New Brunswick

Cherry Brook Zoo at risk of closing again after guinea pig 'rage killing' allegations

Saint John's Cherry Brook Zoo has been cleared of animal cruelty allegations involving the "rage killing" of guinea pigs, but the zoo has lost up to $200,000 in funding because of the controversy and is once again at risk of closing, says its executive director.

Zoo accreditation organization found no animal cruelty, but online comments have hurt bottom line

Saint John's Cherry Brook Zoo is struggling financially following months of complaints and protests stemming from allegations of animal cruelty. (CBC)

Saint John's Cherry Brook Zoo has been cleared of animal cruelty allegations involving the "rage killing" of guinea pigs, but the zoo has lost up to $200,000 in funding because of the controversy and is once again at risk of closing, says its executive director.

Martha McDevitt says between 40 and 70 per cent of the animals might have to be euthanized if the zoo shuts down because many of them are elderly and other facilities won't want them.

"We are in a very, very scary place," she said.

"One thing I can say about this city is people will step up, they're here to help, I've seen it time and time again. Here we are, we need help."

In January, the New Brunswick SPCA opened an investigation into a number of dead guinea pigs at the zoo. It recommended charges under the NBSPCA Act and the Criminal Code of Canada for "inhumane euthanasia causing unnecessary pain and suffering," according to a news release.

But in April, Crown prosecutors opted not to lay any charges.

Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) also investigated and concluded last month there was no evidence the method used was inhumane, according to a news release. In addition, investigators found no evidence to support the accusations regarding the "supposed motivation for the euthanasia and the reported method of euthanasia in social media."

"We understand the concern and the distress that the events have caused the Saint John community and the volunteers and staff at the zoo and hope that the review of both corroborated and uncorroborated evidence by experts in zoology and animal welfare can help put your minds and hearts at ease," CAZA said in the May 10 statement. 

"We have been exonerated and vindicated," but the impact has been "devastating," said McDevitt, talking publicly about the issue for the first time.

Martha McDevitt, Cherry Brook Zoo's executive director, says many of the animals are elderly, which she's proud of because they've lived a long life, but they're 'way past their life expectancy' so other facilities won't be interested in them if the zoo is forced to close. (CBC)

During the investigations, staff were advised to remain quiet so as not to interfere in the process, she said.

"It was incredibly hard," she said.

"These animals are like family, they're like our little babies."

It has been especially difficult for zookeeper Megan Gorey, who was accused of "rage killing" the guinea pigs and feeding them to the snakes. She said it's been "heartbreaking."

I had to move. I've been attacked in public. I have lived for the last about six months a very unsafe life on completely baseless allegations.- Megan Gorey, zookeeper

"The only true facts about the entire matter are that we do use guinea pigs for our feed program," which is governed by a strict set of rules, she said.

Gorey acknowledged "a joke" was made, but she said it wasn't as portrayed on social media and the "lies being spread."

"People who have really hard jobs — and I know most people wouldn't understand this situation — we make jokes at difficult times when we're uncomfortable with something that we have to do," she said. "I know paramedics face the same issue."

Gorey said she has managed to withstand the controversy because of the good reputation in the community but not without "great personal cost."

"I have had to completely change my life," she said. "I had to move. I've been attacked in public. I have lived for the last about six months a very unsafe life on completely baseless allegations."

Will keep fighting for the animals

Although some of the people on social media had good intentions, "they were misinformed" and have "caused quite a bit of damage" with their accusations, said McDevitt.

The zoo has lost some partnerships and fundraising. "They didn't want to jump on board with it while things were flying around on social media," she said.

Now the zoo is struggling to recoup "hundreds of thousands of dollars" lost due to the furor online.

"The stakes are very, very high right now," said McDevitt.

Both investigations by the SPCA and Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums found no mistreatment by staff at the Cherry Brook Zoo. Martha McDevitt is the executive director. Megan Gorey is a zookeeper there. 11:43

"But we're not ending the fight," she said. "The animals need us and we're going to be there every single day."

She's hoping the city and community will step up to help financially through sponsorships or fundraising.

Meanwhile, board members have been meeting with anyone who has lingering concerns to answer any questions.

McDevitt also invited citizens to go to the zoo to see the animals and meet the staff.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated the New Brunswick SPCA investigation found no animal cruelty. In fact, the investigation recommended NBSPCA Act and criminal charges against the zoo.
    Jun 03, 2019 5:16 PM AT

With files from Information Morning Saint John