April 14, 2016
Kate MacDonald, Chief Executive Officer
Ontario SPCA Provincial Office
16586 Woodbine Avenue, RR 3
Newmarket, ON, Canada , L3Y 4W1
Re: Bowmanville Zoo investigation.
Dear Ms. MacDonald,
I wish to express my concerns, on behalf of Born Free USA, about the episode captured on video at Bowmanville Zoo in which owner Michael Hackenberger brutally beats a tiger, and to sincerely thank the OSPCA for laying charges. I believe this is not an isolated incident; the history of both this facility and this individual illustrates a systemic pattern of animal abuse.
I have visited Bowmanville Zoo and known Mr. Hackenberger for many years, and over that time there have been consistent concerns about the zoo’s treatment of animals. As the following timeline demonstrates, Bowmanville Zoo has consistently prioritized profit and commercial schemes over animal welfare and public safety.
In the early days of Mr. Hackenberger’s ownership, dating from 1986, my colleagues at Zoocheck noticed ongoing issues, including a deer with apparently untreated eye problems. In the meantime, the zoo announced that it was expanding to include “charismatic megafauna,” including elephants and tigers. The zoo’s irresponsibility toward containing and caring for these animals was clearly demonstrated in 1991, during the Animal Fair Show, when Vance, an Asian elephant, charged at a keeper and Mr. Hackenberger ordered an emergency evacuation of the performance area. The patrons involved were later given a free ice cream cone and allowed to touch and interact with a female elephant, named Sheba.
This dangerous practice of allowing the unsuspecting public to interact with elephants continued as long as the zoo held elephants. For example, in 1996, The Toronto Sun featured a picture of Angus, an elephant from the zoo, being fed popsicles by three young children at the Canadian National Exhibition.
On January 30, 1999, the Weekend Post claimed that as of then, a Bowmanville Zoo lion named Bongo had been featured in no less than 14 movies and advertisements over the previous decade. That same year, one of the zoo’s lions, at Paramount Canada’s Wonderland, bit a trainer and was subdued with a fire extinguisher.
In 2000 the Winnipeg Humane Society gave the Shrine Circus, which featured elephants from the Bowmanville Zoo, a failing grade and the International Fund for Animal Welfare expressed concerns about Sheba, the elephant, being paraded in close proximity to the public in downtown Ottawa. Bongo the lion again was featured in a news report about the profits he generated through his “acting.”
In 2002 a former zoo employee claimed there was physical abuse of zebras, camels, horses, lion cubs, and elephants. It was even alleged that pregnant female reindeer were in injected with hormones to prolong their pregnancies so the animals could be used, with antlers, in an upcoming Christmas movie, and that this may have resulted in some calves being stillborn or miscarried. In the same year there was news that one of the zoo’s baby lion cubs was given to a friend to keep overnight to “socialize,” which violates husbandry best practices for the species. That same year one of the zoo’s Asian elephants was rented to the Winnipeg Shrine Circus and subsequently attacked her trainer at Assiniboine Park Zoo, after two previous attacks against her trainer, and amid allegations that the trainer subsequently “punished” her with a beating.
In 2003, in response to public concern about ill treatment of animals at the Bowmanville Zoo, the Greater Vancouver Zoo reconsidered its plan to send an Asian elephant named Tina to Bowmanville. Mr. Hackenberger denied allegations of animal abuse made at that time but eventually agreed not to take Tina. Meanwhile, Jim Fudge, president of CUPE Local 1600, asked the Toronto Zoo to reconsider borrowing Bowmanville Zoo camels for their camel ride feature due to concerns raised by former Bowmanville employees. Bowing to employee pressure, the seven camels were returned to the Bowmanville Zoo.
In 2005, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (now World Animal Protection) issued a report on Bowmanville Zoo entitled “Failing the Grade: A report on conditions in Ontario’s Zoos.” Bowmanville received a failing grade from independent assessor Ken Gold on five animal exhibits. Of primary concern were the Siberian tiger enclosure, public feeding of the animals, and animal performances. The following year, Angus the elephant died, apparently from a sedative given to him before flying him to South Africa to appear in a movie.
In 2008, one of the zoo’s lions attacked a martial arts teacher during a photo shoot. She suffered four broken ribs and a bloodied lung. That same year, animals shipped from Bowmanville to a circus were in a train crash in Newfoundland, again highlighting concerns about the risks and inappropriateness of transporting large animals for commercial purposes. The risk was further highlighted in 2010 in a bizarre incident where a tiger named Jonas and two camels where stolen from the zoo’s parked vehicle in Quebec.
Jonas was rescued from that fate, but was later shipped to Taiwan to appear in the movie Life of Pi. Mr. Hackenberger, while claiming expertise, reportedly did not know that Jonas had a large hole in his diaphragm where the liver pressed on the lungs. The tiger died during surgery that was performed once this serious congenital defect was discovered.
The public has seen Mr. Hackenberger’s inability to manage his anger when he used extremely vile language directed at a baboon that failed to perform a pony-riding trick on a live on TV show called Breakfast Television. This public incident raises serious concerns about how he treats animals in private.
It is easy for zookeepers and owners to claim expertise, to claim compassion, and to claim that they prioritize the welfare of their animals. Nevertheless, there is a clear pattern of abuse and exploitation with Mr. Hackenberger and the Bowmanville Zoo that creates a relevant context for the recent tiger video. On behalf of Born Free USA, I again thank you for your actions and wish you good luck in the courts.
Senior Program Associate, Born Free USA
Canadian Office: (905) 472-9731
OSPCA Chief Inspector Connie Mallory
OSPCA Supervisor of Zoo division Steven Toy
OSPCA Inspector Nicole Foster-Pratt