Animal rights group slams OSPCA over tiger case

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An animal rights group says Ontario’s animal welfare agency didn’t go far enough after laying animal cruelty charges against a zoo owner famous for training animals for Hollywood movies.

In December, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released footage that appeared to show Michael Hackenberger repeatedly whipping one of his tigers at the Bowmanville Zoo and boasting about it.

Earlier this week, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals laid four counts of causing an animal distress and one of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of animal care, all under the authority of the provincial OSPCA Act.

“The OSPCA should have charged Hackenberger under the criminal route,” said lawyer Camille Labchuk, the head of Animal Justice, an animal rights organization.

“They’ve got a very strong case. This guy deliberately and wilfully caused pain to the tiger. It’s conclusive; the video doesn’t lie.”

The OSPCA has the authority to lay Criminal Code charges but chose not to, according to OSPCA senior inspector Jennifer Bluhm.

“In consultation with the Crown attorney, these five charges were the most appropriate in this case,” she said.

Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums — which represents zoos and aquariums in Canada and promotes the welfare of the animals they house — said Friday in a release that it has revoked Hackenberger’s professional membership for violations of its code of ethics.

“The finding follows an investigation by the CAZA ethics committee into allegations of animal abuse stemming from a third-party hidden-camera video recording released last December,” CAZA said.

A spokeswoman said CAZA could not comment further as the matter is before the courts. Hackenberger could not be reached for comment.

The video released by PETA allegedly shows Hackenberger lashing a tiger in the face with a whip.

A posting on the Zoo’s Facebook page says Hackenberger plans to contest the charges and has stepped down as director of the zoo “while the charges against him are being defended.”

In a statement on the OSPCA charges, posted on Wednesday night, the zoo described the charges as “politically driven,” and said they are “completely unwarranted and unsupported by the actual facts surrounding the allegations against Mr. Hackenberger.”

Meanwhile, PETA said it was satisfied its investigation was taken seriously.

“We’re really just happy that Michael Hackenberger has been charged with anything,” said PETA spokeswoman Brittany Peet.

She said the organization began looking into Hackenberger after he was seen on live television in Toronto last summer angrily cursing an unco-operative baboon that resisted riding a miniature horse.

So they enlisted one of their members to go undercover and begin working at the zoo with a hidden camera.

“It didn’t take long for the eyewitness to get that footage,” Peet said.

PETA claims the video shows Hackenberger repeatedly whipping a cowering tiger named Uno.

“Cause I like hitting him in the face and the paws … and the beauty of the paws being on the rock, when you hit them it’s like a vice … it stings more,” the video released by PETA has Hackenberger saying to the PETA member with the hidden camera.

Hackenberger claims that part of the video “was taken from somewhere (else).”

“That’s something that PETA has created and put in there,” he said in a video posted on the zoo’s Facebook page last December.

In the video, Hackenberger says he “got him twice” as the tiger came into a training ring the wrong way, but “after that every blow, or every whip of the whip you see, I do not strike the animal.”

And Hackenberger called allegations he hit the animal in the face “not true.”

“A tiger will not lay on the ground and allow itself to be struck as this videotape suggests,” he said of the PETA video. “They’ll turn around and they’ll try to kill you.”

PETA released that video in December, which made headlines around the world. The organization also sent a copy to the OSPCA.

Bluhm said the video is the key piece of evidence in the case, but they’ve also interviewed everyone involved in the incident, including the PETA undercover operative and Hackenberger himself.

It’s unclear if there have been problems at the zoo before. The OSPCA runs a voluntary zoo registry as part of the $5.5 million fund it receives each year from Ontario government.

The animal welfare agency said it inspects 69 zoos and aquariums in the province twice yearly, but cannot discuss the results of those inspections.

“We can only tell you we’ve been there, but not what we saw,” Bluhm said.

Many of the Bowmanville Zoo’s animals appeared in a variety of Hollywood movies. The zoo’s other tiger, Jonas, for example, is famous for appearing in the movie adaptation of “Life of Pi.” And many of its animals, including tigers, can be rented out for events or private encounters, according to the zoo’s website.

Hackenberger is set to appear in court on Tuesday.

He faces a maximum fine of $60,000, two years in jail and a lifetime ban from owning animals if convicted.