Sunday, July 28, 2002

Open your eyes and see behind the scenes at the zoo. Here is a photo of Terry Chimpanzee, imprisoned at an unaccredited Las Vegas zoo in what looks like a 3rd-world jail cell. For an in-depth look, read "Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species," by Alan Green.

ZOOS' DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Nation & World 8/5/02
Cruel and usual
How some of America's best zoos get rid of their old, infirm, and unwanted animals
By Michael Satchell

New Braunfels, Texas–Deep amid the weeds and trash alongside Interstate 35, rusty cages and flimsy wire enclosures hold what's left of a former roadside zoo: six primates, three or four New Guinea singing dogs, a few exotic birds, and several African meerkats. The saddest residents are two rare white-handed gibbons, small apes listed as an endangered species. But the male-female pair is imperiled for another reason. They are the neglected castoffs from one of the nation's top wildlife institutions, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y.

The two gibbons were discovered by a reporter one recent broiling day in a filthy cage with no water and a few scraps of rotten fruit. Their plight points to a little-known practice by some of the nation's premier zoos: dumping surplus, old, or infirm animals into a vast, poorly regulated–and often highly profitable–network of substandard, "roadside" zoos and wildlife dealers who supply hunting ranches and the exotic-pet trade.

Though these small zoos, along with traveling circuses and other animal shows, are licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their inhabitants often exist in cramped compounds and tiny cages with poor protection from the elements, marginal food, and spotty veterinary care. They typically get little psychological enrichment beyond a tire swing, a plastic ball, and a few dead tree branches. Half crazy from boredom and lack of exercise, the highly social primates and cooped-up predators often mutilate themselves and spend hours pacing to and fro and biting the bars of their cages.

With summer in full swing and people staying closer to home, Americans are flocking to the nation's big zoos. There are 205 such facilities accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, and they attract some 135 million people a year–6 million more than attend major-league sporting events. Most of these zoos provide spacious natural habitats and expert care. But when animals begin to age and become less attractive, and curators have to make room for the spring crop of new babies, many big zoos give the old-timers the bum's rush. "Dumping animals," says Richard Farinato, head of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, "is the big, respectable zoos' dirty little secret."...

Slap on the wrist. Commercial animal exhibitors, dealers, breeders, and biomedical testing labs are governed by the 1966 Animal Welfare Act. The law sets minimal standards for food storage, housing, and veterinary care. It has no cruelty statute, has weak enforcement provisions, and provides for only token fines. On the critical issue of cage size, the law stipulates only that animals must have enough room to stand, turn around, and maintain a normal posture, making it perfectly legal to keep a chimp in a broom closet or a lion in a cage the size of a powder room. For years, leading animal welfare organizations have lobbied Congress for more humane standards and tougher enforcement. "There's no aggressive investigation and no consistent follow-up," complains Cindy Carroccio, director of the Austin Zoo, an accredited sanctuary that houses unwanted or confiscated exotics. "They're scared of litigation, they don't allow their inspectors to testify even in the worst cruelty cases, and they refuse to close the bad places down."

Often, it's not just a matter of will but of bodies. Last year, the USDA had fewer than 100 inspectors to keep tabs on about 9,000 licensed facilities from zoos to animal testing labs. In some years, the number of USDA inspectors has fallen as low as 64....

Evidently, higher-ups at the Agriculture Department see little problem with any of this. Chester Gipson, the USDA's deputy administrator of animal-care services, declined a request by U.S. News to discuss the inspections process. His predecessor, Ron DeHaven, blamed "radical animal-rights groups" for exaggerating concerns about inadequate or abusive care of exotic animals. "We have taken very stringent enforcement actions against roadside zoos, [but] we can't be at every facility every day," he says. "It was never the intent of Congress to establish conditions [for appropriate animal care]; and for me to comment on the law is inappropriate and counterproductive to the way our system works."

Auction block. The way the system works would make many of the moms and dads and their bright-eyed charges who so enjoy a trip to the local zoo blanch. In some cases, animals from big zoos pass through places like the Lolli Brothers exotic animal auction in Macon, Mo., reputedly the biggest of its kind in the United States. At the recent May sale, the action was fast and furious with a veritable Noah's ark collection–monkeys, zebras, camels, wildebeest, ostriches, kangaroos, Russian boars, giant tortoises, parrots, peacocks, even boa constrictors–hustled through the auction ring. A 12-year-old female chimp drew a bid of $10,500...

Roadside zoos often operate on thin profit margins. But some raise money–and gain the imprimatur of legitimacy–by declaring themselves "sanctuaries" or "preserves," obtaining 501c (3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service and soliciting public donations to "save an endangered species." The nation's 60 or more legitimate, accredited sanctuaries don't breed or sell animals, but these other so-called pseudosanctuaries allow their wildlife to mate and then sell the offspring or add to their collections–often exacerbating the substandard care....

There's no ready solution to the problems, but some zoo officials say that for starters, AZA-accredited zoos should take greater responsibility for assuring the lifelong welfare of their charges. "Any animal that devotes its life to being an ambassador for its own kind–even against its will–is owed a decent retirement," says Terry Maple, director of Zoo Atlanta and a former AZA president. "Zoo animals are held in trust to the service of humanity, and we shouldn't banish them to a terrible fate just because they have outlived their usefulness."