The Trials of the Greater Vancouver Zoo

Activists worry and regulators watch while the question persists: do we have the skills (and the right) to cage wild animals?

January 2, 2013

By John Burns

On November 4, Jafari—a 12-year-old Rothschild giraffe born at Granby Zoo, Quebec—collapsed and died at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, a 120-acre parcel tucked between an industrial park and a housing development off the Aldergrove-Bellingham Highway. Jafari’s death attracted immediate attention, including much critical media coverage. “Zoos an archaic practice,” read an Abbotsford editorial page the following week. “Education can no longer be used as an excuse to put them inside enclosures and cages, where they languish—and are ogled by people—until they die.” “Zoos should be relegated to history,” wrote the Province’s editorial page, arguing that “Many people say—and we agree with them—that the fundamental problem is that wild African animals shouldn’t be living in Aldergrove—or anywhere else in Canada.…Zoos—prisons for animals—are no longer something we, as a species, should support.”

Jafari’s death was unexpected, but not unusual. Laurie Bingaman Lackey, a wildlife biologist in North Carolina, has for 25 years kept the world’s studbook on giraffes, tracking the lives and deaths of 9,500 animals. She notes that male giraffes can live into their 20s, but that Jafari’s death at age 12 is statistically normal: half of northern North American male giraffes die younger, half older. Studying the numbers, she notes that Canada “falls in the middle of the pack” for survival rates, and that—though we’re far from the African homeland—our position in the northern tier (above, say, the 42nd latitude) is actually a bonus: cold winters mean fewer ground parasites and mosquito-borne illnesses. This echoes the findings of Dr. Chelsea Hims­worth, whose autopsy has to date determined that Jafari was in “excellent condition” and did not suffer because of Canada’s cold climate from low body fat, though her final findings are forthcoming.

This is not the first death at the Greater Vancouver Zoo (see below). Whether in the wild or in captivity, notes Bingaman Lackey, animals die. A keeper for 20 years before her current work, she is frustrated by the media blips: “People don’t seem to understand that every last animal dies. Every one. It’s terrible, but that’s what happens. And we feel for them. We really want to take care of these animals.” Bill Peters, national director of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), agrees that death is a constant. “There’s always a heightened concern if it’s a species like giraffes or other charismatics like elephants or the great apes.” CAZA, a national group based in Ottawa with 29 member institutions, oversees accreditation of B.C. facilities on behalf of the provincial government via the Controlled Alien Species Regulation of the Wildlife Act, enacted after Tania Dumstrey-Soos, 32, was killed by a tiger at Siberian Magic, an unlicensed private zoo run by her boyfriend near 100 Mile House. The association now reviews and accredits all facilities exhibiting “alien” species from boa constrictors to baboons every five years, and investigates any problems—like unexplained mortalities.

Jafari’s death has also triggered an investigation by the BC SPCA, which, says spokesperson Lori Chortyk, continues to be concerned about the zoo’s ability to keep its animals safe. The SPCA, not satisfied by Dr. Himsworth’s preliminary autopsy report, has suggested that a warrant for information, and a lawsuit, might yet be applied. The SPCA is the only animal welfare organization in the province that can recommend charges to Crown counsel and enforce animal-cruelty laws. Chortyk notes that the SPCA is, broadly speaking, opposed to keeping any animals in cages. “That attitude kind of bothers me,” retorts CAZA’s Peters. “You can’t carry out a professional objective assessment of an incident or a facility if you start with the premise that there’s something fundamentally wrong with that facility and its functions. You’re not in a professional, objective role—as should be the case with a body like the SPCA.”

For his part, Peters retains confidence in the zoo. The Greater Vancouver Zoo had its five-year routine inspection this summer, to positive results: “Our people came away feeling like they’re very professional, very caring about their animals. They’re doing it right.” Back in 2004, the zoo did fail to meet CAZA standards, losing standing for four years. (The zoo began life in 1970 as the Vancouver Game Farm, an offshoot of an Okanagan wild-animal sanctuary; its first acquisition was a llama named Dennis from Mount Vernon. It now has over 500 animals.)

Just a few days after Jafari’s death, former game-show host and animal activist Bob Barker appeared in a CBC Fifth Estate documentary called “The Elephant in the Room.” He forecast a future when zoos will seem, in retrospect, barbaric, when people will marvel that: “They took these beautiful animals and they stuffed them in cages. Can you picture that? In cages. Can you imagine that? It was the dark ages.”


Heaven's Gate

Note to readers: The originally published version of this article stated that Hazina, the Greater Vancouver Zoo’s hippopotamus, died en route to the Calgary Zoo in 2007. This was incorrect. A different hippopotamus, also named Hazina, died en route from Denver to Calgary at that time. A representative from the Greater Vancouer Zoo confirms that B.C.’s Hazina is alive and well.

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