuaries, it might be called “good luck.” But also, as a rule, the animals have survived some level, sometimes horrific, of abuse before finally winding up in a sanctuary. Domestic animals have fallen off trucks on their tortuous way to slaughterhouses; wild animals have lived for years in tiny cages or made to perform stupid tricks on some stage, or horribly abused in laboratories. Many come from situations where they were in the control of inept, or uncaring, people, to sanctuaries where there is specialized knowledge and adequate homes.

The common theme linking the incredibly diverse assortment of animal sanctuaries featured is that they provide, as well as is possible, what is needed by each species, or group of species. Here is a sanctuary for turtles and tortoises, another for lions, and another for parrots, and one for chimpanzees, and another for pigs and other livestock.

The line between sanctuary and rehabilitation center is a little blurred in places, although the latter, such as International Bird Rescue Research Center, tend to involve rescue, as well as rehabilitation, and Laidlaw tells me he is thinking of a book focused on wildlife rehab. I hope so, because the overall format works so well. It’s not merely an iteration of various sanctuaries, but also kid-friendly descriptions of what is involved in establishing and maintaining an effective sanctuary.

Some may be very small, back-yard operations, while others, like the wonderful Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), co-founded by the recently deceased and much beloved Pat Derby, are huge.
Often Laidlaw focuses on an individual animal, such as Maggie, the elephant who languished in an Alaskan zoo until, in 2008, she was sent to PAWS, where she has flourished, or an old friend of my own, Audrey, the turtle who stayed with me for several weeks after being rescued from a bucket where she had languished for 20 years on a diet of egg whites (see:>), now in a turtle haven, Lil Res Q, with proper food and proper diet and space to roam and do turtle things.

I don’t want to sound all preachy and sentimental, but to me this is the kind of book for which there is a pressing social need. Its greatest value, I think, is in introducing children to the concept of simple caring in the form of interspecific altruism, and to show them people whose humanity bursts through the species barrier to accommodate at least some of the innocent and voiceless victims we humans produce in such staggering numbers. For billions of thinking, feeling creatures, we are the villain. But within our midst there are heroes and good guys, and good deeds worth knowing about.

I warmly recommend “Saving Lives & Changing Hearts: Animal Sanctuaries and Rescue Centres.” (Here’s a link to buy the book in Canada and here's one for the United States.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Children & Nature - A Healthy Combination

Guest blogger N. Glen Perrett suggests getting kids out into nature as an alternative to looking at animals in captivity.

You don't need studies to realize that children aren't receiving the same amount of exercise or wilderness experiences that past generations have benefited from. However, studies do confirm this. A Statistics Canada (in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada) survey in 2007 found that in recent decades the health of Canadian children has deteriorated while childhood obesity has risen and physical fitness has declined.

When it comes to nature experiences, many children have replaced outdoor play and exercise with electronics including video games, social networking, and text messages to friends. This disconnect with nature and its consequences is addressed by Richard Louv in his books Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

There are many health benefits associated with nature that we know of - and surely many others that haven't been discovered yet. Studies indicate that nature can help those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Nature is also attributed to reducing stress and depression as well as improving our ability to concentrate to name only a few mental health benefits. Our family certainly experienced the benefits of regular nature excursions as we spent the last two years hiking wilderness areas for my book Hikes & Outings of South-Central Ontario. No matter what state of mind we were in when we arrived at the natural area we were about to explore-and we were often tired or stressed-we were in a wonderful frame of mind shortly after hitting the scenic trails or exploring a wetland.

Nature also has benefits for our physical health. Studies have shown that patients with a view of nature spend less time in the hospital compared to patients who didn't have a view of nature during their hospital stay. In their recently published book Your Brain on Nature (Wiley) Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND cited a study published in the journal Science. The study pertained to patients in a Pennsylvania hospital from 1972 to 1981 who had surgery to remove their gallbladder. One side of the hospital featured windows with a view of a small forest while the other looked at bricks. According to the authors, "...those who had an outdoor view to trees had significantly shorter hospital stays and fewer postsurgical complaints. They also used less-potent analgesic medications (aspirin instead of narcotics)."

Of course spending time in nature usually involves hiking and other forms of exercise which have many health benefits including preventing heart disease, lowering cholesterol levels, and controlling and preventing diabetes. The benefits of exercising, particularly exercising in nature, even has the medical community considering prescribing exercise as a way for their patients to get healthier. There is even a "Park Prescriptions" program in the United States where the National Park Service works with health care professionals. Working with the park to come up with appropriate activities and trails for the patient, health care providers write prescriptions for their patients to walk, bicycle, paddle, or do some other exercise. One of the places where these nature prescriptions occur is Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore which features 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline along with 15,000 acres of beach, woods, marshes, and prairies in Indiana.

With nature providing valuable environmental lessons and health benefits, school boards could incorporate more field trips to conservation areas and other wilderness spaces to ensure both their students' education and health mandates are attained. In fact I can see a time in the near future when parks, schools and health care providers work together to meet our children's health needs.

N. Glenn Perrett
Author Hikes & Outings of South-Central Ontario
Guest Blogger

This blog was originally published at:

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Challenges of Protecting Animals

During the past six months there’s been a great deal of media coverage about wild animal captivity issues in Ontario. Marineland in Niagara Falls, the Toronto Zoo elephants and Darwin the IKEA monkey have been three of the bigger stories, but a broad assortment of other captivity issues, both large and small, have also been featured in print, radio, television and internet media. There's also been a seemingly endless stream of other kinds of animal stories as well.

The extensive coverage of captivity issues has generated public profile and political interest both municipally and provincially. There are now more politicians than ever who take animal captivity issues (and other animal concerns) seriously or, who, at least, are not dismissive of them. It's a vastly different situation than it was 20 years ago.

That doesn’t mean things are fine today, because they’re not. We still have no comprehensive regulation of Ontario’s wildlife in captivity and our provincial animal protection legislation effectively excludes protection from most animals. However, if we’re smart, we have an opportunity to capitalize on what's happened so that we can move the animal protection agenda forward. But it won't be easy.

At the best of times, there are enormous challenges in making change happen, even when issues have a heightened profile, significant interest and momentum. There is always stiff competition for government attention from a broad spectrum of other issues. And there’s the inevitable, and often substantial, push-back from the individuals and businesses that exploit animals for personal amusement or profit.

One of the lesser known challenges is push-back from government bureaucrats themselves, some who fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. I’ve actually heard some bureaucrats say, “my job is to make sure nothing changes.” They employ all kinds of issue management strategies, the most common being to delay. An often used tactic is to initiate consultations so that issue discussions drag on for weeks, months or even years. By the time some consultations finish (and many don’t, they just fizzle out), the Ministers and other politicians that were in place when they started are long gone. Even the governing party may have changed. And the new regime may not be as committed as the previous one, so no action is forthcoming. It’s happened again and again and again.

Having said that, there are some amazingly proactive bureaucrats who really do want to move the animal protection agenda forward. And there’s also an ever increasing number of politicians at every level of government who want to do the same. To help them make change happen, we should understand the systems in which they work and the internal challenges they face.

Making change happen for animals is hard. It requires guts, brains, know how and organization. Eternal vigilance isn’t enough. We need to understand how the system works and do what we can to use it and to assist or complement those who are working in it. The first step to doing that is knowledge, so I’d like to recommend three excellent books that will help every Canadian animal protection activist become better at what they do.

The first is The Art of the Possible (a handbook for political activism) by Amanda Sussman. Every activist should read this book. It provides a good synopsis about how Canada’s federal government works, but much of the material also applies to other levels of government and to other jurisdictions.

The second book is Lesli Bisgould’s Animals and the Law. Her synopsis of Canadian laws affecting animals helps explain why things are the way they are and where they should go in the future. It should be on the bookshelf of every Canadian animal protection activist.

And last, but not least, is George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. If you’ve ever wondered why the other side is so successful at getting their message heard and why so many people seem to ignore the facts about issues, this book will help you understand why.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

All Trapped Whales Need A Miracle

It was disturbing to hear about the killer whale pod trapped in the Hudson Bay ice with little prospect for escape. Apparently, the frantic whales were taking turns surfacing at a small breathing hole. It was presumably their repeated surfacing that kept the hole open and free of ice preventing them from drowning.

Many people called for the Canadian government to send an icebreaker to create an ice free path that the whales could follow into open water. But there were no icebreakers anywhere in the area and it would have taken far too long for one to arrive. By the time an icebreaker could get there, the whales would be long dead.

Various other options were put forward, such as cutting a pathway of holes or even euthanizing the whales if there was no hope of escape and they were suffering.

A number of years ago, three gray whales were in much the same predicament. Trapped in the Arctic ice off the north shore of Alaska, the whale’s plight attracted global attention. Eventually, with the help of a Russian icebreaker, they were freed. The incident was the subject of a popular book and then a Hollywood movie called Big Miracle.

The latest news is there’s been a miracle in Hudson Bay. The ice has shifted and now it appears the killer whales are free. It was a close call and if things were even a little bit different those whales would probably be dead.

Just like the Alaskan grey whales, the plight of the latest trapped whales became international news. Word of the plight of the killer whales spread like wildfire, primarily due to the internet. It was great to see the level of concern expressed by people from all walks of life and all geographic regions of world. I have no doubt that if they understood what was happening, the whales would have been grateful.

It’s great that the killer whales are free. They can continue to enjoy their lives with their family, friends and acquaintances, traveling far distances and taking in everything the ocean has to offer. But that’s not the case for some whales.

Also in the news during past months has been the plight of whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario. While there is only one lone killer whale left at the facility, there are also several dolphins and approximately 40 belugas. Their lives bear no resemblance to the lives their wild counterparts live. They can do little of what they’ve evolved to do and are really like living museum pieces.

I encourage anyone who was concerned about the trapped wild killer whales to think about the plight of whales trapped in captivity. They deserve a miracle too.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.