Another zoo bites the dust

by Barry Kent MacKay

Earworm: noun: a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind.

That’s how Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it, and it fits the experience I had when I heard the news that the Bowmanville Zoo was permanently shutting down at the end of this season. And, the lyrics that sprung to my mind and won’t go away, especially as I contemplate a final end to this large private zoo east of Toronto, were “Ding-dong, the witch is dead. Which old witch? The wicked witch,” sung with infectiously high-pitched enthusiasm by the “munchkins” in the 1939 fantasy movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Bowmanville Zoo has, like the wicked witch of Oz, long been a negative presence to people who care about animal welfare. As I’ve written about before, its present (and, it appears, its final) owner, Michael Hackenberger, has been charged with animal abuse after being videotaped bringing a whip down on, or near (as he claims), a cowering tiger. The tape, by an undercover agent for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), includes Hackenberger boasting that the whip allows him to dominate animals.

Last month, Hackenberger announced that the zoo would close after 97 years in existence. However, some local residents are fighting to keep it open as about the town’s only tourist attraction, and a source of entry-level seasonal employment for local youths. Hackenberger claims that the loss of revenue was due to a “catastrophic” decline in zoo visitors since video of him, his whip, and the frightened tiger went viral online, and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) laid charges.

I suspect that Hackenberger will re-emerge with animals soon enough (the rumor mill churns), whatever the outcome of the trial. I have no great expectation, given that Canada’s animal cruelty laws are very weak. But, there is a larger context that relates to the bigger issue of the viability of zoos in modern society.

And, at the same time Hackenberger made his announcement, the huge Toronto Zoo, in partnership with Parks Canada and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, announced placing 36 Blanding’s turtles into a local wetland slated to become a national park. They released 10 in 2014 and 21 last year. Good! The species is endangered, and this might help restore numbers in that wetland. But, of course, you don’t need a whole zoo to do that—and the project uses a fraction of one percent of the zoo’s resources and expenditures.

That said, Toronto Zoo is pulling out all the stops to attract visitors, including heavy promotion of the baby giant pandas on display. Yet, this zoo is also losing money to declining attendance, spending millions to attract visitors in spite of growing need for millions to be spent on infrastructure.

In short, even without videos of tigers and whips, people are awakening to the fact that many rationales made by zoos for imprisoning animals are overstated or specious… while zoos, themselves, are slowly awakening to the need to reinvent themselves.

It’s about time!

Originally published 07/11/16 by Born Free USA