Stingray touch tanks a bad idea

By John Youngman and Rob Laidlaw

With the near demise of circuses using wild animals, many people thought the days of traveling animal shows and exhibits was over in Canada. They’re not. In fact, a large number of mobile zoos and animal displays continue to ply their trade across the country, shunting a diverse range of wildlife species from one location to another.

The marketing hook that these mobile zoos and animal displays use is the opportunity for customers, especially kids, to get close to, or even touch, wild animals – a practice that often isn’t good for the animals. Some of Canada’s higher profile zoos have tried to do the same by renting temporary exhibits that offer those kinds of encounters to their own customers. Some of them involve stingrays.

In Winnipeg, on June 26, the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Stingray Beach exhibit was temporarily closed after three Cownose rays died – 10% of the animals in the display – and three more were injured. That incident prompted The Winnipeg Humane Society and concerned citizens to call for the closure of the exhibit. The zoo chose to re-open it instead.

Stingray Beach is the marine equivalent of a petting zoo – except the animals are wild. The rays are kept in shallow pools so visitors can touch and, for an additional fee, feed them. The pointy barbs – a natural defensive mechanism of rays – are removed to render the animals harmless to humans. These kinds of “stingray touch tanks” are rarely permanent zoo exhibits but are “rented” by zoos for a period of time as a temporary attraction to generate extra revenue.

Winnipeg’s zoo shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened because ray deaths in touch tanks are nothing new.

In 2015, the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago closed their likewise-named “Stingray Beach” touch tank when all 54 of the stingrays in their care died due to low oxygen levels in the water. In 2008, 19 stingrays at that zoo died when the water temperature spiked.

In 2008, 41 of 43 Cownose rays died in a touch tank at Calgary Zoo. The cause of death was attributed to low oxygen levels in the tank. The zoo reopened the ray exhibit seven months later, but abandoned the hands-on component. One of the ten rays delivered for the new display died too.

These examples show just how ill-suited rays are to touch tanks. How many more animals have to die before zoos reject them?

Winnipeg’s zoo passed off the ray deaths as due to “aggressive mating.” But rays don’t kill each other when they mate in the wild. Another explanation might be the unnatural environment the rays are forced to endure, wholly unsuitable to wide-ranging ocean animals. When male rays interested in mating aggressively pursue females, the small tanks offer only minimal opportunity for the females to move away or escape.

In the open ocean, Cownose rays (the commonest in touch tanks) may congregate in the thousands, swim down to depths of 40 meters and migrate up to 1,000 kilometers seasonally. Other kinds of rays may be wide-ranging, nocturnal predators that spend a great deal of their time foraging over the ocean floor.

To confine a species of wild animal that evolved to exist in that kind of environment to a shallow pool for nothing more than visitor amusement or commercial enterprise is exactly the opposite of what zoos say they stand for.

The recently passed Bill S-203 (Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act) bans the captivity of dolphins and whales in Canada, stops their use in entertainment shows and recognizes the inherent cruelty of keeping those wide-ranging marine animals in captivity. But being fish, rays don’t qualify for protection under the new Act, even though they may share many of the same ill effects of captivity.

There are so many reasons touch tanks are horrible places for rays: the unnatural confinement of the animals in excessively shallow, spatially restricted pools; their susceptibility to even the smallest fluctuations in water temperature or oxygen levels; their inability to engage in most natural movements or behaviours, or to mitigate aggressive behaviours among themselves; and the action of removing their barbs, an alteration that is medically unnecessary and performed only to facilitate unnatural human interaction.

Add to this the counterproductive educational message touch tanks send to zoo visitors – that it’s okay to ruin an animal’s life for our entertainment – and you have the kind of exhibit zoos should be running away from, not embracing.
Stingray touch tanks are a throwback to a time when zoos viewed the lives of individual animals as counting for very little, and they have no place in progressive, compassionate or animal-friendly communities.