Sunday, December 27, 2009

Zoos Must Review

Zoo industry must review operations, observers say after incidents

Although a recession and several controversial animal deaths this year weren’t enough to stop Canadians from visiting zoos in increasing numbers, some observers say the industry needs to learn how to stay relevant in a society growing more skeptical about keeping animals in captivity.

In the last 50 years, some zoos have attempted to shift away from menagerie-style venues where parents take their children to gawk at caged tigers and giraffes to almost museum-style exhibits that encourage animal lovers to learn and interact with different species.

Yet, some critics say the industry is not doing enough, is taking too long to implement change and putting animal welfare at risk.

Those concerns have been fuelled by a wave of incidents at zoos across Canada that have left animals dead or threatened. Most recently, the Calgary Zoo president announced an independent review of its animal operations following the suspension of an employee over the death of a female capybara, a species of giant rodent.

It was killed after getting caught in a hydraulic door.

Industry watchdog Zoocheck Canada said the attempts by traditional zoos to provide “window dressing” for the public visiting their facilities is a farce, and instead, officials should spend money on creating sanctuaries for their animals.

“Animal conservation breeding centres and retirement centres are different because they place the animals first, the staff second and the public last,” said Rob Laidlaw, the group’s executive director in Toronto.

“They make the biological and behavioural needs of the animals as a priority.”

The animals at facilities such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Haliburton Wolf Centre in northern Ontario are allowed to roam in large areas alone all day, live in real environments and are given the chance to do normal activities like roll in the grass and forage.

Some only allow visitors on certain days during specific hours to avoid placing undue stress on the animals. Other facilities only house animals that are indigenous to their climates.

“A lot of zoos are trying to do far too much. They have far too many animals. They make claims that these animals are well-treated but that’s just greenwashing,” said Laidlaw.

“In an ideal world, no animal would be held in captivity but that’s not going to happen. We need to move away from fancy exhibits and the public needs to change its mindset.”

Ian Duncan, who sits on the animal care committee at the Toronto Zoo, said for zoos to succeed, they need to specialize in specific species and forget the concept of having large collections of many animals.

“Gradually zoos have assumed more of an education role, a research role, a conservation role,” said Duncan, a retired animal behaviour professor at the University of Guelph. “All these things will increase in the future into a decision for zoos to only keep one or two animals.”

By not trying to cater to too many animals, zoos, such as one in Toledo, Ohio, have been able to recreate microenvironments for specific species, like toads only found in a two-hectare swath in Tanzania, he said.

Bill Peters of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums said there’s been a “real dramatic change” on the concept of what zoos are and their societal contributions.

Out of an estimated 300 zoos — including sanctuaries, wilderness parks and roadside petting attractions — across the country, only 26 have volunteered to be accredited by CAZA standards.

Peters said the lack of mandatory regulations surrounding the zoo industry is one of its downfalls.

Nevertheless, Canadians are still heading out to visit zoos.

“Most of our members reported increased visitorship in the last year even though there were economic constraints,” said Peters, who noted the concept of the traditional zoo will never die.

That’s because the public needs to maintain a real-life connection with wildlife, especially now in our increasingly


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