Original Published on Oct 19, 2022 at 09:32

‘Why are you beating zoos up?’: Owners respond to animal welfare group’s critical report

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An animal welfare group says Ontario is a “Wild West” when it comes to regulating privately run zoos, and the lack of oversight puts exotic animals and zoo visitors at risk.

A recent report from the Canadian branch of the global non-profit World Animal Protection details potential health and safety violations at 11 so-called roadside zoos in Ontario, including Killman Zoo outside Caledonia.

Mark and Joanne Killman, the owners of the zoo, said the investigator’s conclusions were off base.

“They have an opinion. I have an opinion. We are all accountable to our inspectors,” Joanne Killman said.

Posing as regular visitors so as to not attract attention, investigators from World Animal Protection toured the zoos over the summer and noted alleged failures to meet provincial standards of care for captured wildlife.

Campaign manager Michèle Hamers called the results of these inspections “deeply concerning.”

“We saw a lot of issues and likely non-compliance with regulations,” Hamers told The Spectator.

“That’s why we submitted this report to the government as an official complaint to the PAWS Inspectorate, to point out these concerns in the hope that they will have a look at these facilities and enforce the laws as they are written.”

Provincial Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) is the government body formed in 2020 to oversee animal welfare laws in place of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

The investigator who visited Killman Zoo in July said the lion and tiger enclosures are too small to allow the big cats to move and behave naturally, and their design and furnishings offer little stimulation for the animals, with no places to remove themselves from public view save for small sleeping dens.

The lion enclosure was allegedly missing an overhang and the mesh fence looked too flimsy to prevent an escape. The inspector also expressed concern about a macaw — a “highly social bird” when in the wild — living alone in a cage.

During a recent visit by The Spectator to the family-run zoo, the Killmans pointed out the fence overhanging the lion enclosure.

Joanne said the photographs submitted as evidence of malpractice are taken at deliberately misleading angles, or the inspector’s “opinion of an overhang is different than ours.”

Each animal has a raised den for sleeping, she said, and there are platforms and panels to duck behind if the big cats want some time alone and out of sight.

“But none of them are looking to hide from people. They love people,” Joanne said.

Responding to the accusation that the animals lack adequate space, she pointed to a two-acre “pond run” and outdoor playground where the cats can roam.

“We rotate cats into this space. They have this space to do whatever they choose to do out there,” she said.

The enclosures, which zoo employees make themselves, have sliding doors that allow spaces to be enlarged when neighbouring animals are out in the playground, she added.

There are no regulations in Ontario that dictate the minimum sizes of enclosures for exotic animals, and Joanne acknowledged the enclosures at Killman are smaller than those found in larger zoos like the Toronto Zoo. But there is a trade-off in terms of visitor experience, she said.

“You come to Killman and you’re standing right beside (the animals). So does that mean you’re too close to them, or are (animals in Toronto) too far away? Where do you find balance?” Joanne said.

The nine-acre Killman Zoo opened in 1988, nine years after Mark’s father, Murray Killman, started collecting big cats as subjects for his paintings. He later opened a wildlife sanctuary that became the zoo.

This report is not the first time Killman Zoo has been under the microscope. A 2006 report from animal welfare group Zoocheck recommended the zoo be shut down, saying it was “grossly deficient in all respects.”

Mark said the zoo looks much different now, with larger and sturdier enclosures.

Joanne said they would build even faster but, as a private zoo whose only revenue source is ticket sales, there are financial constraints. A surgical procedure on a big cat will knock an enclosure rebuild back a few months, she said.

“At the end of the day, what’s your first priority? The health of your animals,” she said.

Material costs have also ballooned during the pandemic as lumber became scare, Mark added.

Responding to concerns in the World Animal Protection report about the potential for animals to escape from poorly constructed roadside zoos, the Killmans said their animals who are known to dig — such as a wolf and coyote — have wooden beams and fencing buried seven feet deep around their enclosures.

The zoo has multiple layers of perimeter fencing to keep wildlife out and protect the zoo animals and visitors, Mark added, saying “it’s common sense” to put safety at the forefront. Joanne noted there have been no attempted escapes in the zoo’s history.

As for the solo macaw, Joanne said the bird lives alone because it was a donated to the zoo after killing another bird.

These criticisms could be addressed if the World Animal Protection inspector had talked with the Killmans during their visit, Joanne said.

“When you see things like that, you walk out with assumptions,” she said. “If you want to know the answer to something, ask us.”

Hamers said her organization does not share its findings with the inspected zoos directly, instead going through the government to address the bigger issue of the dearth of regulations for exotic animal ownership in Ontario.

“This is something that should be legislated and regulated through the government,” Hamers said. “We don’t want to vilify any individual zoo or any individual person. It’s more about the systematic issue that we’ve been seeing for decades now.”

Hamers said Ontario is the only province without any regulations about keeping big cats and other exotic animals in captivity. Zoos must be licensed to house native wildlife, but exotic animals are kept, sold and traded with little oversight, save for municipal bylaws that are often hastily written in response to a specific incident.

World Animal Protection contends exotic animals should only be kept in captivity for “legitimate conservation purposes or non-harmful research,” Hamers said.

Her group wants Ontario to institute a mandatory licensing system for all zoos and organizations housing native and exotic animals “based on the highest animal welfare and public safety standards that exist,” Hamers said.

“This has been done throughout Canada and other jurisdictions in the world,” she said.

Zoos that fall short of the standards would lose their licences and close, and the regulatory system would keep unscrupulous entrepreneurs from opening new facilities, Hamers said.

In the meantime, World Animal Protection wants to see the existing rules more stringently enforced.

In a statement to CTV News, the Ministry of the Solicitor General said the province had received the recent World Animal Protection report and is investigating the allegations against the 11 zoos — none of which are accredited by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), Hamers noted.

The provincial spokesperson said the PAWS Act “is one of the toughest provincial animal welfare legislations in Canada,” with over 6,000 orders issued and more than 500 charges laid since 2020.

The Killmans say animal welfare is already at the forefront of their operation.

“There’s no greater joy than working with (the animals),” said Joanne, who said zoos have a “responsibility” to educate the public about their animals and foster a love of conservation and the desire to protect wildlife.

To the notion that Ontario has no laws governing exotic animals, Joanne and Mark shook their heads.

The couple said their facility is licensed and is inspected “typically a few times a year” by PAWS. 

World Animal Protection is circulating an online petition asking Ontarians to urge the province to “put an end to roadside zoos,” with the organization arguing “phasing out roadside zoos is the most effective approach to protect animals.”

But the Killmans say it is unrealistic to close private zoos and find new homes for the animals, most of whom were born in captivity and would not survive in the wild.

Euthanasia becomes the likely outcome, Joanne said.

“What we would say in response to an organization like this is if you are interested in the welfare of an animal, why are you beating zoos up?” she said.

“Bring it all to the table and let’s work together and make things better for the animals.”

This item reprinted with permission from   The Spectator   Hamilton, Ontario

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