For two decades, the Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre in B.C.'s Lower Mainland has safeguarded endangered species from around the globe, its 250 acres built as a refuge from a harsh nature that had pushed some animals to the brink of extinction.
But that refuge, founded in 1986 by Gordon Blankstein, is under investigation by the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with the private zoo facing a battery of allegations that it has mistreated and abused the rare species under its care - including assertions that zoo staff have killed ailing animals using box-cutters and hammers.
In an interview, Mr. Blankstein said all of the allegations are false, and that the accusations come from former, disgruntled employees, who have lodged other complaints with municipal, fire, environmental and workplace safety officials.
The investigation began two weeks ago, when the advocacy group Zoocheck sent the B.C. SPCA material it said it received from current and former employees of Mountain View. The allegations were made in a 21-page document, with dozens of photographs.
Marcie Moriarty, the B.C. SPCA's general manager of cruelty investigations, said the fact that an investigation has been launched does not indicate the allegations have been substantiated.
Since the investigation began, the SPCA has issued several orders to the zoo. Ms. Moriarty said such orders are not unusual, and that Mr. Blankstein is co-operating fully with those orders, and with the investigation. She would not say what the orders concerned, but added that such measures are only taken when an animal is deemed to be in distress under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
Two giraffes have died during the course of the investigation, and their carcasses have been sent for necropsy.
One former employee, Thomas Knight, alleged there is a pattern of neglect and abuse at Mountain View. The document prepared by Mountain View employees and forwarded to Zoocheck lists dozens of alleged incidents over several years, including allegations of cruel methods of killing animals, consistent underfeeding, a persistent refusal to pay for veterinary care and a failure to provide properly heated quarters for tropical animals.
Mr. Knight said he was laid off in mid-October and given a month's severance pay, but that he is pursuing additional compensation for holiday pay through the union representing Mountain View workers, who voted in late October to unionize.
Mr. Blankstein said Mr. Knight was let go because he was incompetent, although Mr. Blankstein acknowledged that he paid four weeks' severance to him.
Mr. Blankstein said his facility treats its animals well, and that any abuse would be apparent to the constant stream of volunteers and tour groups. "We've never had a complaint in 25 years," he said.
Indeed, both Zoocheck and the SPCA said the allegations against Mountain View were a surprise. "This one definitely came as a bit of a shock," Ms. Moriarty said.
Published reports yesterday suggested that Mountain View's routine of feeding animals that have died under its care to African wild dogs are indications of cruelty. But Ms. Moriarty said that it is a common practice at similar facilities, and acceptable so long as the animals don't have drugs in their system. "It may be unpalatable, but that's not an animal-welfare issue," she said.
Mr. Blankstein defended that practice as well, saying carnivores such as the wild dogs prey on weaker animals. "They kill animals that are sick or injured."