The Bowmanville Zoo is closing at the end of its 2016 season due to a significant decline in attendance, months after the zoo’s director was charged with animal cruelty-related offences amid allegations of abuse.
Angus Carroll, director of communications for the zoo, said it was “with great sadness” the facility was forced to close after attendance fell by more than 65 per cent following the allegations of animal mistreatment, which stemmed from a video released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in December.
“The untrue allegations made by PETA in regards to a tiger incident have created a climate in which the zoo can no longer operate. People are staying away because they believe PETA’s allegations,” he said.
“The fact is, PETA released only a short piece of a long video and then misrepresented what transpired, even in that short part. What they said is not true, but it doesn’t matter. The damage is done.”
The hidden camera video appeared to show zoo director Michael Hackenberger hitting a tiger with a whip during a training session, while overheard saying he can use it to “carve my initials in their side.”
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it began investigating alleged abuse at the Bowmanville Zoo immediately after reviewing the PETA footage.
On April 13, the agency said Hackenberger was charged with four counts of causing an animal distress and one of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for an animal. Three of the distress charges relate to the use of a whip.
“Bowmanville Zoo owner Michael Hackenberger was caught on camera mercilessly whipping a tiger and boasting about the pleasure that he derives from intimidating and dominating animals—which dispels all doubts that this animal prison not only should close but also never should have been opened in the first place,” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in an emailed statement to Global News.
“If that weren’t enough, there is also the tape of a TV segment in which Hackenberger swore at a baboon who failed to obey him quickly enough. The man’s a bully, he’s facing prosecution from the Crown for cruelty, and some condos will go nicely in Bowmanville.”
Caroll added that the Bowmanville Zoo – established in 1919 – is the oldest private zoo in North America. He said it was sad to see it closing three years shy of its 100th anniversary.
“The zoo attendance is down dramatically, and in fact that hardly captures it. Catastrophically. So, there just isn’t enough money to run this zoo at this time,” he said, adding that dozens of employees would lose their jobs.
“They can see that there aren’t many people here. Many of them are heartbroken to say the least. People think running a zoo is just a bunch of animals in cages but that’s just not the case. A lot of our handlers and keepers are very attached to the animals and they’re very sad.”
Caroll said the zoo was working to find new homes for certain animals, with large predators taking priority.
“The large cats, wolves, baboons. We believe we’ll find homes for all the animals but that may take some time. There probably will be animals on this property for a year, maybe more,” he said.
“All options that we have have been exhausted. You can’t run a zoo without paying people to take care of it and the money to run it and we feel this is a tragic example of being tried in the public court before being tried in the real court.”
Caroll said Hackenberger believes he is innocent of all charges, which is something he said the zoo staff agree with.
“But the verdict is in, people vote with their feet. And they have voted here. There are people staying away in droves and we can’t afford to operate the zoo,” he said, adding that there had not yet been discussions with the Toronto Zoo on the transfer of animals.
“It depends on people. It seems like a silly answer but it’s the only one. If people started to come back to the zoo in droves would that make a difference? Yes. But the sort of PR campaign that’s been carried on against the zoo by PETA is very effective and they’ve convinced a lot of people that the work we do here is not important.”
Caroll said zoo officials would put their “anger aside” over the allegations to support the staff and animals, but added it looked like this was the zoo’s “last chapter.”
The OSPCA said in a statement Thursday they could not comment on the details of the case because it remains before the courts.
With files from The Canadian Press and Christina Stevens