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Zoos’ dirty little secret

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By Jennifer O’Connor

People around the world were justifiably outraged when a healthy young giraffe was killed because he didn’t fit into a Danish zoo‘s breeding plan. A second giraffe execution was in the works before public condemnation put a stop to it. But the only real surprise is how forthcoming these zoos were about it, since disposing of unwanted animals is typically the industry’s dirty little secret. Zoos everywhere, including right here in North America, routinely find ways to unload animals they no longer want or need.

Baby animals bring visitors through the gates. But little ones quickly outgrow their ticket-selling appeal. There’s never enough space for all the adult animals. Many of them are simply warehoused in off-exhibit buildings designed solely to cage and house animals with no place to go. Stored like used car parts, all they can do is wait for relief that never comes. Others are traded or sold to other zoos or roadside menageries.

The vast majority of animals who are bred in zoos are not endangered, and most of the ones who are in trouble aren’t going to be released into their natural homelands in order to bolster wild populations. For every elephant born in a zoo, two more die, yet zoos continue to subject elephants to painful and frightening artificial insemination, just to churn out more cash cows. Chai, an elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, has been subjected to the procedure 112 times, with only one successful birth—a calf who later died. According to investigative reporter Michael J. Berens, the overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is an appalling 40 percent—nearly triple the rate of elephants in the wild. In a 25-year period at the Houston Zoo, 14 out of 14 elephant calves died—a 100 percent failure rate.

Even though the U.S. is overrun with tigers in backyard menageries, sleazy roadside zoos and sham sanctuaries, zoos still allow tigers to breed, because cubs are marketing goldmines. No tiger born in a zoo will ever set foot in an Asian jungle or help wild populations rebound. They will help a zoo’s bottom line.

Gorilla families are led by one dominant male, but so many male gorillas are born in captivity that zoos are being forced to find ways to create all-male “bachelor” groups. But as these juvenile males mature into adulthood, conflicts naturally arise. Caged gorillas have no way to escape an aggressive cagemate.

And let’s not forget the zoo community’s most lucrative marketing coup: the panda. In China’s breeding centers, cubs are typically taken from their mothers before they reach 6 months of age to force females to go into estrus again. Female pandas are fertile only for a day or two, so when a female shows signs of going into heat, she’s poked and prodded and her vagina is swabbed to determine whether she is ovulating. Males are electroejaculated (a probe is inserted into his rectum to produce electrical stimulations that cause ejaculation) and the semen, often from more than one male, is then inserted into the female with a laparoscope.

Like all bears, panda moms are protective and nurturing. But the conditions of China’s loan program require that cubs be returned “home” within two years of birth. Treated as commodities, the young pandas and their mothers will likely never see each other again.

Zoos are businesses whose “merchandise” is living, feeling animals. As long as society considers it acceptable to keep animals in captivity so that humans can while away a couple of hours gawking at them, this merciless and mercenary cycle will continue.

Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;


Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

February 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Cherokee’s Trail of Tears continues

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By Dan Paden

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina has a long history of suffering and hardship, and adversity on their territory has not yet come to an end. The sovereign land is home to three decrepit roadside zoos, in which animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them. One zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, was exposed recently after a PETA undercover investigation documented desperate bears incessantly turning in circles in cement pits, so stressed by the grotesquely inhumane conditions that some have broken their teeth while biting the metal bars of their cages in frustration.

It’s puzzling that this situation is allowed to continue, particularly since non-natives own and operate the zoos—all located on tribal land—even though the conditions clearly appear to violate tribal law. The Tribal Council has done nothing to intervene, much less put a stop to the cruelty. It’s time for these zoos to be closed.

Surrounded by four solid walls, the bears at Chief Saunooke Bear Park cannot see anything beyond their allotted space—a pitiful fraction of what bears actually need. In their natural habitat, bears are curious and energetic animals who spend their time exploring diverse terrain, foraging for a wide variety of foods and digging in soft earth, brush and leaves. The zoo’s concrete pits have no grass or dirt. They are simply holes in which bears are forced to beg for food and wait for visitors to throw it to them. One bear was shot in the head 20 times before dying, and a zookeeper admitted to eating at least one bear.

But this roadside zoo is just one of hundreds in which animals suffer and die. All over the country, animal collectors market their tawdry outfits as roadside Americana or, worse, as “rescue” facilities that give animals in trouble a safe haven. The vast majority are frauds, making money off the misery of animals and the kind hearts of people who want to help them.

Animals in roadside zoos typically are confined to chain-link or chicken-wire cages with nothing but concrete to walk, sleep and eat on. Some owners toss out an old tire or a ball to give visitors the impression that animals can use them to pass the interminable hours, but most of them have no enrichment whatsoever, not even a patch of grass.

Animals who may not get along are jammed into the same pen. Predators are housed in close proximity to prey. Babies are traumatically removed from their mothers immediately after birth to be used as photo props. The lives of these animals are turned upside down. Many pace incessantly, rock back and forth or even hurt themselves by chewing on their fingers, plucking out their feathers or grooming themselves raw.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses animal exhibitors, but the laws protecting captive animals don’t go far enough and the standards that do exist are not properly enforced. Animals must be given food, water and shelter, but cages only need to be “large” enough for an animal to be able to move around a little bit. There is no requirement for grass, shrubbery or other natural vegetation.

Since there are no restrictions on breeding animals, owners churn out babies, knowing that they’ll bring in customers. But babies grow up quickly, leaving a surplus of adult animals with less and less space and fewer resources to meet their complex needs. Exotic animals often go without veterinary care, and zoo operators would often rather depend on free roadkill or donated rotten meat than spend money on wholesome, quality food.

If you’re on a road trip and see a zoo billboard trying to entice you to pull over or if a traveling exhibitor is selling photo ops with tiger cubs at your local mall, please think about the suffering that you’ll be supporting before buying a ticket.

Dan Paden is a senior research associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

January 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Lions and tigers and E. coli

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By GemmaVaughan

While the deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany is making headlines, people might be shocked to learn that right here at home, E. coli lurks in a most unexpected place: the petting zoo. Yes, those seemingly innocuous fair and carnival attractions can put people’s health at serious risk—so it’s best to walk on by.

E. coli infection is far from a rare occurrence. All around the country numerous people—mostly children—have been made ill by this potentially deadly bug after visiting petting zoos. E. coli can spread through having direct contact with animals, by inhaling or ingesting the bacteria (such as when a child sucks his or her thumb or pacifier) or by coming into contact with something an infected animal has touched. The bacteria have been linked to everything from sawdust to sippy cups. Many children with E. coli infections have suffered acute kidney failure requiring long-term dialysis and transfusions. Some have needed kidney transplants.

No one attends a local fair expecting to come home with a debilitating or even life-threatening disease. But the summer fair season is just getting underway, and potentially dangerous animal displays will be presented, right alongside the Tilt-A-Whirl and cotton candy. Hauled around from city to city and forced to interact with constant streams of excited and sometimes careless children, animals who are used in petting zoos can become stressed and afraid. It’s little wonder that many are in poor health.

It’s not just petting zoos that put fairgoers at risk. Why would any parent trust a transient carnival worker to keep a child safe on a five-ton elephant or a cranky camel? There’s no stopping an animal who becomes spooked or who just has had enough. While giving rides at theNew YorkStatefair, an elephant panicked, injuring a 3-year-old girl and knocking down and stepping on the handler.

Animals don’t like being hauled around in cramped tractor trailers, and they are often skittish and unpredictable. A handler was airlifted to the hospital after a camel who was being used for rides inMiamiknocked him to the ground and stomped on him.

And why would you put your little one in the arms of a predator? Tiger cubs look adorable, but they have teeth and claws that nature means them to use. Cubs are frightened without their mothers and often react as any scared youngster would: by striking out.

A 4-year-old boy was clawed by a tiger on display at the Saratoga County Fair in New York and needed 14 stitches for a 1-inch gash on his head. AtFlorida’s St. Johns County Fair, a handler suffered puncture wounds and a 14-year-old boy was knocked down and scratched by a tiger before police used a stun gun to stop the attack. A 5-year-old boy suffered facial cuts requiring plastic surgery after being attacked by a tiger at a photo booth at the North Dakota Sate Fair.

If the word “zoonosis” isn’t familiar to you, brace yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians have issued warnings about the multiple bacterial, viral and parasitic agents associated with animal contact. Ringworm is very common in camels and is highly contagious, as is tuberculosis in elephants. Those cool chameleons one can win in the ping-pong toss often harbor salmonella.

For the sake of your little ones as well as for the animals who are exploited at these fairs, the safest course of action when it comes to petting zoos, photo ops with tigers, game booths offering animals as prizes and rides on elephants and camels is to avoid them altogether. Both kids and animals will be better off.

Gemma Vaughan is an animals-in-entertainment specialist for PETA, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

June 22, 2011 at 9:17 pm