Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Toronto has, in the last year, been a hotbed of controversy when it comes to wild animals. First the city saw the media circus that surrounded Darwin “the IKEA monkey,” who escaped from a crate in a car – an oversight that led to an unjust lawsuit against the sanctuary who cared for him afterwards. Since Darwin’s former owner has not finished giving grief to the sanctuary or making a laughing stock of herself, there will be a subsequent appeal in 2014 or 2015. Most recently, the Toronto Zoo elephants (the TZ-3) were relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California two weeks ago, amid outcry from zoo aficionados and exotics owners across Canada and the US.
Suffice it to say that all is not well with the charismatic megafauna in Canadian zoos –vitriolic controversy has erupted over Limba, the Bowmanville Zoo elephant, who by most accounts, is ready to retire from standing on stools, attending weddings, and launching wineries. After animal activist Michael Sizer proposed a direct action protest against the Bowmanville Santa Claus Parade, the parade organizers uninvited Limba, to avoid becoming a battleground between the activists and others who insisted that it was their right to see this aging elephant entertain them.
In response to the un-vitation, Zoo Director Michael Hackenberger withdrew all the animals from the parade out of spite, prompting outrage from zoo proponents who claim their holiday is now ruined. I don’t quite understand how the parade is “ruined” since it hasn’t featured Limba since approximately 2009 anyway? Nevertheless, nastygrammers, rabblerousers and Facebook spammers made veiled threats about the possibility of spontaneous tire damage to protesters vehicles (got the screen caps to prove it) while attempting to strongarm protesters into abandoning the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (section 2c), as accorded in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is entrenched in Canada’s constitution.
Protests at the zoo over the summer have focused on Limba, while Hackenberger claims that the protesters use of megaphones is in conflict with his “stance to maintain animal welfare.” Not so fast! While I agree that inconsiderate use of a megaphone near flight animals would indeed be a foolish undertaking, I’m reluctant to accept his assertions that animals are being spooked. But now the Durham Region Humane Society is involved, and to my mind, this is a good thing.
“Tuesday night’s council resolution came in response to a request from zoo owner Michael Hackenberger for the municipality to ban megaphones and other voice amplifiers within 50 metres of the zoo entrance.
It directs staff to work with the Durham Region Humane Society, police and the zoo to “help regulate any activity that may cause giraffes or other animals to be in distress.”
Protesters have held two recent rallies in front of the facility about 50 kilometres east of Toronto, calling for the retirement of Limba, a 50-year-old elephant.”
Well, these directions are hardly revolutionary; the police have typically been in attendance at zoo protests and know that the protesters are well-behaved individuals who responsibly limit the use of the megaphone to sporadic incidents.
“The young ungulates are a “consummate prey species” and naturally skittish, he said. A megaphone blaring the apparent evils of zoos could send one into panicked flight, risking injury if it crashes into a fence or falls. “
I visited Bowmanville zoo for the first time a few months ago. I paid my $23 admission and walked the entirety of the park for one main reason – to see if the megaphone use was disturbing the animals – any animals. If there was any evidence that animals were panicking, I know that these very conscientious protesters would have simply ceased using the megaphone. Because the weanling giraffes were the subject of Hackenberger’s complaint about the megaphone use, I loitered around the giraffe area to the point where it was probably attracting attention. But Hackenberger might want to ban screeching children from the zoo before he gets too overwrought about megaphones – I had to strain to hear any voices coming from the street a few hundred feet away – at various times I would not have been able to hear someone speaking beside me due to the noise the kids were making right next to me. And you can’t hear the megaphone on the video I recorded below either. Neither apparently, can the giraffes…..
“Hackenberger said the racket, particularly megaphones, can distress animals. He’s particularly worried about a pair of giraffe youngsters who arrived several weeks ago and live at the front of the complex.”
Note from the video that Michael Hackenberger really had every opportunity to mention problems or concerns about “de-spooking” the young giraffes to the sounds of the megaphone – I specifically asked him what concerns he had about the new giraffes. He feels open enough to discuss the issues with parasitic infestations of the various species at the zoo and the zoos’ preventative maintenance protocols. He didn’t even mention the megaphone. Also note that when the giraffes are out of quarantine, their paddock will encompass the most southerly part of the zoo and the giraffes will be right next to the street. Also notice that there is a backhoe in the same general area as the quarantine paddock. I guarantee you that the first time a flight animal hears a backhoe roar to life, they will take notice! However, after they are desensitized to the noise, they will take no further notice of it since they don’t see it as a threat. In my opinion, a backhoe is far more likely to induce fear in flight animals than a megaphone that’s almost impossible to hear. That’s because the protesters are standing across the street from a fairly busy roadway while conducting their protests. They are not even situated on the same side of the street as the zoo.
Mr. Hackenberger indicates in the conversation that the giraffes are slowly being acclimatized to ambient noises, which is why they’re in a small fenced-in paddock – so they don’t hurt themselves if they are startled. People might think it’s unfair to house them in a tiny space, but it’s a actually a common-sense solution – for the short term. But the whole time I’m interviewing him, the activists were out on the street using the megaphone, and neither Hackenberger nor the giraffes reacted to it. So I can only agree with zoo protest organizer Nicholas Wilvert that the attempt to silence the megaphone is a tactic to squelch free speech.
I’m actually in complete agreement with the town of Clarington’s council – I agree that the Durham Region Humane Society should evaluate the use of the megaphone. I hope any review they conduct will be impartial and accurate, and in the best interest of the animals whilst balancing the rights of the protesters. At this time, there seems to be a lack of evidence that animals are being spooked by protesters at the zoo, despite the outrageous stories you may read on pro-zoo boards to discredit the animal rights activists.
Blogger Laura Templeton describes the attempts to discredit the animal rights community. I’ve also observed this phenomenon reaching a fever pitch over the TZ-3 elephants transfer to PAWS – during and after which so many outright fabrications surfaced about activists! If the animal rights community in Durham Region and the GTA committed ¼ of the horrible acts that are attributed to us, many of us would have been jailed and completely ostracized from our communities.
Even if there is disagreement over Limba’s care or her long-distance trips, we must acknowledge that animals just do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them. I am not anti-zoo myself, since many animals do well in captivity or are capable of thriving in carefully constructed enviros. But Canada is not geographically suited to animals that evolved in equatorial climates or evolved to travel long distances as part of their routine or foraging habits. Elephants’ bodies were designed to shed heat and not struggle to maintain it. Cold climates and tight enclosures – they’re a far cry from the vast hot expanses of elephants’ natural environments.
It cannot be said that because Limba seems to be a gentle elephant that she is therefore predictable in her behaviour either. Behaviour can change unexpectedly as these animals may eventually snap from years of stress. Limba has apparently hurt several trainers in the past. When I saw her at the zoo a couple of months ago, she stood at the extremity of her paddock with her head faced as far away from gawkers as possible. Even if Limba is treated well when she is travelling to circus events, wedding promotions, or winery outings, seeing her at these types of events desensitizes people to the plight of performing animals and encourages people to visit Ringling Brothers circus which has a nightmarish reputation for abusive practices. This perpetuates the breeding of animals that will only have to endure captivity, unsuitable environments, and abusive training methods in circuses.
I don’t personally doubt that Limba has accepted her caretakers, but again, she really had little choice. Humans are a poor substitute for members of an animals’ own species. It cannot be said to be free will when there is an absence of choice.