Bowmanville Zoo Under Fire for Elephant Mistreatment

Awesome, tourist-attracting community hub or evil trap for broken-spirited, meant-to-be-wild animals? Arthur’s asking about zoos and checking our facts on the debate.

The Bowmanville Zoo has recently come under fire by a California-based animal rights group called In Defense of Animals (IDA). For the first time, they have included Bowmanville on a list of “worst zoos for elephants [in North America],” placing them second on the list for their treatment of Canada’s oldest elephant, Limba.

The IDA’s case against Bowmanville Zoo begins with the fact that Limba lives alone. They maintain that elephants are social animals that should live with a herd, and that it is harsh and unfair to allow her to be in solitude. Furthermore, they advance the argument that the use of Limba for entertainment, such as in commercials or various shows, further indicates zoo cruelty.

Zoo owner Michael Hackenberger is quick to defend his zoo and Limba’s life within it. He explains that Limba was rescued from another Canadian facility and “did not do well” with the herd that was then living at Bowmanville Zoo. Hackenberger says he was prepared to move Limba to a sanctuary before the birth of his son, who he claims Limba took a liking to. While the IDA has not accepted the idea that Limba could have quality social engagement with humans and without elephants, Hackenberger maintains his stance.

He also attacks the IDA’s claim that Limba is not provided enough space, particularly in the winter. He argues that the members of the IDA making these claims against him have not been to and do not know his zoo, nor he says, do they know or understand Limba. Furthermore, he advocates that Limba is not harmed or forced into action for shows outside the zoo. Largely, these shows are apparently educational and the lending of Limba (accompanied always by staff and in comfort) helps fund the approximate $100,000 it takes to maintain an elephant in the zoo.

This is not the first time that the Bowmanville Zoo has faced criticism. In the World Society for the Protection of Animal’s report “Failing the Grade,” a report on conditions of Ontario zoos, Bowmanville was awarded an “Automatic Failure.” This is applied to zoos with cramped conditions, barren habitats, or 90-100 percent hard or wire substrates (floor surfaces). Bowmanville apparently earned its automatic failure for having more than ninety percent hard substrate in the Siberian Tiger exhibit. However, in all five areas (White-handed Gibbon, Siberian Tiger, Timber Wolf, Nilgai, and Crab-Eating Macaque) the zoo was given a failing grade.

However, it should be noted that elephants are not mentioned on the Bowmanville report card, or on any of the zoos report cards for that matter. Furthermore, for one reason or another nine of the sixteen parks examined were “automatically failed.” In fact, only three zoos actually passed at all, including the Toronto Zoo. The Peterborough Zoo was not mentioned in this report.

Bowmanville Zoo operates under the sanction of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). CAZA itself faces criticism for “allowing” conditions such as Limba’s to occur. Bill Peters, national director of CAZA, spoke in defence of the zoo and its owner, saying it’s clear that the IDA is “not familiar with the zoo.”

While Bowmanville Zoo and so many others are attacked by various animal advocacy organizations, in Peterborough we can turn to our own Riverview Park and Zoo, to ask what makes us any better.

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Arthur spoke with zoo manager and curator, Jack Sisson. The first thing we wanted to know was exactly how a zoo maintains a good reputation. Sisson told us, “A lot of different things are involved. We have a lot of public support because we’re owned by the public. I think that helps because people realize we’re not out to make a profit. We are accredited with CAZA and have been since the mid-eighties and that provides reassurance to people that we are meeting the high standards in Canada – [CAZA] standards are probably some of the highest in the world. Zoos are sometimes criticized by special interest groups, but I would just say to anybody who mentioned that sort of thing to me that they need to really check the information, as typically special interest groups don’t have all the facts.”

We also asked how our zoo selects its animals.

“We have what we call an animal collection committee meeting where we sit down and discuss what exhibits may be available if we need new animals and what our facilities and staff can manage. We look at what we would have to change in order to change species. Sometimes it’s unrealistic for us to look at an exotic species because of space or heat requirements. Looking at all those things, also availability and if they’re a significant animal from a conservation perspective, we ask, ‘Are we capable and do we have the facility to look after this animal?'”

Sisson declined to make speculation about the Bowmanville situation with Limba, stating that he’s not an elephant expert and that it wouldn’t be fair of him to pretend otherwise. However, he did say that “generally, they are an accredited zoo and from what I understand the organization making accusations hasn’t visited the zoo.”

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How do zoos get accredited by CAZA?

“The zoo puts in an application requiring you to give CAZA the background, your history, how you’re funded; what they’re looking for is to make sure you have enough funding to care for animals and that it’s sustainable. They’re also looking to see how you’re governed and that the right people with the right knowledge are in the position to make decisions…

They are also looking at public safety, safety for workers, for the animals, enough staffing and veterinary care is provided, if proper quarantine facilities exist, if there is adequate fencing, to see if you’re involved in conservation work, and to see that you’re participating in or encouraging research on zoo animals. They want to know that you have a strong education program and that the vital care of animals is looked after. Once you send that info they have an on-site inspection where they send a veterinarian or someone experienced in animal care. They go through all your cycles, your records, etcetera. Following that, if you meet all the criteria, you can become accredited.”

Overall, Sisson attributed Peterborough Zoo’s avoidance of negative press to strong public support and not expanding beyond their capability to care for their animals.

Zoos cannot operate, as is the same for every business, without the watchful eye of advocates for fair play. However, when the critics fail thirteen out of sixteen Ontario facilities, questions of criteria arise. Could zoos improve so dramatically as to entirely satisfy advocacy groups, or are advocacy groups unrealistic?

The debate about zoos will go on, unsolved by this article or by one zoo alone. However, the citizens of Peterborough can note the criticism the IDA and other such groups wage against other zoos and proudly look to their own publicly-owned, CAZA-accredited zoo and feel a little pride knowing that in this case, Peterborough gets to be the good example.

camelcolourPhotos by Sara Ostrowska (camels) and Monika Murray (otter, deer).