gibbons were discovered by a reporter one recent broiling
day in a filthy cage with no water and a few scraps of rotten
fruit. Their plight points to a little-known practice by some
of the nation's premier zoos: dumping surplus, old, or infirm
animals into a vast, poorly regulated-and often highly profitable-network
of substandard, "roadside" zoos and wildlife dealers
who supply hunting ranches and the exotic-pet trade.
these small zoos, along with traveling circuses and other
animal shows, are licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, their inhabitants often exist in cramped compounds
and tiny cages with poor protection from the elements, marginal
food, and spotty veterinary care. They typically get little
psychological enrichment beyond a tire swing, a plastic ball,
and a few dead tree branches. Half crazy from boredom and
lack of exercise, the highly social primates and cooped-up
predators often mutilate themselves and spend hours pacing
to and fro and biting the bars of their cages. With summer
in full swing and people staying closer to home, Americans
are flocking to the nation's big zoos. There are 205 such
facilities accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association,
and they attract some 135 million people a year - 6 million
more than attend major-league sporting events. Most of these
zoos provide spacious natural habitats and expert care. But
when animals begin to age and become less attractive, and
curators have to make room for the spring crop of new babies,
many big zoos give the old-timers the bum's rush. "Dumping
animals," says Richard Farinato, head of captive wildlife
protection for the Humane Society of the United States, "is
the big, respectable zoos' dirty little secret."
by the AZA must abide by a code of ethics restricting animal
transfers to other AZA members or to unaccredited zoos with
the "expertise, records management capabilities, financial
stability, and facilities required to properly care"
for the animals. But a U.S. News investigation found that
even some of the nation's most highly regarded zoos violate
those mandates through transfers, sales, and loans of exotic
animals to substandard zoos and to private animal breeders
inquiry is based on an examination of the tightly restricted,
interzoo International Species Information System database,
which tracks transfers of 129 species of mammals, as well
as interviews with dozens of state and federal regulators,
zoo employees, and animal welfare activists. Records show
that some leading AZA members-including zoos in Washington,
D.C.; the Bronx; San Diego; Honolulu; Memphis; Atlanta; Denver;
Santa Barbara, Calif.; Buffalo; Phoenix; Montgomery, Ala.;
and Kansas City, Mo.-have shipped mammals and exotic birds
to roadside zoos that were below AZA standards. Some have
also provided animals to dealers who reportedly sell to private
hunting ranches, animal auctions, and exotic-pet owners.
the AZA rules, a 1966 law passed by Congress specifies care,
feeding, and other requirements for the treatment of exotic
animals and mandates that the Department of Agriculture enforce
the statute. But a reporter and photographer who visited more
than two dozen small zoos around the nation found a pattern
of callous treatment and government neglect. Some examples:
Four big cats died after the USDA recommended their owner
place his two cougars, four tigers, two adult lions, and a
young lion in Don and Dee's Exotic Zoo, a roadside facility
in Manson, Iowa. The cougars died, apparently from malnutrition,
and Steven Bellin, a USDA veterinarian, then inspected the
zoo in November 2000. U.S. News obtained copies of Bellin's
inspection reports and correspondence. "All but the young
lion are on concrete flooring without bedding materials of
any sort," Bellin wrote. "Ambient temperature was
approximately 35 degrees. . . . There was no food on the premises
for the large cats. . . . [Water bowls] were filled with either
frozen or brackish water, carcass materials, and/or debris.
Housing arrangements, lighting, and sanitation fail to meet
the minimal federal standards. All seven of the large cats
. . . appear thin/gaunt and somewhat emaciated. The female
African lion recently failed to eat for three days. This animal
might die if not treated."
gave the zoo owners six weeks to improve conditions. He apparently
did not seek emergency removal of the animals or try to have
the zoo closed down. A few days after his inspection, the
female lion killed and ate the male. A male Bengal tiger also
died after splintered turkey bones punctured its intestinal
tract because it had no drinking water to flush them through
its system. Before it expired, the tiger chewed its metal
water bowl to pieces. "I believe [the bowl] that was
torn apart . . . was a response by the animal to the deep,
agonal pain [caused] by the tissue-penetrating bones,"
Bellin wrote. "I believe that the tiger was starving
. . . and died in severe pain in the cold without a shelter
or bedding." The USDA fined Don and Dee's $500 and revoked
its license. The local county attorney, Ann Beneke, sought
to prosecute the owners on cruelty charges but was forced
to drop the case when the USDA refused to allow Bellin to
testify. He failed to respond to a U.S. News interview request.
it failed financially, the New Braunfels Zoo obtained exotic
mammals and birds from several AZA zoos, including the Bronx,
Washington National, San Diego, Honolulu, Buffalo, and Santa
Barbara. In November 2000, eight months after one of the zoo's
two owners says he quit in disgust at the animal neglect and
other deteriorating conditions, it received the two white-handed
gibbons from Syracuse's Rosamond Gifford Zoo. "They would
have a good home and be well taken care of in a warmer climate,"
Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director, said in explaining
the transfer. "We got two AZA references, and New Braunfels
described their animal collection, their staff, and veterinary
resources. We would assume there is a level of honesty."
wasn't. And Baker could have easily discovered the fact. A
local U.S. Agriculture Department inspector, Elizabeth Pannill,
had begun documenting many of the problems at New Braunfels
and eventually filed seven detailed inspection reports. When
a reporter told Baker about the declining conditions at the
zoo, including the principal owner's selling loaned birds
and mammals without permission, Baker replied that she had
checked with Pannill and was assured that the gibbons were
in good condition.
told Baker he would visit the long-closed zoo and report back
to her. "I'll be anxious to hear what you find,"
she said. "I'm concerned." After finding the gibbons
in their filthy cage, the reporter left two telephone messages
for Baker. She failed to return the calls. Pannill, the USDA
inspector, was forbidden by superiors to discuss the matter,
but U.S. News obtained copies of several of her E-mails. "The
curator [Baker] that sent the gibbons to NBZ knows the situation
out there," Pannill wrote. ". . . I have even suggested
she might want to relocate them . . . [and] also told the
curator of my concerns and problems. She told me they had
been given to NBZ . . . so they would NOT take back. I really
wonder why zoos don't ask for a copy of the last USDA report
before they send animals out."
is the current chairman of the AZA's animal welfare committee
and is scheduled to become the organization's vice president
next year and to lead the organization in 2004. When she was
finally reached on the New Braunfels matter, she said: "This
was a bad call on my part; I will readily admit that."
At the AZA-accredited Phoenix Zoo, director Jeff Williamson
required non-AZA zoos and dealers to sign an agreement that
his animals and their offspring would not end up "in
animal auctions, canned hunts, the pet trade, invasive biomedical
research, or any other situation contrary to the AZA code
of ethics." In November 2000, Williamson sold 17 male
ibexes-an exotic goat popular with trophy hunters-to a Texas
wildlife dealer and breeder who reportedly supplies animals
to hunting ranches. After U.S. News asked Williamson if he
had ever checked on his ibexes, he made several attempts to
reach the dealer and says his calls were ignored.
several weeks, Williamson finally received a telephone message
saying the ibexes were alive, but he has been unable to verify
that. The experience has moved him to change the Phoenix Zoo
policy. In future, no animals will be shipped to nonaccredited
zoos or any dealers, and all old or surplus animals will be
retired under the zoo's jurisdiction. Says Williamson: "We
are not going to get ourselves into this situation again."AZA
Executive Director Sydney Butler acknowledges that member
zoos have violated the ethics code in the past. "I don't
think it happens anymore," he says. "People will
know about these things. If it does happen, it's an innocent
showed Butler a series of American Association of Zoo Veterinarians
inspection certificates that document AZA zoos' shipping of
mammals and exotic birds to roadside zoos that fall below
AZA standards and to dealers who reportedly supply animals
to the exotic animal underground. Butler replied: "We
always try to improve." Even leading AZA members acknowledge
the organization has done a poor job of enforcing its animal-transfer
code. "Reputable zoos have written policies saying animals
won't go to anything other than an AZA institution,"
says Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoological Institute.
"Numerous animals born in our institutions have . . .
ended up in circuses, breeders, or private hands. We can't
undo the past, but we can be a part of the solution."
weakness of allowing non-AZA disposal of surplus animals,
as the Syracuse zoo's Anne Baker learned, is that a great
deal must be taken on faith. Some 2,500 roadside menageries,
safari parks, circuses, breeders, dealers, and other exhibitors
are licensed and inspected by the USDA. But weak federal regulations
and a crazy-quilt pattern of local and state wildlife laws
leave only a thin skein of protection for the animals. Virtually
anyone can obtain a permit to exhibit, breed, and sell exotics;
no qualifications are required.
the wrist: Commercial animal exhibitors, dealers, breeders,
and biomedical testing labs are governed by the 1966 Animal
Welfare Act. The law sets minimal standards for food storage,
housing, and veterinary care. It has no cruelty statute, has
weak enforcement provisions, and provides for only token fines.
On the critical issue of cage size, the law stipulates only
that animals must have enough room to stand, turn around,
and maintain a normal posture, making it perfectly legal to
keep a chimp in a broom closet or a lion in a cage the size
of a powder room. For years, leading animal welfare organizations
have lobbied Congress for more humane standards and tougher
enforcement. "There's no aggressive investigation and
no consistent follow-up," complains Cindy Carroccio,
director of the Austin Zoo, an accredited sanctuary that houses
unwanted or confiscated exotics. "They're scared of litigation,
they don't allow their inspectors to testify even in the worst
cruelty cases, and they refuse to close the bad places down."Often,
it's not just a matter of will but of bodies. Last year, the
USDA had fewer than 100 inspectors to keep tabs on about 9,000
licensed facilities from zoos to animal testing labs. In some
years, the number of USDA inspectors has fallen as low as
much the numbers fluctuate from year to year, the agency's
inspectors have not exactly established a reputation for rigorous
enforcement. The department does not record the number of
animals it has seized or zoos it has shut down. A USDA spokesman
recalled five confiscations since 1997 in the western United
States involving exotic animals in roadside zoos, and just
one since 1995 in the eastern region. That's about one a year,
nationwide. "We are not in the business of putting people
out of business," says Daniel Jones, who supervises USDA
animal inspections in three states. "The courts look
at it as putting a man out of his livelihood." Evidently,
higher-ups at the Agriculture Department see little problem
with any of this. Chester Gipson, the USDA's deputy administrator
of animal-care services, declined a request by U.S. News to
discuss the inspections process. His predecessor, Ron DeHaven,
blamed "radical animal-rights groups" for exaggerating
concerns about inadequate or abusive care of exotic animals.
"We have taken very stringent enforcement actions against
roadside zoos, [but] we can't be at every facility every day,"
he says. "It was never the intent of Congress to establish
conditions [for appropriate animal care]; and for me to comment
on the law is inappropriate and counterproductive to the way
our system works."
block: The way the system works would make many of the moms
and dads and their bright-eyed charges who so enjoy a trip
to the local zoo blanch. In some cases, animals from big zoos
pass through places like the Lolli Brothers exotic animal
auction in Macon, Mo., reputedly the biggest of its kind in
the United States. At the recent May sale, the action was
fast and furious with a veritable Noah's ark collection-monkeys,
zebras, camels, wildebeest, ostriches, kangaroos, Russian
boars, giant tortoises, parrots, peacocks, even boa constrictors-hustled
through the auction ring. A 12-year-old female chimp drew
a bid of $10,500, a cuddly 3-month-old lion cub raised just
$800, and a baby wallaby went for $1,200. For three days,
the auctioneer's gavel rose and fell. At the final hammer,
the sale grossed more than $1.5 million. Altogether, 3,225
animals were hauled away by new owners from as far away as
Canada, Florida, California, and Mexico to a new and likely
grim existence in the exotic underground. Sometimes, as the
New Braunfels case shows, AZA zoos dispense with the fig leaf
of a middleman and dump surplus animals directly into unaccredited
zoos through breeding "loans" or donations. There
are hundreds of these substandard roadside menageries nationwide,
mostly run by owners with scant knowledge of the animals'
natural behavior or needs. Rescued animals housed by accredited
wildlife sanctuaries in Austin and San Antonio provide stark
examples of abusive conditions in the exotic-animal underground.
Molly, a guard lion chained up for years in a Dallas drug
dealer's house, has put on over 100 pounds in her new home.
When another lion named Nayla wasn't lying down with a lamb
at a biblically themed traveling circus, it spent its life
squeezed into a 4-by-8-foot cage. Carnivores of every kind
hobble painfully around their spacious compounds, victims
of leg-breaking metabolic bone disease caused by the cheap,
all-poultry diets fed to them by exotic-pet owners and roadside
zoos. Monkeys and apes are missing tails and limbs. Some have
torn out hunks of fur in fits of self-mutilation brought on
by years of close or solitary confinement. Roadside zoos often
operate on thin profit margins. But some raise money-and gain
the imprimatur of legitimacy-by declaring themselves "sanctuaries"
or "preserves," obtaining 501c (3) nonprofit status
from the Internal Revenue Service and soliciting public donations
to "save an endangered species." The nation's 60
or more legitimate, accredited sanctuaries don't breed or
sell animals, but these other so-called pseudosanctuaries
allow their wildlife to mate and then sell the offspring or
add to their collections-often exacerbating the substandard
"preserves": Noah's Land Wildlife Park in Harwood,
Texas, currently under USDA investigation, calls itself a
sanctuary, enjoys tax-exempt status, and solicits donations.
When Cheri Watson took over in 1998, Noah's Land was in bad
shape. Watson lacked the money-and enough paying customers-to
improve things. She gained nonprofit designation in May 2000,
but conditions aren't much better. "We took in way too
many animals," she says, "including four tigers
that had been kept in a two-horse trailer for six months [that
was] never cleaned out." Watson allowed her cats to breed.
Within two years, Noah's Land produced 26 new tiger cubs,
infuriating regional accredited sanctuaries already swamped
with unwanted Bengals. America now has an estimated 10,000
or more generic tigers in roadside zoos and backyard cages,
virtually all of them mutts with no conservation value and
often suffering painful physical defects from inbreeding.The
275-acre Noah's Land has 48 big cats, six bears, several primates,
between 200 and 300 exotic deer and antelopes, and scores
of feral pigs that are fed to the predators. Some of the caged
animals exist in grim squalor, including cell-like cinderblock
cages, but Watson rejects offers by legitimate sanctuaries
to take them. "We're still having growing pains,"
she says. "We haven't got a foothold on the fundraising
yet, but we will improve."
pseudosanctuary was run by Joan Byron-Marasek. For more than
20 years, she kept up to two dozen tigers in a private, tax-exempt
"preserve" behind her home in central New Jersey.
"I feel it's my mission to save these animals from extinction,"
she says. "I know I'm doing it better than any other
place." Hardly. In 1999, after one of her cats escaped
and terrified the neighborhood, authorities brought in a Bronx
Zoo curator to evaluate her Tigers Only Preserve. He declared
it the "worst facility that I have ever seen," with
malnourished tigers, rotting deer carcasses, and rats everywhere.
The state quickly moved to shut her down, and Byron-Marasek
finally lost her three-year legal battle in May. Her 24 tigers
are now headed to the Wild Animal Orphanage, an accredited
sanctuary in San Antonio.
are the lucky ones. In May, seven men were indicted in Chicago
for killing 17 tigers and one leopard to sell their skulls,
hides, meat, and other body parts, which can bring $10,000
or more per animal. Six tigers and one leopard were rescued.
Big cats are now so common in the United States-there may
be more pet tigers in Texas alone than survive in the wild
worldwide-that cubs can be purchased for a few hundred dollars,
and adult tigers are virtually worthless. Alive, that is.
There's no ready solution to the problems, but some zoo officials
say that for starters, AZA-accredited zoos should take greater
responsibility for assuring the lifelong welfare of their
charges. "Any animal that devotes its life to being an
ambassador for its own kind-even against its will-is owed
a decent retirement," says Terry Maple, director of Zoo
Atlanta and a former AZA president. "Zoo animals are
held in trust to the service of humanity, and we shouldn't
banish them to a terrible fate just because they have outlived
hands: Petting zoos -- A random survey of a Pennsylvania petting
zoo by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta
found 51 visitors, mostly children, contracted potentially
fatal E. coli 0157:H7 over a three-month period in 2000. Symptoms
included bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. One 3-year-old
nearly died after losing both kidneys and 80 percent of her
colon and large intestine. Other zoo-related outbreaks caused
by petting feces-covered animals have been tracked in Ohio,
Washington State, Wisconsin, Ontario, and the United Kingdom.
staff myREBAdog@att.net (Lisa Marie)
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