Months after the Bowmanville Zoo closed its doors amid heavy criticism over the treatment of animals, a newly rebranded business at the same property is raising concerns about the care of lion cubs.
On the Clarington Family Outdoor Adventure Park’s website, visitors have the option of booking an encounter with the lion cubs.
“We promise that the lion cub experience will make it all worth it in the end,” the website reads while listing booking procedures.
“All cub encounters include admission to the park! Cub encounters are half an hour long and please bring your cameras or at least a cellphone with a good camera because you will want to take pictures!”
It’s a program that has the group Animal Justice speaking out.
“This is a cynical attempt to bring people back to its premises,” Animal Justice executive director and animal rights lawyer Camille Labchuk said.
“Meanwhile it continues to carry on some of the same operations … showing animals, confining them in small cages and what we saw just this weekend is that the zoo is selling photo ops with baby lions.”
News of the program comes after animal cruelty concerns about the Bowmanville Zoo caused attendance to drop.
In April 2016, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) charged Bowmanville Zoo owner Michael Hackenberger with four counts of causing animal distress and one count of failing to comply with prescribed standards of animal care.
The charges stemmed from a hidden-camera video released by PETA in December 2015, which appeared to show Hackenberger whipping a Siberian tiger during a training session.
The OSPCA said earlier this year Hackenberger had five animal cruelty charges stayed in a Whitby, Ont., court because he had a stroke on Feb. 19 and was “medically unfit” to stand trial.
Although it’s a newer business, some of the employees and management from the Bowmanville Zoo are involved in operating the new facility.
Lynn Holland, who is working her second summer at the facility, said she has seen many changes and that the focus is on building new attractions.
“The plan is that the rest of the animals will be off property by this fall. We are just waiting for the forever homes and new habitats to be built,” she said.
“You need to come to the park and see that things are changing and things are happening in a different way and we are moving forward.”
Dr. Karen Cullen, a veterinarian at Clarington Family Outdoor Adventure Park overseeing the re-homing of the animals, responded to the criticisms and said the cubs’ interaction with visitors is beneficial.
“It’s very good for them to be handled because they need to be socialized to people so when they’re adults they’re not as dangerous,” she said.
Cullen said the money raised from the “cub encounters” is being reinvested in animal care.
“Because our numbers have dropped so significantly in the last two years, we need to do what we can to take care of the animals and that’s very costly,” she said.
“We’re allowing the cub encounters again this year and all of the proceeds from that will go directly into taking care of the animals.”
Meanwhile Dr. Heather Rally, a veterinarian with the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called photo opportunities with lion cubs “wrong and inhumane.”
“This is, like, the worst turn the facility could have taken … it’s just a blatant disregard for animal health,” she told Global News.
“Ripping cubs from their mothers prematurely is psychologically damaging and can be deadly. (It) can have real serious physical consequences for that cub.”
Rally said the demand for cubs means an overpopulation of the animals later on and the issue of carrying for the grown animals.
“The business of breeding tiger and lion cubs for use in these types of direct-contact programs has resulted in thousands of adult big cats, who are no longer useful for these programs, just being discarded to other roadside zoos, private backyards — even to dingy basements,” Rally said.
“They’re typically crammed into tiny cages.”
Alison Cross, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told Global News in a statement it was aware of the new facility opening.
“The Ontario SPCA will continue to facilitate regular inspections, as we would with any zoo open to the public, while animals remain in their care,” Cross wrote, adding anyone with first-hand concerns should call the animal protection agency.
With files from The Canadian Press