Camille Labchuk is an animal-rights lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice Canada
For me, Ontario is the worst place in the country for animals in zoos. The province has long taken a hands-off approach to zoos, aquariums, and exotic animals more generally. You can't build a patio in your backyard in Ontario without first getting a permit, yet it is still perfectly legal to open a zoo without getting a license, receiving training in animal care, or submitting to government inspection. (The province stipulates you must get a licence for having certain animals in captivity – but not to operate your zoo.) There are no zoo-specific regulations to protect animals or the public, and this lax legal regime leaves the province powerless to shut down a zoo – no matter how bad conditions might be for the animals confined inside.
Not surprisingly, zoo animals are left to pay the price. Ontario zoos have made headlines this summer, starting with Marineland. The marine park was facing 11 animal cruelty charges over concerns related to 35 black bears, a peacock, guinea hens, elk and deer. But a prosecutor dropped the case, stating that it was not in the public interest to proceed with several of the charges, and that there was no reasonable prospect of conviction on the rest. For those concerned about conditions for animals, this was not welcome news.
The Bowmanville Zoo also went without punishment this year, despite video of its co-owner Michael Hackenberger apparently whipping a tiger. Prosecutors withdrew animal cruelty charges against him after he suffered a stroke, and now the Bowmanville Zoo has reopened under a new name. The so-called outdoor adventure park has declared its new focus of education - but today, the "education centre" offers visitors a selfie with two-week old lion cubs for $200. (Its Facebook page says the centre is closing in September, and animals are going to "forever homes.")
Near Ottawa, video footage from Papanack Zoo released recently appears to show a zoo manager talking about how he "smashed" a baby lion in the face repeatedly, "as hard as I could," in order to train the animal. Zoo staff are seen renting out a raccoon and a skunk, forcing the confused animals to perform in a photo shoot by holding their jaws open with a cord. And several animals pace and rock listlessly in their cages – repetitive, stereotypical behaviour that is often considered a sign of psychological distress brought on by confinement.
These cases may be recent manifestations of the problem, but lack of zoo regulation in Ontario is not a new issue. Animal protection advocates have been demanding new rules since the 1980s, but those calls have gone unheeded by successive governments of all political stripes.
It is hard to understand why. Licensing zoos is not particularly controversial, and even zoo industry interest groups support government action. The Ontario SPCA agrees, and public outcry this summer over the state of Ontario zoos makes it clear that the status quo cannot go on.
The truth is, confining animals in zoos is a dated practice that is on its way out of style. The more people learn about animals, the more they feel uncomfortable with seeing them caged in zoos for our fleeting entertainment, denied nearly everything that makes life worth living. Animals in zoos are often taken from their families, sold and traded as the zoo industry sees fit. They cannot choose their own social groups, or forage for their own food, and they are denied the right to roam free in a natural setting. Their only escape is death, like Kasatka, an orca who died recently at SeaWorld, or Tilikum earlier this year, and countless zoo animals whose deaths go unnoticed.
Meanwhile, circuses are closing down and Canada's Senate is grappling with a bill that would outlaw keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. Public attitudes are changing, and they are changing fast.
Zoos are still legal – for now. But at a bare minimum, it should not be legal to operate a zoo without a license and strong regulations. Ontario must listen to the growing chorus of voices demanding better for animals in captivity.