Bowmanville Zoo to close after 'damage is done' by abuse allegations

The Bowmanville Zoo has announced it will cease operations after the 2016 season due to "catastrophically" reduced attendance, and zoo officials are blaming bad publicity for the looming closure.

PETA released video in 2015 appearing to show tiger whipped by zoo's owner

Jonas the Bengal tiger is an example of the animals kept at the Bowmanville Zoo. The zoo says it is hopeful it can find a new home for all of its animals. (Bowmanville Zoo/The Canadian Press)

The Bowmanville Zoo has announced it will cease operations after the 2016 season due to "catastrophically" reduced attendance, and zoo officials are blaming bad publicity for the looming closure.

A spokesman for the zoo said there simply isn't enough money to run the facility located 76 kilometres east of Toronto.

The zoo has been in hot water in recent months after video footage was released in December 2015 by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that appeared to show the owner of the zoo, Michael Hackenberger, whipping a tiger.

Animal cruelty charges were laid Hackenberger. He has denied the allegations and is expected to fight the charges.

"The untrue allegations made by PETA in regards to a tiger incident have created a climate in which the zoo can no longer operate," a zoo spokesman said Thursday

"People are staying away because they believe PETA's allegations. The fact is, PETA only released a short piece of a long video and then misrepresented what transpired — even in that short part.

"What they said is not true, but it doesn't matter — the damage is done."

PETA slams owner

A PETA spokeswoman issued a statement in response to the news, referring to the zoo as an "animal prison."

"Bowmanville Zoo owner Michael Hackenberger was caught on camera mercilessly whipping a tiger and boasting about the pleasure that he derives from intimidating and dominating animals," Moira Colley said Thursday via email.

"The man's a bully, he's facing prosecution from the Crown for cruelty, and some condos will go nicely in Bowmanville."

Hackenberger was featured in a video posted by the zoo in response to the abuse allegations. The owner has disputed PETA's claims and said some of the lashes struck the ground, not the tiger.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began investigating the matter last December. In April, they revealed charges were laid against Hackenberger. 

"Animal cruelty is a serious offence," Jennifer Bluhm, a senior inspector with the OSPCA, said in April. "Our investigative unit has spent significant time reviewing the facility and interviewing all involved."

The private zoo has been around since 1919 and is home to more than 300 animals. It is known for providing many of the animals used in show business, who will have to be relocated once the zoo is closed.

The zoo said it is hopeful it can place all of the animals elsewhere, but expects the process to take up to a year.

Dozens of employees are expected to lose their jobs in the shutdown. 

With files from The Canadian Press