Charity urges tourists to stay away from Ontario's roadside zoos this summer
As Ontario's tourist season enters its peak, some question the morality and value of zoos
A Toronto-based charity devoted to protecting exotic animals is calling the province's roadside zoos under-regulated and dangerous, urging tourists to make more ethical choices this summer.
Toronto-based World Animal Protection called Ontario's roadside zoos "dangerous," saying the province has few regulations of its own, opting instead to leave the managing and enforcement of exotic animal ownership to its 444 municipalities, resulting in a patchwork of rules that vary from community to community.
Michèle Hamers, the wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection, said it means anyone can run a zoo, regardless of their level of experience or knowledge of potentially dangerous exotic animals, such as lions and tigers.
"Ontario does not have any regulations," she said. "Pretty much anybody who has exotic animals can technically run a zoo no matter their qualifications, expertise or their financial means."
Private zoos face little scrutiny, oversight
As a result, private zoos trade hands without much government oversight. The most recent example is Greenview Aviaries, a roadside zoo located in Morpeth, Ont., in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. The facility, along with its 450 animals, went up for sale earlier this year for $4.5 million.
According to media reports, the facility was purchased this spring by Rob and Alicia Patten. CBC News made attempts to contact the new owners through the zoo itself, but did not receive a response by publication time.
The private zoo is one of three in southwestern Ontario that house lions and tigers, all within an hour of London. The other are the Killman Zoo in Caledonia, Ont., and Twin Valley Nature Park in Brantford, Ont.
Hamers said, because Ontario has few standards when it comes to the keeping of exotic wildlife, it is important for families looking to show their children these animals up close to choose facilities that are accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).
"Usually CAZA-accredited facilities will have some mention of it on their website. So that's the easiest way to know whether it's accredited," she said.
Hamers said one of the best ways to tell if a roadside zoo is treating its animals properly is how much attention the facility pays to designing an enclosure that focuses on the animal's needs, including space to roam.
"Most of them hold animals in small cages, poor conditions and little thought about the animal being kept in captivity. Everything is organized and created for people to view the animals."
Shifting public attitudes to animals on display
Visiting such private zoos, especially those that allow patrons to interact and touch the animals, raises a number of ethical questions about the treatment of their menageries, said Kendra Coulter, the chancellor's chair for research excellence at Brock University and a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
Coulter points to the case of Marineland, a private zoo in Niagara Falls, Ont., which is currently facing charges of using captive dolphins and whales for entertainment without a provincial license and has recently banned a number of people from its property, including a lawyer filmmaker and scientist.
She said the fact the park is facing an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny illustrates how attitudes are changing when it comes to the idea of zoos and captive animals on display and whether it's morally right.
"There was a time when these things were unquestioned," she said.
New scientific knowledge about animal behaviour, including new understanding of animals' mental and intellectual abilities and social needs and desires is changing the way we see animals in captivity, she said.
"I think people are increasing asking that core question, even if there is an accreditation standard: 'Is it ethical for us to be keeping wild animals in small numbers in very small territories and terrains for our own entertainment?'"
As an alternative, families can choose to visit sanctuaries for domesticated animals, such as the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada in Puslinch, Ont., where the animals are already used to interacting with people, allowing visitors to meet their needs to see animals up close in a more ethical way, Coulter said.
"It's not about display, it's about the sanctuary ethic and model, it's about the animals first."