Toronto

Critics blame High Park Zoo as capybaras still missing

Counting a peacock last May and the two South American capybaras currently missing, the High Park Zoo has lost three animals in less than a year.

Zoo has lost 3 animals in less than a year

A capybara at the High Park Zoo in November. Two of the animals have been missing for a week in the park. (Carolyn Ryan/CBC)

Counting a peacock last May and the two South American capybaras currently missing, the High Park Zoo has lost three animals in less than a year.

That's not a good outcome for an institution whose main job is keeping animals captive. But losing animals from a zoo enclosure could also be a violation of Ontario's animal welfare laws, according to at least one animal welfare organization.

Critics charge that the High Park Zoo is not a place for animals like capybaras, and the loss of the pair proves it. But representatives from the zoo are confident the animals will be found and reject the idea the zoo should be shut down for losing animals.

Zoo competency in question

The escaped capybaras have attracted a huge amount of interest in the city, though not all of it is serious concern. Mayor John Tory has joked about the large rodents taking the TTC and he playfully assigned fellow councillors to look for them.

"They don't seem to take it too seriously," said Julie Woodyer, campaigns director at Zoocheck, an international animal protection charity.

She said councillors and the zoo have taken a playful attitude toward the story — even naming the missing animals Bonnie and Clyde after the famous fugitives — to distract Torontonians from the zoo's track record of lost animals.

"We know about the capybaras. How many animals may have escaped or been injured on site that none of us heard about?" asked Woodyer. In 2009, llamas, a yak and a wallaby all escaped from their enclosures in High Park, though apparently with help from humans, according to the zoo.

ZooCheck alleges that in losing the capybaras, the zoo has violated the section of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act about standards of care for captive wildlife. 

"What is the OSPCA going to do about this?" she asked, suggesting charges should be laid. "Technically, in the regulations under the OSPCA act, there's a section that says enclosures must be built so animals can't escape."

The High Park Zoo has outlived its usefulness, according to Woodyer. "High Park Zoo is old-fashioned and unequipped to deal with animals," she said.

Opened in 1893, the zoo was originally a space for deer. It now has around 45 animals, not counting the ones it is missing.

If anything, Woodyer would like to see the High Park Zoo become a refuge for rescued animals or farm animals, so that peacocks or capybaras are not in danger of running onto the major thoroughfares around High Park.

OSPCA involvement

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it has not stepped in on the capybara case — yet.

"This seems like a strange occurrence," said Maryanne Pryer, one of the OSPCA's zoo inspectors. "It's something that will have to be discussed with them."

Pryer said losing the animals could be a violation of the captive animal section of the provincial rules, but the zoo passed its previous enclosure inspections this year.

She said she had yet to speak to zoo staff about the escaped animals. The OSPCA said "an inquiry" would be made into how the animals got loose.

Capybaras currently in 'paradise'

Sarah Doucette, the city councillor for the area and a founding member of Friends of High Park Zoo, said she welcomes an investigation, because it will prove zoo staff are "very caring and very good at their jobs, and have animal welfare at the top of their minds."

She said there were extenuating circumstances involved in each escape. Years ago, animal liberation activists — "vandals," Doucette called them — were releasing bison and llamas.

Last summer, the peacock, Roncy, flew out of her enclosure, which Doucette called an "exception." The peacock was recaptured and now has a more secure home.

But Doucette does recognize the capybara escape was "a human error" — not by zoo staff, she said, but by an animal broker delivering the rodents to the zoo.

Because the animals were not technically in their enclosures but in transit between carriers and the enclosure, the OSPCA act was not violated, Doucette said.

Besides, Doucette said she's confident the capybaras will be returned to the High Park Zoo unharmed. 

"We have information to say they are alive and doing quite well," the councillor said. "High Park is a capybara paradise. They have everything they actually need right now, which is making it hard to catch them. We are confident given time we will catch them."

She said despite some joking in the public, the zoo takes the case of the missing animals "very, very seriously" and that this won't happen again.

She also notes that other captive animals in Canada have escaped, meaning the High Park Zoo is not an outlier.

"I did a Google [search] because I know other zoos and parks have lost animals.  In fact, I was surprised how many there were," she said. "Animals do get out for whatever reason."

Parkdale—High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo said there is "no systemic problem" with zoo staff or the enclosures. In fact, she said, she wants to make the High Park Zoo "an exemplary enclosure for animals."

DiNovo said she is working on legislation that would better govern roadside zoos and animal attractions. 

About the Author

Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea? joshua.errett@cbc.ca

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