There is really no secret that life in a zoo enclosure is no life at all for wild animals. Over the past few decades, we have become increasingly aware of how life in captivity negatively impacts the mental and physical well-being of animals, and many people have spoken out against the cruel practice of caging animals for our entertainment. While we have seen many heartbreaking stories of animals reduced to emotionally and mentally bankrupt versions of their original selves, we are extremely hopeful that the tide against wild animal captivity is coming to an end! Especially so in light of the recent news that Canada’s Bowmanville Zoo is set to close due to lack of attendance in the wake of a PETA investigation that exposed the cruel treatment of animals.

In December 2015, PETA released undercover footage of zoo owner Michael Hackenberger, who was the trainer for the tiger in the film “Life of Pie,” viciously whipping a tiger. In the video, Hackenberger was caught hitting the Siberian tiger, named Uno, as part of a “training” session. Investigators stated the tiger was so traumatized, that he involuntarily emptied his anal sacs, a fear response in big cats.

Hackenberger was later 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.

Once this footage went public, animal activists and lovers everywhere spoke out decrying the abuse at the facility. As more and more people shared the footage and the accompanying story, fewer and fewer people showed up at the zoo’s doors. It has been around six months since this footage broke and according to Angus Carroll, director of communications for the zoo, attendance dropped 65 percent during that timeframe, effectively leading the zoo to have to close its doors. The facility is currently in the process of finding a new home for its animals, it has yet to be decided where the animals are headed, but we strongly hope that they will be retired to sanctuaries rather than shuttled to another zoo.

Carroll largely blames PETA’s campaign for the destruction of the zoo, stating, “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 … 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.”

While the campaign by PETA indefinitely was the spark that began the fire that engulfed the zoo, what Carroll fails to recognize is that people are starting to wake up to the reality of what zoos really represent … and frankly, they’re not buying it. Zoos often boast their contributions to conservation and commitment to education, specifically for kids, to justify keeping and breeding wild animals, but studies have shown that zoos are more effective in perpetuating the idea that animals are ours for the taking … and caging … then they are at inspiring effective conservation efforts. Not to mention, the large majority of animals that live in zoos are never released into the wild to contribute to their species numbers, and keeping animals in zoos detracts from the focus on conserving the natural habitats where many endangered species live. 

But as this case shows, with a little bit of knowledge and insight into life for animals in zoos – although it wouldn’t be fair to assert that ALL animals are beaten in the way tigers at Bowmanville were – people can make a real impact for captive animals. We all have the power to #EmptyTheCages by simply voting with our feet. By refusing to buy a ticket, we can help make zoos obsolete.

Want to learn some better ways to learn about wild animals and engage children to do the same, check out these resources:

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