Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Captive tigers and lions, among other zoo animals, are often exploited for gimmicky photoshoots and photo-ops. The Bowmanville Zoos star tiger Jonas (who was featured in the movie Life of Pi) would go home with the zoo staff and play with their dogs – of course he couldn’t do this unless he was declawed. He passed away in 2011 as a result of a birth defect, and Limba the asian elephant was euthanized at the zoo in December 2013.
Now the focus has shifted onto the youngest exotic cats, who were born in the summer, as a replacement revenue stream for Jonas and Limba. In the past, all of the exotic cats at the Zoo had been declawed, to make them “safe” to interact with the public and the Zoo staff. But after an announcement about the inevitable declaw for the young exotic cats was posted on the zoos Facebook page, the Paw Project, a group working to end the inhumane practice of declawing through education and legislation, called on the Zoo to renounce the operation on the grounds that it was inhumane. Declawing, or onchyectomy, is the amputation of the last digital bone, including the nail bed and claw, on each front toe. An amputation is the removal of a part of the body from the rest of the body. The cat’s claw is not a nail as is a human fingernail, it is part of the last bone (distal phalanx) in the cat’s toe and this region must be removed completely, or regrowth of a vestigial claw and abscess-formation result. To remove the claw: the bone, nerve, joint capsule, ligaments, and the tendons must all be amputated. Thus declawing is not a simple single surgery but ten separate, painful amputations of the third phalanx up to the last joint of each toe. If the surgery is performed correctly and the entire nail bed is removed, the claw cannot regrow. It is not without risks, including anaesthetic complications, haemorrhaging, and extreme pain. In terms of seriousness it is not comparable to soft-tissue surgeries such as spay/neuter, where recovery time is much quicker.
AVMA, CVMA, and USDA all oppose declawing big cats. And it was only in the last few days that CAZA – Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums issued a statement that they were going to develop a policy on declawing – a decision that may have resulted in the Zoo losing its accreditation if they did not comply with any resulting opposition to declawing.
At a protest on September 28th, the Zoo tried various strategies to stifle the protesters’ free speech, including glaring at us from across the street, calling the cops in an attempt to stop our educational and limited use of the megaphone, and encouraging two of the “Real Housewives of the Bowmanville Trailer Park Community” to complain to the police that our megapohone use, at 12 pm in the afternoon from across a busy highway, was too disruptive to both them and the Zoo animals. The megaphone use was even more disruptive apparently than the non-stop carnival music emanating from Funland at the same time. The police however, were unconvinced and we were allowed to continue, also due to the fact that there are no bylaws against megaphone use in the town. Furthermore, last year we did our due diligence – I paid my way into the Zoo to digitally record the noise level from megaphone use from inside the zoo where it was claimed that the giraffes were disturbed. While chatting with Zoo Director Michael Hackenberger while the megaphone was in use and asking him about his concerns for the young giraffes in the enclosure, he never once mentioned that the megaphone was disruptive to them. In fact, the animals did not react to it as it could barely be heard at all. Of course it hardly helped the Zoos’ claim that the giraffes were frightened when we could see them from across the street poking their heads out at us curiously from inside their enclosure, appearing utterly unruffled by the megaphone. work by Nicholas Wilvert.
When none of these strategies served to deter our peaceful protest, the head zookeeper crossed the road to rather contritely state that no one in the Zoo had any idea from where the “rumour” about declawing originated, so I assume that after the protest, the creative writing intern managing their Facebook page probably got some sort of dressing-down for confirming the declaw procedure not once but several times.
The combined protest across from the Zoo property and the social media backlash, even by many of their own regular patrons, led to the Zoo issuing a statement abandoning the declawing plan a few days later. In their unique way, Zoo management always manages to backtrack by claiming that the idea was for the safety of the animals and never for the handlers or the public, even though this was not the message point that was posted on Facebook.
Michael Hackenberger was adamant he had not made a final decision on whether to declaw the cats and called the reaction by some in the animal rights community “uninformed and knee-jerk.” However, it was hardly reactionary since the Zoo’s own Facebook page advised visitors that it was policy to declaw the cats since it’s safer for handlers to work with them. In the end, Hackenberger himself appeared to take credit for ending declawing at the Zoo, and that’s fine – however the Zoo arrives at the conclusion that they need to stop declawing matters little so long as they do.
In the US, declawing is done by circuses to prevent human injury but is no longer popular – and it is in violation of USDA regulations. Various circus acts have been cited by the USDA for mistreatment of their big cats, including acts featured at casinos, which were named for declawing lions and tigers. It is alleged that even the Make a Wish Foundation arranges for adults and children to meet and closely interact with declawed tigers.
Experts say that working with dangerous animals like tigers is a bad idea both for the trainers and for the animals, citing the fact that tigers, along with elephants, are the main causes of occupational fatalities for circus workers and zoo keepers. But still, not everyone’s happy, even though the outcome is a win for both the Zoo and the cats. The Supporters of Bowmanville Zoo Facebook page, which is certainly not a support page for the animals but a page to complain about zoo protests, is determined to try to take down a Facebook page dedicated to ending declawing in Canada as “harassment” of the Zoo. And those people are proof that just because you got the monkey off your back it doesn’t mean the circus has left town.