Ontario zookeeper under investigation for allegedly whipping Siberian tiger

The owner of the zoo where the tiger in the film Life of Pi was trained is being investigated after video surfaced of him swearing at and appearing to whip a Siberian tiger at Ontario's Bowmanville Zoo during a training session.

WARNING: Video contains graphic imagery

'A tiger will not lay on the ground and allow itself to be struck as this videotape suggests,' Michael Hackenberger said in his response to allegations of animal abuse by PETA. (PETA/YouTube)

The owner of the zoo where the tiger in the film Life of Pi was trained is being investigated after video surfaced of him swearing at and allegedly whipping a Siberian tiger at Ontario's Bowmanville Zoo during a training session.

The U.S.-based animal rights group PETA has asked the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to investigate Michael Hackenberger after a volunteer at the zoo recorded footage that it says constitutes animal abuse.

A three-minute long video posted by PETA on its website and a shorter version posted on YouTube on Dec. 22 consists of several segments edited together. In it, Hackenberger is seen in a performance ring swearing at and appearing to whip the tiger named Uno when it does not comply with the commands of a trainer who he identifies as Madison. PETA alleges he whipped the tiger 19 times.

PETA: Bowmanville zoo owner shown allegedly whipping tiger

"I like hitting him in the face," Hackenberger says at one point in the video — a comment he says is misrepresented by PETA.

In a response video posted online, Hackenberger acknowledged that the footage of him lashing the animal appears incriminating but disputes PETA's conclusions.

He said he whipped the tiger only twice and that the subsequent lashes were to the ground – not the tiger's body.

"A tiger will not lay on the ground and allow itself to be struck as this videotape suggests," he said in his response. "They'll turn around, they'll try to kill you."

The number of times that the animal was whipped is irrelevant, said PETA's deputy director of captive animal law enforcement, Brittany Peet.

"There is never any excuse for hitting an animal once or 19 times. It's cruelty and that's why PETA is calling on the OSPCA to bring both federal and provincial cruelty-to-animal charges to Michael Hackenberger," she told CBC News in an interview.

But Hackenberger said the clips don't tell the whole story, adding that volunteer recorded 90 minutes of footage and selectively spliced together only three minutes in which he was disciplining the tiger.

Michael Hackenberger responds to allegations by PETA

"I challenge PETA to release the other footage that they didn't put up," Hackenberger said.

PETA has now given the entire video over to the OSPCA, which confirms it is investigating the allegations. While the OSPCA does not have the power to shut down the zoo, it can remove Uno if it determines that the tiger is at risk of immediate harm.

Peet said the behaviour depicted in the video isn't the first instance of alleged animal abuse by Hackenberger. The Bowmanville zoo-owner attracted widespread attention in August for swearing at a baboon during a live television appearance.

"Training wild animals to perform silly tricks for human amusement has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with lining the pockets of cruel opportunists," Peet said.

"It's not about the entertainment value," Hackenberger said. "By bringing these animals out we're able to expand their minds, we're able to expand their environments. And that ultimately is the most important thing we can do for animals in a captive environment."

Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, which standardizes professional conduct in the industry, says it has seen the edited video and brought the issue to its ethics committee for investigation. It has the power to revoke the Bowmanville Zoo's accreditation which could mean it could lose its relationships with other member zoos. 

"The issues raised by the video are serious and require a thorough and fair review," CAZA said.

An animal cruelty charge can take up to six months to be laid.

No one from the Bowmanville Zoo was available to speak with CBC News and it is closed for much of the winter. Its website is advertising 30-minute "tiger cub encounters" on weekends until the end of December.


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