On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
After a six-day trial last month, a federal judge reprimanded a roadside zoo in Cumberland, Maryland, for mistreating its exotic animals and ruled that it will have to find decent new homes for them.
She deemed the zoo’s surviving big cats, lemurs and other species “really lucky.”
But the Tri-State Zoo in Cumberland isn’t the only roadside zoo within a day’s drive from Washington, D.C. Highway billboards encourage drivers to exit for petting zoos, safaris and other close encounters with animals.
Who is regulating these attractions? And how do you know which treat their animals well?
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast, the school nurse shortage. How bad is it and how is it affecting Washington area students? But first a federal judge last month slammed a zoo in Cumberland, Maryland for mistreating its animals including a lion and tiger that died under its care. The case made headlines, but it's far from the only instance in which a so called roadside zoo has evaded scrutiny until or even after animals have suffered and died. Who is watching out for the exotic and domesticated animals that windup in captivity, and locally how do you know whether an attraction treats its animals well?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Brittany Peet, Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation. Brittany Peet, thank you for joining us.
BRITTANY PEETThank you for, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with me in studio is Karin Brulliard a Washington Post Reporter, who writes about animals. Thank you for joining us.
KARIN BRULLIARDThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIBrittany, I'll start with you. The PETA Foundation sued the Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland, Maryland in federal court. Why did you sue?
PEETPETA filed a lawsuit against Tri-State in 2017 in federal court, because conditions for the federally protected animals there at the time that we sued there were two tigers, two lions at the time that we noticed the suit, which was just over 60 days prior and two lemurs. And the care for those animals across the board, veterinary care, sanitary conditions, appropriate food, everything was lacking. And in the two years since we filed, five of the animals have died as a result of inadequate care at the facility.
NNAMDIDid you prevail in that lawsuit? Did you win the case?
PEETSo we're still waiting for the judge's written opinion, but she did make clear at the end of trial that she would be ruling in PETA's favor and that the remaining animals -- the surviving animals, the two tigers and lion who are still living, she would order them to be transferred from the facility. So we're just waiting to see what the breadth of the opinion is. But thankfully we did prevail.
NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that this ruling does not apply to all the animals at the Tri-State Zoo. Why not?
PEETThat's right. So the Endangered Species Act has what's called a citizen's suit prevision that allows essentially anyone who has been injured by the treatment -- inappropriate treatment of animals to go into court and sue on behalf of animals. The federal law that regulates warm-blooded animals in zoos generally, the Animal Welfare Act, doesn't have a citizen suit provision. So we were only able to get into federal court under the Endangered Species Act on behalf of the tigers, the lions and the lemurs.
NNAMDIPETA has helped find new homes for Tri-State animals. Where are they going?
PEETSo the two tigers and lion will be headed to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. We've worked with the Wild Animal Sanctuary on rescuing dozens of other animals from roadside zoos in the past. And they are wonderful professionals, who will be able to rehabilitate these animals and safely transport them all the way from Maryland to Colorado.
NNAMDIWe invited the owner of the Tri-State Zoo to participate in this broadcast, but he did not get back to us after telling us that he would need to vet our invitation with his lawyer. Karin, it took a non-profits lawsuit to save animals at the Tri-State Zoo. Aren't federal, state or local officials charged to protect captive animals?
BRULLIARDWell, at the local and state level it varies a lot. Some require permitting and inspections, others don't. But all exhibitors of warm-blooded animals, which is to say most think we of as zoos or circuses require a license from the USDA. And they do routine surprise inspections to make sure that these facilities are complying with federal animal welfare laws. And if they aren't they get citations. The citations can lead to penalties and can lead to revoked licenses. But as I reported in the Post in the past year, the number of citations issued by the USDA in the current administration have really plummeted something like 65 percent between 2016 and 2018. So, you know, the enforcement that the USDA is carrying out has pulled back dramatically.
NNAMDIDo you have any idea why that is?
BRULLIARDWell, the USDA says that they are trying a new approach that hues more closely to the sort of word for word federal regulations. And that they're working more closely with licensed facilities to quickly resolve problems. On the other side you have -- I've spoken to several former inspectors and supervisors not to mention members of Congress, who say that this approach really lets violators off the hook, it shields them from public scrutiny, and it is abdication of the responsibility of the USDA.
NNAMDIAnd I think you reported that enforcement was not that strict to begin with.
BRULLIARDThat's right. These are minimum standards under any circumstances. And, you know, revoked licenses, even penalties are -- were quite rare even to begin with.
NNAMDIBrittany, do we have any idea how many people hold licenses for private zoos or aquariums?
PEETSo PETA is tracking almost 800 facilities that exhibit animals to the public across the United States. We suspect that there are more that we aren't tracking. So the number is likely closer to 1,000.
NNAMDIHere now is Jay, who is in Ward 7 in the District of Columbia. Jay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAYHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me. So, yes. I'm a mom. I have two children and counting. And every time we go to the zoo my kids remark about how sad the animals look. And I think it's -- we try our best not to go to the zoo. But every now and then on field trips you have to go, but I think it's an ethical issue. I think it's an environmental stewardship issue. I mean, when we look around the world indigenous populations teach us that nature is sacred. And I do not think having these animals in captivity is sacred or respecting nature.
JAYSo I think it's time to stop keeping animals out of their natural environments for our entertainment only. You know, when you look at the outcomes, the life expectancies of the animals that live in zoos and in captivity it's very poor. There's been numerous numerous numerous documentaries about the sea life animals at Sea World and all around the world. And so I think it's time for us to let the animals be in their natural environment. It's time phase out zoos.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. For a response to that, I'll turn to Kris Vehrs, Executive Director of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, who joins us by phone. Kris Vehrs, thank you for joining us.
KRIS VEHRSMy pleasure.
NNAMDII'm assuming you just heard what our last caller had to say. How would you respond?
VEHRSI guess I would respond that AZA believes the value in the value of good zoos. We believe that the public needs to learn about these animals, their plight in the wild and what the public can do to help save wildlife and wild places. That's what a responsible zoo, an AZA accredited zoo and aquarium does. And unfortunately much of the public will not have the opportunity to go visit those animals in the wild.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about your accreditation process in a second. But first, Karin, earlier this year you reported a comprehensive piece on tigers in captivity. What did you discover?
BRULLIARDWell, we started that piece in part, because there are -- often when you do the kind of reporting I do you often hear these numbers thrown out there are 5,000, there are 10,000, there are 15,000 tigers living in backyards and basements in America and no one knows where they are. And our idea was, well, maybe we can try to figure out where they are. And one of the important, although not surprising in some ways, discoveries was that we couldn't find out where they are, because no one is counting them. There are, you know, the ones that are at USDA licensed facilities are more or less counted.
BRULLIARDBut there are many others in other mostly, you know, smaller zoos that no one is keeping much track of. And in some places there are ways for people to get a tiger pet if they want to and not a lot of obstacles in their way. So, you know, the population and sort of what happens to these tigers once they grow past their sort of cute and cuddly stage remains a big mystery here.
NNAMDIAnd I think you can answer this question that Steven in Potomac has. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, allow me to ask the related question. I just came on as you were talking about the tigers. And I am assuming that's in reference to the New York Times article about there being more tigers in captivity than in the wild.
NNAMDINo. This was as a result of Karin Brulliard's own reporting.
NNAMDIBut she can also -- is that what your question is?
STEVEShe's probably read the New York Times piece. But I think it's important in the context of what's going on and the rest of the Trump administration, how would you rate the emphasis given to the Department of Agriculture's responsibilities overall to do its job with regards to both tracking and monitoring the care of animals in captivity.
NNAMDIKarin, talk about your own reporting that suggests that there may now be more tigers in the United States in captivity than there are in the wild.
BRULLIARDI guess, I'd put the emphasis on maybe there. We don't have -- like I said before there is no way to count these. I do not -- we put public records requests in every state in the country. We put public record requests into, you know, USDA and looking for records anywhere we could for tigers. I did not come across evidence that there is a large population of pet tigers out there. I don't think that's the case anymore. It might have been the case 15-20 years ago. But, you know, there aren't that many in the wild. That's the first place to start, which is that there are something like 4,000 tigers in the wild. And we know of a couple thousand here that are counted. And so it's very possible there are more here than there are in the wild.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. Kris Vehrs, for 40 years you've worked for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which sets what many call the gold standard for accreditation of animal attractions. What do they that is the zoos and aquariums, have to do to get the AZA's stamp of approval?
VEHRSWell, they have to undergo a very tough rigorous inspection by a team of experts that always includes a veterinarian, an operations husbandry expert, and our team is looking at animal care including the living environments and daily enrichment, the veterinary programs including preventative medicine. Financial stability, a really important thing, we want to make sure that these zoos and aquariums that are accredited by us have the where with all the resources to operate professionally. Risk management, that's an important one, we want to make sure that the facilities are safe for the animals, the staff and the visitors.
VEHRSConservation education programs are required by all our members, conservation efforts. Staffing levels, we want to make sure there's sufficient numbers of staff and that they're trained properly, and then another key one is governing authority kind of a relationship. We want to make sure that the governing authority has the proper relationship, responsibility, respect with those in charge.
VEHRSSo yes, it's a very rigorous process and we do not accredit all that go through the process.
NNAMDITell us what is a AZA accredited in this Greater Washington area.
VEHRSWell, we have the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, the National Aquarium, and then a little broader down in Virginia Beach, we've got the Virginia Zoological Park, Virginia Living Museum and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. Those are all accredited by AZA.
NNAMDII noticed you didn't mention the Tri-State Zoo. So I'm concluding that the Tri-State Zoo does not have AZA accreditation.
VEHRSThey do not have AZA accreditation and I do not believe that they would meet the AZA standards based on what I've read.
NNAMDIKarin, even people who suspect that a zoo or other animal attraction does not treat animals well may still decide to patronize them. What's the allure of a close encounter with an animal?
BRULLIARDWell, I'll speak from personal experience here, which is I have two small children, and they are obsessed with animals. They love animals. They talk about animals all the time. And, you know, I think there is something special about seeing an animal up close and personal that's different from seeing one on television or in a book.
NNAMDIYou've also said that you don't like the term roadside zoo. Why not?
BRULLIARDWell, I don't use that term in my reporting, in part, because like a lot of terms in controversial discussions it's become somewhat weaponized, but also because there's just no general -- there's no agreed upon definition for that, nor is there one for animal sanctuary or animal rescue. You know, when it comes to facilities that hold animals there's a very wide spectrum from terrible squalid zoo to the best, you know, or most wide open sanctuaries at the most top notch facilities. And in between there's a lot of grey. So, you know, when I write about these things I try hard to describe places rather than put a label on them.
NNAMDIBrittany, you and your organization PETA take a decidedly negative view of keeping animals in captivity. Why?
PEETPETA's position is that wild animals belong in the wild. And that when they can't be they belong in these top notch facilities that Karin is talking about that have the resources and the facilities and the professional staff and the ware with all to care for these animals for the rest of their lives. And that they shouldn't be abused in facilities like Tri-State. And they shouldn't be used for entertainment.
NNAMDIAre zoos in your view doing any good work?
PEETAbsolutely. AZA zoos in particular have some really great programs in the United States. I think a lot of people don't realize that all of the grizzly bears and North American black bears in AZA accredited zoos are actually rescued. Most of them are cubs, who were orphaned in the wild or bears who were habituated by bad acts from humans. And that's a wonderful program. And AZA zoos have also rescued animals from roadside zoos and we're very excited for them to continue with that good work.
NNAMDIHere's Alison in Manassas. Alison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALISONHi, I just wanted to comment on a few things. It sounds like the first caller is misinformed. I find it well documented that many captive species actually do live longer in captivity. And animals under human care are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. They provide valuable opportunities for children and adults to learn about and participate in conservation. I am a very active zoo visitor and I bring my son to many zoos whenever I get the chance. And I think it's important for individuals to make their own -- come to their own opinions when they visit a zoo. Every zoo is different. And I think they are -- they have value.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Kris Vehrs, that's essentially an endorsement. So should anyone feel ever bad about going to the zoo?
VEHRSWell, I think the public should make responsible choices. And that they should go to zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There are good zoos accredited by the AZA and there are other zoos. And an accreditation in our view is a huge distinction. And so those responsible choices are very very important.
NNAMDIAnother question along that line has come from someone, who self identifies as Kojo in Washington D.C. That's not me. But Kojo, go ahead, please.
KOJOAll right. So my question is -- I mean, we know, how some animals are preys and how some are like, you know, most are taken from their natural habitats into like, you know, cages and all that what is like not respected of animals, so why then is there not anything done like, you know, to kind of like -- I'm sure a bunch of these animals like the wild ones could be taken back to their homeland.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Kris Vehrs respond. Kris Vehrs, it seems that the essential word in Kojo's question is some -- some animals.
VEHRSWell, and most animals in AZA accredited zoos actually were born in AZA accredited zoos and aquariums. We have very robust scientific programs for conservation breeding. And our zoos are also involved in saving animals in the wild. We have a program called Saving Animals from Extinction and lions one of our big cats, that's one of our major focuses is trying to save lions in the wild.
NNAMDIKarin, even AZA accredited and widely respected zoos and aquariums sometimes decide that they themselves are not being fair to their animals. Tell us about the National Aquarium in Baltimore and its dolphins.
BRULLIARDThe National Aquarium announced, three years ago that it decided to close its dolphin exhibit or it would eventually close its dolphin exhibit and move its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary. And its CEO -- I've spoken to its CEO John Racanelli and he's told me they made this decision to -- as he put it "Do better for dolphins." This was partly sparked by the deaths of two calves in 2011, but also the realization that their facility was old. They were going to be needing to make some decisions about it and whether it was, you know, the time to upgrade or time to stop.
BRULLIARDSo he says they want to give dolphins more choice and control over their lives in a natural setting. But I also think it's important that the aquarium did research on public opinion and came to the conclusion as well that this was -- having a dolphin show and dolphin exhibit was something of a reputational liability. They found that people's, you know, approval of dolphin shows and exhibits particularly younger people was falling.
NNAMDIBrittany, let's get back to the Tri-State Zoo. PETA wants to shut it down. How will you try to make that happen?
PEETWell, I am an attorney and I apologize for this lawyerly answer, but we are evaluating our options right now. But one of the things that we can do -- some of the testimony in the case relating to the deaths of the animals is extremely compelling. One of the tigers, India, died from sepsis because of a horrible infection that ravaged her body and the necropsy showed that here organs and muscles were full of puss. And her ears had been so terribly bitten by flies that the person -- the veterinarian who performed the necropsy thought that they had been surgically cropped.
PEETSo we're going to be able to take that evidence to the USDA and we'll ask the USDA to revoke Tri-State's license, because exhibitors that violate federal, state or local laws aren't eligible to be licensed. And so one of the things that we'll definitely do is go to USDA and ask them to revoke the license. So Tri-State isn't able to operate a zoo in the first place.
NNAMDIKris Vehrs, it's my understanding that you're retiring next month after four decades accrediting zoos and aquariums. Do you think animals in captivity are generally better treated than they once were?
VEHRSYes, I do. Certainly by AZA accredited zoos and aquariums. We have made major milestones in our accreditation program over the last four decades. And every time we learn more we up our standards. So our standards are revised every single year.
NNAMDIWell, Kris Vehrs, good luck in your future and thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIKris Vehrs is the Executive Director of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Karin Brulliard is a Washington Post Reporter who writes about animals. Thank you for joining us.
BRULLIARDThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Brittany Peet is Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation. Brittany, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, the school nurse shortage, how bad is it and how is it affecting Washington area students? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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