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 The facility is out of date, inadequate and does not provide many of the animals with an acceptable level of welfare.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