Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Zoos Versus Sanctuaries Part 3

I try to avoid stating an issue without also introducing something in the way of a solution.  Even an idea that is more pipe-dream than workable resolution has the potential to start a conversation. 

With the damage done to Sea World, the downfall of the circus, and the increasingly aggressive calls to boycott zoos worldwide, it is time for professionals in captive animal management to stand together.  All forms of private exotic animal ownership are being targeted for illegalization and are likely to be the next major focal point for activists, but don’t for one moment believe that the big AZA zoological institutions are immune.  The way things are looking, they’re poised to die last.
That’s not the same thing as having security.

We have to look at ourselves as an ecosystem.  There needs to be a balance in order for the whole thing to work.  Like it or not, when we sit back and allow public opinion toward any sort of animal based business to spiral toward pitchforks and torches, we’re assuring our own eventual downfall. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not asking for anyone to promote the return of shopping mall cub petting companies.  I am not saying that we should stop holding each other accountable for gross negligence or deliberate mismanagement.  I am asking us all to stop painting other facilities as concentration camps, and competitors as villains. I am asking animal operations to stand on their own merit as opposed to creating unnecessary public outrage to raise funds. I am asking us to recognize the value to be found in differing methods of animal husbandry and agree that allowing deliberate misinformation is universally destructive.

One way we can begin helping each other is with full disclosure.  We can be open about what goes into the creation and maintenance of wildlife parks, whatever kind they are.  If a sanctuary is showing off new animals that need housing, food, and veterinary care, then they need to be willing to tell the public where they came from and under what circumstances. When a zoo gets a new species to display, it should be okay to disclose if it was purchased from a private breeder, traded from another zoo, donated, or otherwise.  When an animal dies, we shouldn’t have to dance around the idea that everything dies and there is no shame in being bested by illness, injury, and time.  Carnivores eat meat.  Horses, bunnies, chickens and cows are made of meat.  Why do we shelter the public from making that connection? Let the people decide for themselves whether to support those animals and the facility that is their home without resorting to manipulation and emotional blackmail, or pretending that a jackal can eat dog chow.

Another frightening yet powerful method that would help us all show a united front would be to publicly lend support in the wake of tragedy.  I see it happen on private zoo keeper and cat keeper forums; the outpouring of love and sympathy when a keeper gets killed or an iconic animal dies.  But in the public eye, we all kind of sit back and watch our colleagues get strung up on top of the grief and hardship we know they’re already facing.  We are unwilling to associate our home operation with the one being torn apart by the media and arm-chair activists.  We might put in a call offering to loan staff or equipment, or trade information on what to expect if we have had a similar unfortunate experience, and even to lend an ear to commiserate. But to make a supportive statement to the media as the official spokesperson for another zoo, or a message of solidarity on social media or our own home page is too risky. None of us dare the potential damage to our own reputation, or the red flag that would wave in the face of zealots in a feeding frenzy and only too happy to include another target. 

In the face of natural disasters such as flood and fire, I have watched as animal rights activists blame keepers for putting their resident animals in harm’s way, demanding immediate answers for what they call negligence, and accepting a lack of response from the threatened facility as an admission of guilt. This is a perfect example of a situation where a calm show of public moral support made by fellow professionals could make an immense positive impact. A gentle reminder that the highly trained and dedicated staff members are occupied with their work and not available for comment can go a long way in showing that we are all working together on some level.

And I’m serious about making it a gentle reminder.  When arguing, online or in person, be nice.  Being professional often means taking the high road, as much as that can suck big rocks. That means please stay on topic and avoid personal commentary.  Understand that the individual that just called you a baby-eating devil-worshiper loves animals, too. Admit the validity of another person’s feelings even when they’re being abusive toward you. Use a spell checker. Cite your sources. Be willing to follow links to sources that counter your stance for the sake of continuing education. Show the people whose entire knowledge base centers on articles from the Dodo that zoo keepers, biologists, veterinarians, and researchers can maintain integrity even when they’re operating from different perspectives. Know when to leave a conflict.

We all need to share information, and be willing to take the time to study the information shared by others.  New research is happening every day.  New data regarding wild populations, habitat conditions, and captive genetics are available but often difficult to locate.  The more we share these recent findings, the more accessible they become to the general public, the more palatable differing ideas seem when balanced against highly marketed misinformation.

We also need to keep each other up to date on where zoos, sanctuaries, aquariums, breeders, and private owners stand with legal issues.  It is up to all of us to watch APHIS, USDA, Federal, State, and local legislation.  We need to be careful about allowing private entities and outside organizations to dictate how laws are changing, and how we manage our facilities. 

Organizations such as Big Cat Rescue, PETA, and HSUS are frightening opponents.  They have a lot of money which makes them powerful.  They generate that money with big marketing campaigns that falsely portray all captive animals as slaves being tortured for profit.  
Last year, HSUS was nearly successful in stopping the transfer of healthy cubs from a proven top breeding facility to a well-equipped zoo with an amazing enclosure and established husbandry protocols. Without any proof or vetted sources a HSUS representative delayed the transfer of these animals for three months and cost both zoos thousands of dollars. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this is still a frightening precedent of zoo professionals allowing an outside entity to flaunt perceived power. We are letting this happen by not standing up and governing ourselves, and not helping the public to understand the reality of our global impact for the good. 

Similarly, laws are being proposed that would stop zoos from acquiring native animal species unless they are members of the AZA.  Admittedly the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a fantastic organization that does wonderful things for its members, but they are not the only accrediting entity and many outstanding facilities cannot or will not fall within AZA guidelines. It isn’t right to allow the AZA to create a situation under law where only their members can continue to operate. This is a subtle yet powerful system of exclusion that will ultimately damage educational programs and conservation efforts throughout the country as well as effectively closing wildlife rehabilitation centers.

For members of the general public who are taking the time to read this post – Thank you!
For the sake of saving endangered species, protecting wild habitats, and keeping the zoos in operation, we need your help, too. 

You can support your local wildlife centers and zoos by visiting them.  Bolster recycling programs, and choose sustainable products to support habitat retention. You can keep your pets indoors and keep them from breeding to protect local wildlife populations. You can clean up after yourselves and others at home, in parks, and at the beach and help others learn these habits.

You can stop the bad media from causing further damage, too.  The next time you see a video or story showing horrific images or alleging animal abuse, ask yourself a few basic questions:
     *Is it recent?  - A lot of the activists and marketers are using old recycled footage and making up new text to go along with it. There is nothing you can do to help an animal that was filmed being abused 10 years ago.
     *Is it local? – If that heartrending photo of a starving horse or bleeding dog in no way correlates with an animal in need of assistance in your neighborhood, chances are you can do nothing for it. Petitions to prosecute animal abusers in another country do nothing except generate traffic, which in turn generates a further market for more horrific images.
     *Do you need to click a button to get to the next part of the story? – Clickbait sites make money.  That is their only purpose.  By looking at 10 different pages to see sad animals, you are encouraging someone to create more images of sad animals. None of the money generated goes to helping those animals or stopping the abuse.
     *Is a particular facility being targeted? – If, for instance, the 2011 tragedy in Zanesville, OH is being held up as an example, you’ll know the article you’re reading is complete garbage.  One incident at one facility should in no way reflect on the captive animal situation of an entire county.  If a journalist needs that kind of a crutch, then the journalist doesn’t have a story.

For 99.99% of the horrible animal stories that you see on social media, the best thing you can do to help is delete it.  Don’t click on it, don’t forward it, and don’t engage the person who posted it.  You are only encouraging the creation of more videos and fake stories and rewarding those who are perpetrating negativity.  We have enough negativity in this world without asking for more.

Use sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp to check out unfamiliar animal attractions, and to leave honest reviews for those you’ve visited. When leaving a review, be specific about things you liked and things you don’t like.  If you do see something that you don’t like while visiting a zoo, then ask a keeper.  There’s probably a reason that a leopard is pacing or an exhibit looks dirty.

Or, if you see something that really disturbs you, or really makes you question…  Please ask me.
Seriously, ask me anything.
That’s why I’m here.  That’s what I’m doing.  I have my experience, my education, my contacts, and my love of the animals to fall back on. 
If I don’t know or can’t find an answer, I’m going to ask someone else. If I still can’t figure it out, I’ll say so.

Also – Zookeepers, Directors, Educators, Vet Techs, Biologists, Researchers, Attorneys, and other professionals who are seeing this… Please help! 

I would love to see links for recent findings – genetic analysis, reintroduction, recent births, and discoveries.  If you have written an article, if you have data that proves zoos are helping animals in the wild, if you have a blog that talks about good, positive things we are doing with and for captive wildlife, please post it in the comments.  Leave a link.  Promote yourself. Share.

If there is an inclusive website for zoos and sanctuaries and others, I would love to see that!  If there isn’t…  Maybe that should happen. 

Either way, let’s do something good here.  Let’s help each other.  For the love of our planet and everything living on it, let’s come together before it’s too late.

#Zoo #Wildlife #Sanctuary #AnimalAbuse #PETA #HSUS #BCR #BigCats #AZA #Attack #Clickbait #APHIS #USDA #Captive #Conservation

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Part 2

First off, thank you so much to those who have read and left comments here, on Facebook, and in private.  I appreciate the encouragement, and it’s what will keep me writing.  These are difficult and a bit intimidating to write, especially when I am calling out specific people or facilities.  I am not out to unfairly harm or discredit anyone, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge the issues.  

What brought this part of the discussion about was a member of a zookeeper forum asking about Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation.  The question was simple enough – Are they legitimate?  

Well, that’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? 

In my experience, rare and endangered big cat cubs, bottle raised and well-adjusted to human interaction are not exactly easy to come by.  A sanctuary that seems to have a constant influx of healthy bottle babies is suspect, to put it mildly.  I will say the same thing about a sanctuary that houses a broad range of especially desirable subspecies or color variations. I believe that by definition, a sanctuary should not allow petting and interaction by anyone not seeing directly to the care of the animal. (The veterinarian is fine, but not the celebrity who paid for a new enclosure, or just makes for good press.) Making a big media spectacle to raise funds for far-flung rescue efforts… That’s great marketing, but it is also creating an issue just so that you can solve it.  That’s quite different than responding to a need.

I have never visited BJWT.  For all I know they ARE saving the old, the ugly, and the common cats, too.  Hopefully they’re doing something about the source of all of those pretty babies, but if they were, I’m pretty sure they’d be talking about it as much as they do their luxury watch endorsement.
In my opinion, no, BJWT is NOT a legitimate sanctuary.

Is my opinion biased?  You’re damned right it is.  I don’t like their double standards.  They advocate the destruction of legal breeders and other animal organizations while showing off how they and their celebrity guests get to cuddle adorable baby predators.  Oh, and they refuse to alter these animals in case they’re needed in the future for breeding. 

Do you see my issue?  Some guy who arbitrarily started a sanctuary three years ago proudly takes endangered animals away from legal zoos and breeders with important connections, access to studbooks, experience resulting in live births, and an understanding of genetics… And someday he might breed them? That doesn’t make a damned bit of sense on any level.  And yet, according to social media, this guy is a hero.

More and more, small zoos and private owners are being wrongly victimized for nothing more than someone else’s marketing scheme.  Too many facilities or organizations have decided that it’s not enough to just do good things, or even jump around shouting about doing good things. They have to try to ruin the reputation of anyone or anything they see as potential competition.  They need someone to point out as the bad guy so that the public can make a comparison to see why those good things deserve a reward.  Those newly minted bad guys don’t have to do anything to deserve the negative attention. They’re just a convenient patsy, mostly because they’re too small, too underfunded, and frankly too busy caring for their animals to spare the time and money it would take to fight back. 

**Here is where someone being ‘helpful’ will tell me that any truly quality business could just sue for slander/libel and heal their reputation.  You show me one case where that actually worked.  
Spoiler alert - it hasn’t worked for anyone, yet.  Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars have been lost in the attempt.

You’ll notice that a lot of sanctuaries and animal rescues in recent years suddenly have a lot of circus rescues.  I don’t deny that a circus, like any other business, can go under.  I also don’t deny that some animals were declawed, defanged, or otherwise maimed by circuses.  But that many?  Recently?  And these circus animal rescues never made the news.  That’s odd.  Isn’t a circus going under and leaving dozens of animals facing an uncertain future exactly the sort of horror story the media loves?  And why is it the keepers of those dozens of rescued lions and tigers and leopards can’t tell me the name of the former circus?  Much less how they managed to rescue only babies, or what happened to the hoof stock. Hmm.

When the circus comes to town, I attend.  I sit close to the action and get a good look at those animals.  I’m watching eyes, ears, tails, and whiskers.  I’m reading body language.  I’m looking for muscle density, coat condition, and how they place their feet.  I look for hesitation in movement, signs of stiffness, crouching behaviors that may indicate harsh handling.  I have experience.  I know what I’m looking for.  I do not think the majority circuses harm their animals.  Again, I am sure that some have.  The concerns started somewhere, but that doesn’t make it right to condemn every traveling menagerie.  It really doesn’t make it right for so many sanctuaries to base a portion of their fundraising on a situation they can’t clearly define and are not directly helping.

The anti-circus campaign worked!  Say goodbye.

Sanctuaries make a great platform for that “Nobody should touch tigers but me” mentality.  I have not yet met a sanctuary owner or director that doesn’t handle and pet their cats.  It’s yet another great example of the double standard helping to drive the wedge between zoos and sanctuaries.

The “Us versus them” mentality is keeping different members of the animal care community from working together at a time when our livelihoods and the animals we love are very much living on borrowed time.

I do believe that there is a very real need for sanctuaries.  I believe that many of the large, well-known sanctuaries have built their reputations through hard work and dedication.  I know for an unfortunate fact that there are some facilities that have created a sanctuary out of their own collection of pets and some creative storytelling. 

In the eyes of the USDA and APHIS, zoos and sanctuaries are held to the same standards of care.  There is no difference.  However, in the court of public opinion, a private owner of a zoo that charges $5 for people to come and look is exploiting the animals for money, whereas the sanctuary charging $5 for the same privilege is just collecting a donation, and should be applauded for their selfless efforts.  How is that fair?  Either way, the money will go toward food and maintenance, insurance, advertising, equipment, staff, and everything it takes to run a business.

Because at the end of the day a sanctuary is a business, just like a zoo is a business.   Private zoos, public zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries are in the business of caring for animals.  Many zoos have taken in animals that another facility or an individual could no longer care for.  Many sanctuaries are now offering educational information at their exhibits.  Zoos and sanctuaries may have different mission statements, but they sure have similar day-to-day operations.

Every sanctuary I have ever visited, and most of the zoos, have been non-profits that will solicit donations for animal care and facility maintenance and expansion. 

***Just for the record - If an insufferable asshole files for not-for-profit status he does not suddenly become an angel of charitable compassion. He has simply become a tax-exempt asshole who can legally hit you up for a donation.  To say that a different way, a 501C3 does not grant sainthood.  It just changes how you file taxes.

Most zoos and sanctuaries will advocate against exotic animals as pets, and animals being used for entertainment. (Except for their own program, of course.  Those are ‘ambassadors’ not ‘entertainers.’) 

So what is the difference? 

Well, sanctuaries are supposed to be a forever home for abandoned, abused, unwanted, discarded animals.  Some sanctuaries are not open to the public, and others have regular hours. 

Zoos are supposed to be educational institutions where people can go to see and learn about animals.  They go out of their way to encourage attendance and interest in the exhibits.

Sanctuaries by definition do not propagate.  Most zoos do.

Most zoos contribute in some part to global conservation efforts, be it through public or private education, captive breeding programs, outreach to wild habitat projects, or any combination of these things.  Some sanctuaries are now at least lending a nod toward the wild counterparts of their captive residents, but they are generally more focused on the horrors of captivity gone wrong, owing to the origin of their resident critters.

Where the differences between the two types of business really shine is in their marketing. 
A zoological institution or wildlife park will publish cool facts about their animals, offer discounts for groups, change up the exhibits to highlight different species, buy advertising in newspapers and magazines and put ads on the radio or television if they can afford it.  They will try to garner enthusiasm for weird animal trivia and offer interactive or tactile experiences for children.

Sanctuaries on the other hand rely on the public’s love of a sad tale with a happy ending.  They use emotive language to highlight the horrors of life in captivity.  One photograph of an emaciated bear will quickly grab attention. An image of hybrid wolves chained in a rusted cage will create outrage.  The coup de gras… a video of a crying baby anything, or an animal suffering physical abuse, with JUST the right story, can go completely viral and generate thousands of dollars for the organization that unlocked the proper combination.  It doesn’t matter if the picture has nothing to do with their sanctuary, is so old that there’s no possible way that subject is still alive, or if nobody knows where the event happened. The text or voiceover can be a complete work of fiction.  As long as the finished product makes someone feel like a hero when they pledge to sponsor an animal it’s a winner! Money in the bank.

Okay, they’re not all that bad.  Just a lot of them.  Some are worse. 

I’m okay with the idea of a sanctuary emphasizing the story of a rescue to make it a bit more dramatic.  It’s marketing.  I get that.  I am not okay with flat out making stuff up, especially when the fairytale they generate directly hurts another person or facility, or blatantly discredits an entire branch of the animal industry.

Just like I argue that not all sanctuaries are good, I must argue that not all private owners are bad.  Not all zoos overbreed their collections and kill the surplus. Not all roadside zoos are filthy death traps. Not all white tigers are inbred for profit.  Not all elephants are beaten into submission. Not all exotic breeders feed the black market.  Not all petting cubs are later killed in canned hunts.  

The manufactured information to the contrary – And I do mean every bit of it – Was created for the sole purpose of making the consumer feel like forking over a bit of cash is the least they could do to make up for the atrocities perpetrated by other humans. 

I promise that there really are decent and well educated private owners, beautiful small stand-alone zoos, private breeders that carefully track bloodlines, perfectly healthy and genetically diverse white tigers, happy elephants that enjoy their work and their trainers, leopards that were petted as babies and went on to live full lives, and for-profit entities with an eye on the future survival of endangered species AND who put every dime right back into the animals. 

I have personally encountered all of these things.

Actually, most of the animal people I’ve met are responsible and conscientious, and treat their animals better than many people treat their children.

That may be hard to digest.  In fact I know more than a few readers at this point have denounced me as a fool or a liar.  Either I spent my years living in a wildlife park completely blind, or being brainwashed, right?

Well, brace yourself because there’s more.

Not all of those animals at the sanctuary were rescued.
Some of them were purchased.  Some were traded.  Some were requested by the sanctuary and given to them as gifts.  Some were born and bred there. 

In one case that I can prove, cubs were bred with the intention of making a profit.  These bottle baby white tigers were listed for sale in the Animal Finder’s Guide.  When they failed to sell, they were rebranded as an averted tragedy.  You can still donate to feed that lie to this very day.  We’ll hear more about this particular ‘sanctuary’ in another post.
I wish, with all my heart, I could remember which sanctuary randomly sent my mother a calendar of their cats a few years ago.  It was an advertisement of course.  Twelve very pretty pictures of cats telling their stories, hoping that sympathetic souls would pledge to donate.  Do you know what I loved about that?  It was nice.  It was positive.  It didn’t point fingers, it simply stated who they were and what they wanted.  My favorite part was their white tiger’s story.  That cat was in a sanctuary because the people running the facility wanted her, and so she was received as a gift.  That’s beautiful.  No made up drama.  No caveat regarding questionable bloodlines. 

One story I have never heard, because it hasn’t happened, is about that time that a small zoo was about to go under because the regulations changed. New statutes requiring them to raise the height of their fences two feet were beyond the limits of their budget, so a big-name animal rescue used their awesome powers of fundraising and helped that little zoo to meet the new guidelines.  The animals didn’t have to move or face euthanasia, the keepers got to keep their jobs, and the locals still had a place to go and learn about their natural world. 

Why haven’t I ever heard a story like that?  Why can’t a rescue ever be about facilities supporting each other?  Wouldn’t it be more economical and more humane in many cases to help the animals where they are? 

I guess the AZA zoos share resources, but they’ve come to exclude any non-AZA facilities wherever possible.  To be a member of their organization you have to pay hefty annual dues and agree to play by their politics. 

ZAA is smaller and not so expensive to join.  They do have rules, but they’re more lenient, and apparently you can be a member and still be nice to those that refuse accreditation.

The non-accredited zoos support and help each other by sharing bloodlines and resources and vendors.  They keep each other informed of changes in legislation. They talk about the USDA and discoveries in biology and veterinary medicine.  They don’t mind if other facilities are accredited or not as long as their animals are healthy and well managed.

I don’t know anything about the sanctuary networks.  I know they exist.  I know that there is cooperation, but I can’t speak to their hierarchy.  I have seen some of the horror story marketing used by some sanctuaries targeted at other sanctuaries, calling them out for substandard care, breeding, selling, buying, and poor management. 

But if any facilities, be they sanctuary, zoo, aquarium, menagerie, breeding compound, ranch, or otherwise are actually actively helping and supporting each other, then they are certainly being quiet about it.

Last year, Great Cats World Park made a very nice gesture to a sanctuary and got kicked in the face for it. 

I left Great Cats, and I’m still pretty damned mad about the way I was treated there, but that little privately owned zoo has the healthiest collection of cats I have ever seen.  The owner has a pretty nasty reputation on the animal activist websites, but having shared an address with the man for four years, I can attest that everything he is, everything he does, has to do with the comfort and wellbeing of those cats. 

Like most zoos, Great Cats takes surplus from other zoos, has a breeding program, has cats on loan to and from other facilities, has purchased animals, and has taken on several rescues.  Last spring it was decided that the collection was a bit out of balance.  Over the course of about three years, the Park had lost a leopard, a cougar, two snow leopards and a lioness, all to complications stemming from old age.  Their exhibits had been taken over by tigers.  Not a huge deal, as they were all healthy, happy, and loved. But the Park’s primary purpose is to teach the public about a wide variety of cat species, so the “Look, another tiger!” game was getting less funny.  

Craig called up an old buddy of his, a Mr. Rick Glasey, to see if he knew anyone who was looking for tigers.  (This is what happens with Great Cats surplus animals.  The Park finds out if another facility wants to house them responsibly and see to their care.  If not, those animals stay put, and continue to be loved and cared for at the Park. This will sometimes determine how and where the next exhibit is built.) As it happens, Rick did know a facility nearby that was looking for tigers. 

The Oregon Tiger Sanctuary.

Uh, okay…  I think that caught us a bit off guard.  We sort of knew them, had shared food source information, shared cold storage space, and had coordinated evacuation plans using each other’s facilities as places to take cats in case of wildfire.  But being as they are a rescue, I don’t think it had ever occurred to us to ask if they were having a tiger shortage.  As it happens, they were. 
Apparently the United States Illegal Pet Tiger Crisis doesn’t extend to the Pacific Northwest.  
Who knew?

Now to back up just a bit, I met some really nice people at a USDA symposium a couple of years back.  They had a sanctuary in Texas and REALLY wanted a tiger.  I liked them, liked their vets, liked the pictures they sent of the enclosure, liked their feeding protocol, safety plans, everything.  What I didn’t like was their website that swore ALL of their animals were rescued from horrifically abusive situations. I asked them for a promise that they tell the truth about where they got that tiger.  They wouldn’t do it, so I kept the tiger. (That story will be relevant, I swear.) 

We decided to at least meet with and talk to the OTS staff. Rick came to the park and brought Rob the vet director, and I think one or two of their keepers.  We took them on a tour of the whole park, and introduced them to our staff and all of the cats.  Oregon Tiger Sanctuary was looking for several tigers, and they really wanted a white tiger to replace a recent loss and they really wanted cubs that they could handle and grow up with.  We had what they were looking for.  

Moxie and Brutus are young adult siblings.  Moxie had been an ambassador cat and would easily acclimate to a new facility, and her brother is an easygoing cat with a sweet disposition.  We also had two cubs, one white, one orange.  They were leash trained sweethearts that were growing up together.

Now keep in mind there are several other tigers that live at Great Cats, but when it’s time to discuss sending out a cat, a lot of thought is put into making a successful transfer.  Relocation can be extremely traumatic for an adult cat.  They are territorial and don’t like change.  Moxie, as an ambassador, had grown up seeing new places and riding in a trailer.  She had been at both outdoor and indoor venues, and wasn’t bothered by an occasional change of scenery.  Out of all of our adults, she would have the smoothest transition. Brutus had stayed home while his sister was off adventuring, but he always missed her when she was gone, so we wanted to send him along. Also, he loved meeting new people, so we knew he would take to new keepers right away.  As a bonus, Moxie and Brutus are white tigers.  

The OTS staff was of course super excited about the cubs.  Keep in mind that well acclimated bottle babies in perfect condition don’t come up for rescue, so this sort of facility won’t see them often, if ever.  We allowed them to walk the cubs with us and ask any questions they could think of.  They met the parents, talked about their vaccines, their diet, their habits, their preferences, and so on.  At that point we were treating them like any other big cat facility, which is why we also went to visit their home. 

What a nice place!  It’s closed to the public, so the only people their animals see are their keepers, and on occasion former owners come to visit relinquished pets.  As advertised they had several vacancies.  The enclosures are large, and some have access to pools.  The cats have platforms and toys.  OTS has a dedicated staff, great safety procedures, and a really nice onsite vet facility.

I talked at length to the staff about my concerns giving our babies to a sanctuary.  I told them the story about refusing to send out a tiger, because I couldn’t stand the idea of someone using an animal I loved, one that I had raised, to tell lies and dupe people out of money.  Especially my Moxie.  I know you’re not supposed to have favorites with your ‘kids’, but Moxie was always my special girl.  I met her when she was two months old, and it was love at first bite.  (She’s a tiger, not a puppy.  Little tigers are jerks.) She helped me teach thousands of people about endangered species and habitat loss, genetic research, evolution, feline behavior, and more.  She was a star.  She was retired at two.  She was happy and healthy, and okay fine she’s a little cross-eyed, but it’s not like she was ever going to be breeding stock anyway.  I was willing to send her out, to share her if someone would love her, and care for her, because her background meant she could be easily relocated.  She and Brutus and the cubs were a gift. I requested that the sanctuary to admit to the origins and circumstances of these not-rescued tigers, and they promised they would. 

An understanding was reached, and we agreed to deliver the cats to their new home.  We used our truck and trailer, because they didn’t have the equipment to haul big cats.  The facility’s director herself was delighted to walk one of the cubs into their new enclosure.

This happened in April, 2016.

The following is the text of a letter sent to Great Cats World Park from Penny Torres-Spinnler of Oregon Tiger Sanctuary.

Hi Craig, Traveler and Farrah.  I really have enjoyed meeting you three, and Craig, as we've partnered in getting Big Cat Food delivered and stored over the years, I'm happy to have met you finally! You do such a great job at exposing the Public to the Natural Behaviors of Great Cats, and educating those who come to visit with all of you about the importance of Exotic Animal Conservation. Thank you for the tour for us at your facility, and thank you for visiting with us! ...and Thank You for helping the Exotics born in captivity to live long, happy, healthy lives allowing those with Conservation in their soul, to be exposed to the 'Beings' behind their Amazing Eyes, so they too may be moved to work with those of us who work to raise awareness and encourage Conservation for All Exotic and Wild Animals on our Planet. ...and like us, thank you for always encouraging those seeking pets to help us help Domestics find Wonderful Homes. This is a Beautiful Facebook Page, to go along with such Extraordinary Big Cats as well as you, Craig and your Awesome Crew! I look forward to seeing you all again. - The Oregon Tiger Sanctuary - Founder/Director ***For Anyone Looking to have a genuinely Caring and Exceptional Experience for the Purpose of Supporting and Enjoying Exotic Animals who, without Craig, his staff and the Great Cats World Park, would never have an opportunity to experience a close up and fun adventure while learning for the purpose of Conservation, I recommend this well trained staff, this Highly Experienced Trainer and these Amazing and Well Cared for and Loved Big Cats! One of my favorite experiences with Craig, his staff and the Big Cats of GCWP is how Very Loved, Well Cared for and Happy all the Cats are! Thank You Team for being on the Front Line of Allowing Everyone to Experience and Learn about the Behaviors and the Importance of Exotic Animal Conservation and Natural Habitat Preservation.”

Isn’t that nice?  Then on their Facebook page was this:

The last thing I did before leaving Oregon to begin my new life was to drive up to the Sanctuary to visit my tigers.  I was touched by Moxie’s reaction when she saw me.  Brutus is always happy to see everyone.  Dublin was indifferent, and little Kronos about turned himself inside out.  It was great to see them and spend some time talking with them and Rob who had become their primary keeper. 
Overall I was happy with what I saw.  They all had new names and they were all fat, but that’s common with sanctuaries.  I do think Moxie was too fat for her health, so we discussed their feeding habits and ideas for backing her off her food a bit.  I was surprised to see the cubs being fed bottles through the fence.  They’d been weaned for months before leaving the park, but again, just because a practice is different, that doesn’t make it wrong.  The cats were happy.  They were calm and playful and interested in what was happening around them.  I did correct Rob twice.  He would refer to rescuing the cubs, and I would refer to giving them the cubs.  I figured it was a slip, because usually that’s what they did, but I didn’t let it worry me.  I also mentioned having emailed whoever keeps up their Facebook page.  That person keeps posting anti-white tiger rhetoric that has been soundly disproven, and they had specifically come to us wanting white tigers, so why bash them?  I was told he’d look into it.

That was November of 2016.

I was instantly sick.  I feel so betrayed.  They LIED!  
The USDA never had any involvement with the placement of these cats.  That is a complete fabrication.  
It doesn’t matter that I’m not with the park anymore.  They lied to me.  They looked me in the eye, made me a promise, took my tigers, then did exactly what they told me they wouldn’t do, and then added some made-up crap to make it seem like they rode to the rescue when the feds called them.  

And the part about cubs being taken from their mothers?  Uh, THEY are the ones that wanted hand raised cubs.  (Yes there will be a post on hand raised babies.)  I’m guessing that means they don’t interact with them anymore? That right there is EXACTLY what I was talking about before.  Double standard, lying, and making another facility look bad to elicit sympathy, bolster your fundraising, and paint yourself as a hero.

As soon as I saw that, I called the sanctuary and left a message for Robert to call me.

I am STILL waiting.  

I have no idea how things went down at the Park when the boss-man heard about this, but I imagine they too feel betrayed. In fact I bet it got a bit loud over there.

I wonder if they’ll try to get those tigers back?

I mean, if they’re such a burden to OTS…  I’d donate to that cause for sure.

#Tiger #BigCats #GreatCatsWorldPark #OregonTigerSanctuary #News #Sanctuary #Wildlife #Zoo #Relocation #Rescue #Conservation

Monday, January 16, 2017

Zoos versus Sanctuaries
Part 1

This is a series of posts discussing a rift between what I believe should be two parts of the same entity.  Anyone who gets involved in animal care does it with the absolute belief that they are helping and doing good things, no matter what flavor of facility they call home.
I am going to touch on some hot-button issues, so long before discussion commences, let’s remember – These posts are NOT about hand-rearing, or free-contact, or white tiger husbandry, or animals in entertainment.  Those topics will be discussed, but in future posts.  Save your ammunition.
It should also be stated that what is written here is based solely on my opinion, developed from what I have seen and experienced in person, hands-on.  So who am I?

Prior to the year 2011 my understanding was that wild animal sanctuaries existed to accept and house exotic animals that had been seized from illegal or irresponsible owners, displaced by the closure of zoos and circuses, or discarded as surplus from zoos still in operation.  I did no research, and it never occurred to me to question where the animals had come from. Social media is infested with advertising, videos, articles, and photographs showing the need for sanctuaries to exist, and for backyard owners to be relieved of their pets.  Like 99.9% of the population, that had nothing to do with me.

My first couple of years working with cats, I was largely sheltered from the animal activists and the bad press generated by any sort of live exhibition.  It wasn’t until I took over the office duties for the Park and assumed public relations that I realized that there were people who believe that the only way to create the kind of show that we have is to rip babies from their mothers, and then to beat them, deprive them of food, confine them, and sometimes even drug them. 

I. Was. Stunned. 

How could anyone think that?  How could anyone believe that such methods would even work?  Had these people only heard of cats by rough description?
As it happens, all of those horrible videos on the internet have a much broader reach than do the subjects of their smear campaign.  What’s worse is that people really do believe them.

And who is producing such sweeping and effective marketing materials?  It seems the loudest, most colorful, and farthest reaching examples are courtesy of PETA and the Humane Society of the United Sates.  Two organizations that would like to see all forms of captive animal activity stop, and those with the budget to get on television.  However, the prize for quantity over quality goes to the Sanctuaries.  Starting with Big Cat Rescue and trickling on down to the other fine people who discovered filing for a 501C3 allows them to sucker the public into paying for their hobby, sanctuaries are creating articles, advertisements, petitions, fund raisers, and news stories with one basic goal: Generate money by discrediting everyone else.

Sadly, it’s working.

I will never forget the day that I was first called out as an evil beast that deserved to be beaten to death.  We had our Great Cats of the World Show at the Colorado Renaissance festival when, via a message on a public forum, I was told that I should be put down, and my cats should all be rescued and sent to the Wild Animal Sanctuary, where they would be cared for properly.

My heart fell, and I was instantly sick at the thought of my tiger, my Moxie, being taken from everything she knew and loved and thrown into general population among strange cats and strange people, fed a substandard diet of frozen mystery meat and made to endure such a harsh, barren climate.

Without any effort to discover what our cats’ home life looked like, how they were cared for, or what their futures would hold, every last one of them was condemned to banishment in an unfamiliar facility, all in the name of “Rescue.”

And what were they being rescued from?  Well according to the latest internet intelligence, ALL cats that you EVER see live on stage are horribly abused. They are kept confined in tiny crates, never get any vet care, and are only let out to get beaten and perform for slack-jawed idiots that don’t even realize they’re being duped into perpetrating a cycle of abuse.

And what was the source of this intelligence?  The supporters of the rescue facility!  Why do they want you, the public, to believe that? So that you will give them money to take care of the animals they rescued from horrible people like me.  It’s quite a downward spiral.

But let’s take a step back.  Is the sanctuary really a better place, just because it has an emotive business name and a pretty mission statement? 

With apologies to Pat Craig, I am going to use his facility, from the perspective of my one visit, to compare and contrast with Great Cats World Park.  I am using The Wild Animal Sanctuary, because that is where many of the people who hate us performing in Colorado think our animals should go.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary (TWAS) in Keenesburg, Colorado occupies 720 acres and houses more than 450 animals.  An adult visitor is charged $30 plus an “unspecified animal care donation” for admission which includes access to an audio tour.  Visitors move along an elevated walkway, looking down into the animals’ enclosures.  The animals are fed a mixture of meat which is frozen into blocks and pitched over the fences by volunteers.  I asked one of the keepers about the content of the blocks, and was told it was usually mostly chicken, but that it could depend as the food was largely made up of donations from grocery stores getting rid of old stock.  The animals are kept in large communal enclosures.

Great Cats World Park (GCWP) in Cave Junction, Oregon occupies 14 acres and houses 45 cats, about half of which are big cats.  An adult visitor is charged $15 for a fully guided tour.  Guests walk with a keeper in small groups learning about the cats, their behaviors, and their role in the wild, and have the opportunity to ask questions.  The cats are fed beef, equine, fish, rabbit, and chicken supplemented with a feline carnivore diet and specialized vitamin supplements.  Food is thawed, inspected, and portioned before being fed to the cats.  The cats are exhibited singly unless paired with a sibling or mate. 

Both facilities follow the same guidelines for housing and veterinary care.  Both facilities are regularly inspected by the USDA to assure compliance with laws regarding captive animal management.

The animals at TWAS were completely indifferent to the people on the catwalks.  Some of them got up and showed some interest when the meat blocks were thrown over the fences.  Others didn’t care. 

The Cats at GCWP are active and interested in the visitors.  They interact daily with familiar keepers, and are often given treats by the tour guides.

Overall, I found TWAS to be depressing.  Flat fields of brown grass with a few structures thrown around for shade, and a lot, and I mean A LOT of very dull, lifeless, and severely overweight lions and tigers.  If every one of them was rescued from a horribly abusive situation, then kudos to their keepers, but to try and condemn the cats of GCWP to that kind of life is completely contrary to the mission of every sanctuary I have ever heard of, even if some of those cats happen to be educational ambassador animals.

As far as the life those cats would theoretically be rescued from, let’s break it down:
*A vibrantly healthy cat walks calmly out on a stage to capture the attention of a crowd who then learns all about its life and habits. 
*The cat may interact with its handlers, show affection, climb a log or leap up to a platform.  Maybe even all of these things.
*That cat may be on stage from five to seven minutes before retiring to its quiet, private space for an hour or more.  
*This may happen three or four times in a day, and sometimes up to three days in a row. 
*Sometimes one cat may be introduced, but another cat walks out on stage.  This happens when a cat indicates that it would rather not participate.
*For the record – This show has been going on for 35 years, and never once was a cat harmed, and never has any member of the audience been harmed. 

So… Yeah.  Completely horrifying, right? 

In my opinion, when comparing life in that sanctuary to life with the show and back home in the park, the people screaming at me that I am abusing those cats are dead wrong.  Tigers are not meant to be on stage, and I get that.  They aren’t meant to lay around in groups waiting for chicken-flavored icicles to fall from the sky, either.  At least the ones that get interaction, that get stimulation, that have interesting habitats to explore, and get wholesome fresh food would appear to have a better quality of life. 

So again, why target my animals for “Rescue?”  They don’t need to be rescued.  Why do the sanctuaries need to point fingers and falsely vilify a situation that is not harming the animals? Do they need to discredit one business in order to make money for their own?  Is making someone out as the bad guy the only way they get to be a good guy?  Would it really kill them, or harm their mission to admit, just once, that maybe, just maybe, there IS a right and beneficial way to exhibit a tiger?  Or if that’s too crazy, maybe they could just ignore a show that is educational, fun, and not stepping on others to elevate itself.

PS. The, um, person, who initially started the ruckus which lead to me personally being called out as an evil animal abuser has openly admitted that she has never seen the show, or visited Great Cats World Park.  She has managed to stir up hundreds of arm-chair activists without ever pursuing a bit of evidence to back up her claims.  I don’t know if you call that talent or dedication.  I call it being an epic asshat, and now that I have quit the Park and the Show, I can say that out loud.

Coming up – Part Two.

I want to talk about where sanctuaries get their animals, how they are funded, and a bit more about that “Us vs Them” mentality.