How some of America's best zoos get rid of their old,
infirm, and unwanted animals
By Michael Satchell
Deep amid the weeds and trash alongside Interstate 35, rusty cages and flimsy wire enclosures hold what's left of a former roadside zoo: six primates, three or four New Guinea singing dogs, a few exotic birds, and several African meerkats. The saddest residents are two rare white-handed gibbons, small apes listed as an endangered species. But the male-female pair is imperiled for another reason. They are the neglected castoffs from one of the nation's top wildlife institutions, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y.
The two 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.
Though 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."
Zoos accredited 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 and dealers.
The magazine's inquiry is based on an examination of the tightly restricted, inter-zoo 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.
Besides 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."
Bellin 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.
Before 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."
There 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.
The reporter 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."
Baker 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.
After 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 non-accredited 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 transaction."
U.S. News 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."
The inherent 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.
Slap on 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 64.
However 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."
Auction 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 care.
Tax-exempt "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."
Another 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.
Those 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 their usefulness."
Wash your 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.