Ontario zoos offer up-close experiences with animals, flouting recommendations

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Two Ontario zoos are flouting global guidelines by offering visitors the chance to get up close and personal with wildlife, putting animals and guests at risk, says a report by an international advocacy group.

World Animal Protection compared programs at zoos around the world with the guidelines set out by the World Association for Zoos and Aquariums and found that dozens of international zoos, including African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ont., and Jungle Cat World in Orono, Ont., don’t comply with the rules.

African Lion Safari, the report notes, offers guests the chance to ride elephants, while Jungle Cat World, which is not affiliated with the international zoo association or its Canadian counterpart, lets visitors get close to wildcats for selfies.

“Those activities are cruel,” said Melissa Matlow, the Canada-based campaign director at World Animal Protection. “The animals are stressed when they’re constantly being held or patted or forced to give rides or to perform tricks. This is an unnatural activity for them.”

The report comes just over a month after a trainer at African Lion Safari was badly injured in what police described as an elephant attack. Few details have been released about the incident, and Ontario’s Ministry of Labour is investigating. Neither that zoo nor Jungle Cat World responded to multiple requests for comment.

“All wild animals are dangerous. They can seriously injure people, or even kill people,” Matlow said, adding that her organization would like to see more clarity in the WAZA policy.

Her group would also like for WAZA to give its member zoos and aquariums a set time frame to institute all of its animal welfare guidelines before being kicked out of the organization.

WAZA guidelines for zoos and wildlife parks say that while it’s OK in some circumstances for guests to interact directly with the animals, there need to be constraints on what those experiences look like.

“Do not undertake, contribute or participate in animal shows, displays or interactive experiences where animals perform unnatural behaviours,” the group’s “Caring for Wildlife” policy book reads. “Species conservation should be the overriding message and/or purpose.”

In a written statement responding to the report, WAZA noted that not all of the zoos examined in the report were affiliated with the association, contrary to what World Animal Protection wrote.

The group said that it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the attractions that aren’t among its members, but noted that its guidelines are available for everyone to read and recommended zoos follow them regardless of whether they are affiliated with WAZA.

It said that it endeavours to address animal welfare concerns within the members “quickly and effectively whenever possible,” but it didn’t say what recourse there is for those who stray from the rules.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press