Is there a place for zoos in our mod­ern-day so­ci­ety?

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS - BY RON COR­BETT

The ac­tivists in­sist that keep­ing an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity should be banned; the own­ers in­sist they have the wel­fare of the an­i­mals top of mind.

RON COR­BETT talks to peo­ple on both sides of the zoo de­bate

They gather out on County Road 19, mostly on week­ends in the sum­mer. Kerri Bay­ford, co-owner of Pa­panack Zoo, seems al­most to be look­ing for them, these un­wanted vis­i­tors, on this grey spring day. But it is far too early. The zoo doesn’t open un­til May.

“An­i­mal rights ac­tivists like to come in the sum­mer,” she tells me. “I think that’s why I like spring and fall so much.”

“There’s one nice thing about bad weather,” she says, gaz­ing out on the two-lane road that runs in front of the zoo. “You usu­ally don’t get a lot of an­i­mal rights ac­tivists com­ing out to see you.”

Bay­ford is tak­ing me on a tour of the zoo, lo­cated about 45 min­utes east of Ot­tawa, which she pur­chased in 2014. In ad­di­tion to lions, Arc­tic wolves, lemurs, and a python, we see work crews fever­ishly con­struct­ing pens for the three Ko­diak bears — Ur­sula, Betty, and Whop­per — that will spend their first sum­mer at Pa­panack this year.

“They’re go­ing to be part of our new bear safety pro­gram,” says Bay­ford. “I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing them. I’ve never ac­tu­ally seen a Ko­diak.”

As we move on, she starts to list some of the changes they have planned for the up­com­ing sea­son. There will be more ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram­ming, like the new bear safety pre­sen­ta­tions. Ca­bela’s, a hunt­ing and camp­ing store, is pro­vid­ing tents, which will sim­u­late a camp­ground ex­pe­ri­ence for vis­i­tors learn­ing how to stay safe while en­joy­ing the great out­doors.

As usual, there will be sum­mer camps for school­child­ren, group book­ings, se­nior sa­faris. There will be pro­mo­tions and con­tests. For about what it costs to go to a movie, vis­i­tors can meet all man­ner of na­tive and ex­otic an­i­mals — the web­site shows ze­bras, tigers, al­li­ga­tors, pri­mates, and por­cu­pines, among oth­ers. For most zoos in North Amer­ica — par­tic­u­larly small re­gional zoos like Pa­panack — an­i­mal rights ac­tivists have be­come the ele­phant in the room.

The pun should be for­given be­cause it is rather apt. It was, af­ter all, the de­ci­sion by the Detroit Zoo in 2005 to re­lo­cate its ele­phants, Winky and Wanda, to a na­ture sanc­tu­ary — say­ing it had come to the con­clu­sion that zoos were un­healthy places for ele­phants — that ramped up ef­forts by an­i­mal rights ac­tivists and started a wave of protests in front of zoos and cir­cuses in North Amer­ica.

The Pa­panack Zoo be­gan as a pri­vate bird and

ex­otic cat col­lec­tion be­fore open­ing to the pub­lic in 1994. It has never owned an ele­phant, and for nearly 20 years, there was never so much as a whis­per of con­tro­versy about the zoo.

In­deed, it was a re­gional suc­cess story. Ru­mour has it that the year Pa­panack opened, an an­i­ma­tion crew came from Mon­treal to sketch one of its lions; those sketches be­came Simba, of Lion King fame. In 1998, four white lion cubs were born at the zoo, and this also be­came an in­ter­na­tional news story (there were only 29 white lions in the world at the time).

They were heady days for the small zoo. But then, in 2012, an Asian wa­ter buf­falo named Wil­bur died. An em­ployee posted pho­tos of the dead an­i­mal — ly­ing un­der a pile of snow, seem­ingly for­got­ten — to his Face­book page. A group of an­i­mal rights ac­tivists showed up the next week­end.

Pa­panack made the news again in 2016, when a white lion named Zeus es­caped from its pen and had to be shot dead by one of the own­ers right out­side the gates of the zoo. This hap­pened eight months af­ter Ce­cil the Lion was killed in Zim­babwe by a recre­ational big-game hunter (and or­tho­don­tist) from Min­nesota.

An­i­mal rights ac­tivists have been com­ing to Wen­dover fairly reg­u­larly ever since. Michele Thorn is a mem­ber of the An­i­mal De­fence League of Ot­tawa and one of the or­ga­niz­ers of the Pa­panack protests. A so­cial worker by day, she has been a veg­e­tar­ian for about 15 years and is an ac­tive mem­ber of Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals (PETA). Thorn spends most of her spare time or­ga­niz­ing an­i­mal rights protests.

“My first [protest] was at a KFC in Toronto, and I was hooked,” she re­mem­bers. “Protests are a great way of get­ting your mes­sage out and con­nect­ing with peo­ple who are just as pas­sion­ate about an­i­mal rights as you are.”

A few years later, Thorn started tak­ing the lead in protests against the Shrine Cir­cus, which at the time had a full range of an­i­mal acts. It wasn’t long be­fore she was plan­ning life around the Shrine sched­ule, trav­el­ling across On­tario to picket in front of the big top.

All that travel and hard work seem to have paid off. Thorn says that while she was hand­ing out pam­phlets, cir­cus-go­ers con­ceded that they un­der­stood the ar­gu­ments against per­form­ing an­i­mals and would re­con­sider fu­ture vis­its.

“There is not a sin­gle Shrine Cir­cus booked any­where in On­tario this sum­mer,” Thorn says with pride. “We have been work­ing so hard at get­ting rid of the cir­cuses, and it looks like we’ve done it.”

So what does a pas­sion­ate, com­mit­ted an­i­mal rights ac­tivist do now that she has run the cir­cus out of town?

“Zoos like Pa­panack are an ob­vi­ous next tar­get for us,” she says. “They are so wrong, and I think more and more peo­ple are re­al­iz­ing this.” Bay­ford doesn’t re­al­ize this. “I think zoos are mag­i­cal places,” she says. “Most peo­ple will only see a lion in a zoo. Only see a tiger in a zoo. And that usu­ally hap­pens when we are chil­dren. For me, for a lot of peo­ple, zoos are a re­ally good child­hood mem­ory.”

To ac­tivists, she says, “Peo­ple have to come, to see for them­selves, and then make a de­ci­sion.” Bay­ford says the pro­test­ers, who take pho­tos from the road, aren’t putting forth an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of what the an­i­mal en­clo­sures are like. “If

you’re go­ing to come and take a pic­ture, take the whole pic­ture.”

There are an es­ti­mated 60 zoos in On­tario, rang­ing in size from re­gional zoos such as Pa­panack to large in­sti­tu­tions like the Toronto Zoo, which has sub­stan­tial gov­ern­ment back­ing and fi­nan­cial re­sources. The num­ber 60 is an ap­prox­i­ma­tion be­cause there is no such thing in On­tario as a zoo li­cence. That doesn’t mean zoos are un­reg­u­lated; they must still con­form to the laws and reg­u­la­tions of nu­mer­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries. In On­tario, many reg­u­la­tions fall un­der the So­ci­ety for the Preven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals Act, which out­lines stan­dards of care for cap­tive wildlife and marine mam­mals. But Rob Laid­law of Zoo Check Canada points out that the act mostly deals with in­di­vid­ual in­stances of ne­glect and abuse af­ter they have oc­curred, and it’s not set up to reg­u­late or li­cense zoos.

And what ex­actly is a zoo, any­way? Is it a pet­ting farm that charges ad­mis­sion? What about the rep­tile house in Ni­a­gara Falls? How about the fel­low with the snakes and spi­ders who shows up at your kid’s birth­day party?

“It’s hard to de­fine what is and isn’t a zoo,” says David Fraser of the An­i­mal Wel­fare Pro­gram at the Univer­sity of British Columbia. “It’s part of the rea­son they have be­come con­tro­ver­sial. There are some bad op­er­a­tions out there, mas­querad­ing as zoos.”

De­spite these prob­lems, Fraser does not be­lieve zoos are in­her­ently bad. He says there is a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween zoos and cir­cuses. In a cir­cus, “the an­i­mals are al­ways there for our en­ter­tain­ment. They must per­form for us in some sort of way. That’s not the case in zoos.”

Fraser says zoos need to be con­sid­ered on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis to de­ter­mine whether they are good or bad, if they merit an an­i­mal rights protest. He points to CAZA (Canada’s Ac­cred­ited Zoos and Aquar­i­ums) as an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps to nav­i­gate among the sa­faris, wildlife parks, and zoos that are out there.

“If you are a zoo op­er­a­tor that is in it for the right rea­sons, if you have the wel­fare of the an­i­mals as your pri­mary con­cern, you are prob­a­bly run­ning a good zoo, and I have no prob­lem with that,” says Fraser.

Bay­ford be­lieves she is in it for the right rea­sons. She vol­un­teered with sev­eral an­i­mal res­cue groups be­fore buy­ing Pa­panack. She says the wel­fare of the an­i­mals was the main rea­son she bought the

zoo, which she ad­mits had fallen on tough times by then.

“That’s what both­ers me most about these an­i­mal rights ac­tivists,” she says. “Ev­ery­one work­ing here is com­mit­ted to the wel­fare of these an­i­mals. It is why most of the em­ploy­ees are here. It’s why I’m here. I’m here to make the zoo bet­ter — I’m here ev­ery day. But these ac­tivists think they’re the only ones that care about an­i­mals. That’s such BS. They just don’t like zoos. That’s all it is.” Thorn makes no apolo­gies for her protest work.

“The Pa­panack Zoo is ex­hibit­ing cap­tured an­i­mals for money,” she says. “That’s the busi­ness model for a road­side zoo. And if you’re do­ing that, you don’t care about an­i­mals. How could you?”

As Thorn is asked to re­spond to some of the ar­gu­ments of­ten used in de­fence of zoos, it be­comes ob­vi­ous why there will never be a rap­proche­ment be­tween the two sides of the zoo de­bate. It is not that zoo own­ers and an­i­mal rights ac­tivists are op­posed to each other. It’s more as if they are star­ing at each other in dis­be­lief from dif­fer­ent plan­ets.

Are zoos not good ways to ed­u­cate chil­dren about an­i­mals?

“Zoos are not about ed­u­ca­tion,” says Thorn. “They are for-profit busi­nesses, us­ing an­i­mals to make money. An­i­mals should be free.”

Many zoos are in­volved in con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, try­ing to pro­tect or re­pop­u­late en­dan­gered species. Is this not good work?

“Most zoo con­ser­va­tion projects are PR stunts,” Thorn says. “Very lit­tle good has come from any of them.”

Many zoos have an­i­mals that can be found only in cap­tiv­ity. Is it not bet­ter to have an an­i­mal alive in a zoo than ex­tinct in the wilder­ness?

“No,” says Thorn. “I would rather be dead than be held cap­tive. I’m sure an­i­mals feel the same way.”

In re­sponse, Bay­ford says if an­i­mals were born in cap­tiv­ity, there’s noth­ing wrong with them liv­ing in cap­tiv­ity.

It seems the peo­ple who love zoos and the peo­ple who want to shut them down will never find com­mon ground. Even a friendly visit seems un­likely, as one last ques­tion to Thorn would seem to in­di­cate.

“Have I ever been in­side the Pa­panack Zoo?” she asks. “No, I never have. Why would I?”

Two views This photo, supplied by Michele Thorn of the An­i­mal De­fence League of Ot­tawa, shows a bear en­clo­sure at Pa­panack. The co-owner of the zoo says these pho­tos, taken from the high­way, do not ac­cu­rately show the liv­ing con­di­tions

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