By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
CALEDONIA—Global non-profit group World Animal Protection raised some local eyebrows recently with a report on private zoos, dubbed ‘roadside zoos’ by the report, which was submitted as an official complaint to the provincial government. The report lists Caledonia’s Killman Zoo amongst 11 similar private attractions in Ontario.
Michéle Hamers was the lead researcher behind the report. She has a background in captive wildlife welfare and behaviour, a BSc in Animal Husbandry and Welfare, an MSc in Animal Biology and Welfare, with a specialization in captive wildlife behaviour. She is a member of the Royal Society of Biology and a designated European Professional Biologist.
Hamers spoke to The Press about the issues she claims are going unaccounted for at Killman Zoo.
“This zoo has a lot of lions, tigers, and other large carnivores. In the wild, these animals have large home ranges, but at this facility, animals spend most of their time in small barren enclosures, without anything to do,” she asserted. Hamers added, “The enclosures are rudimentary, the animals live in spartan conditions, and indoor enclosures are, as far as we could observe, nonexistent.”
She added, “Animals have little access to shelter or privacy.”
The Press visited Killman Zoo to view the facilities with owners Joanne and Mark Killman and some of the staff.
The Killmans disagree with the report’s assertion about the size of their enclosures, which vary in size and form based on the animals housed within, noting that the animals also have access to larger ‘pond runs’ where they “run, they play, they have a blast,” according to staff member Andre, who requested his last name not be used as he says it is not uncommon for zoo staff to be targeted for harassment.
Hamers sees things differently, claiming the zoo is acting in contravention to standards laid out by the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, which she says requires “animals should be kept in enclosed structures or areas … of an adequate and appropriate size to facilitate and stimulate natural behaviours.”
Joanne countered, “As we walk around today, you’ll see lots of lions snoozing in the sun. Does that make them depressed or unhappy? I don’t know, but I know lions sleep a lot, like a domestic cat.”
Hamers said she is also concerned about public safety at the zoo: “Lions are kept behind deer-fencing, a type of fence that is completely inadequate to contain potentially dangerous animals. Enclosures that don’t have a roof also lack an appropriate overhang – to prevent animals from being able to climb over the fence.”
Animal enclosures at Killman Zoo typically have two layers of fencing, with the outer fencing in place to stop the public from interacting directly with the animals. Andre called the inner fence line “high tensile fencing that could stop a truck…. Visually they may look very similar, but that’s a different type of fencing.”
On the criticism of a lack of overhangs, the Killmans pointed out that their fences do include overhangs that have passed inspection. For animals that pose a digging risk, “those fences go down and they go in seven to eight feet,” explained Andre, who described a scenario when zoo staff had to react to a potential risk. “We had one cat that we noticed could climb better than any cat before. She’s a one-year-old jaguar in her prime. We took it upon ourselves to enclose her pond run completely. We may be setting a standard for others that have jaguars like this.”
Hamers listed other potential safety concerns, including a “stand-alone perimeter fence which would prevent animals from leaving the zoo premises in the event of an escape, as well as would prevent people from entering the property unsupervised.”
Hamers said ensuring healthy animals is about more than meeting basic needs: “When animals are kept in undersized enclosures for a long time without anything to do, it can lead to behaviours that don’t occur in the wild, also known as abnormal behaviour, including but not limited to lethargy, pacing, and hyper-aggression.”
Another aspect of the report commented on a macaw, currently housed in an enclosure alone. Joanne said the bird had to be kept alone as it had killed another bird in an enclosure prior to coming to the zoo.
Hamers responded, “The solitary confinement of this bird is not the only issue. The cage in which this animal is kept is undersized, the animal isn’t able to fly (or) seek shelter or privacy.”
She said that animals living in small enclosures can develop a series of health problems over time, including joint and muscle issues due to lack of exercise, foot problems due to living on ‘hardpan’ floors, and the risk of obesity.
The Killmans countered by saying the animals are routinely examined by veterinarians, and that they receive plenty of opportunity for exercise as part of their daily routines.
In addition to the many big cats on-site, the zoo is host to several native animals, many of whom were brought to the zoo for care and cannot be released to the wild due to issues ranging from injury to disposition.
“If they can’t be re-released … for whatever the reason is, then the only other option is captive living or euthanizing. If there’s the ability to house them in captivity, now you have an ability to teach about why that animal is here,” said Joanne.
Hamers asserts the Province has “normalized” non-compliance of existing standards, with many of the current standards listed being “unenforceable.”
“Additionally, the province has not regulated which exotic animals an individual is able to keep…. The province also has failed to regulate the activities you can do with these animals.… This means that anybody can own a lion, tiger, or open a zoo-type facility unless the municipality has regulations in place,” said Hamers. “It is estimated that about half of municipalities don’t have any bylaws in place that would prevent people from owning wild exotic animals.”
Hamers would like to see a new licensing system where the “highest animal welfare and public health and safety standards are applied.”
Joanne said the zoo has two annual inspections, in addition to spot inspections that can occur unannounced at any time throughout the season. Inspections are typically completed by two inspectors and a veterinarian. She added, “We don’t know what else to say.”
Hamers concluded, “This is not the first time that the Killman Zoo has been assessed by animal welfare experts. Reports go as far back as the early 2000s. This shows that it’s the government that needs to step in and that we can’t rely on these facilities to regulate themselves.”
Joanne summed up her thoughts on the report overall: “Some of their points are valid. There’s always room for improvement, simple as that…. This little zoo has done 28 rebuilds in 10 years. If that’s not improvement, I don’t know what is.”
The WAP report remains under review, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, with the allegations against all 11 zoos being considered.
“They say we’re a roadside zoo, that makes us sound like we’re a travelling circus. It doesn’t say that we’ve been here for 43 years,” concluded Andre.