Bowmanville Zoo to close this year amid animal welfare controversy and dwindling attendance

Under fire from animal rights activists and dogged by controversy, the Bowmanville Zoo is shutting its doors for good.

Officials with the Ontario facility, which opened in 1919 and is North America’s oldest private zoo,  held an unexpected press conference Thursday saying that “untrue allegations” by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had driven away visitors causing unmanageable financial woes.

The zoo’s animals, which include tigers, lions, giraffes and baboons among its 300 critters, will go to new homes. But the facility also warned, some animals may lose their lives because of the closure if new homes can’t be found. Dozens of staff members will lose their jobs when the facility closes at the end of this year, the zoo says.

The zoo’s director, Michael Hackenberger, had already quit after being charged with animal cruelty. That came after PETA released a series of video that appeared to show him whipping a tiger during a training session.

The videos are tough to watch.

The zoo shot back with its own video responding to what characterized as “PETA’s lies.”

But after PETA’s second video, the Bowmanville Zoo said:

“As with the first release the shots and dialogue are taken out of context and do not represent a true picture of Bowmanville Zoo and how the animals are treated and handled. Further comments at this time are impossible due to the ongoing OSPCA investigation, which Bowmanville Zoo welcomes and is completely cooperating with,” it said.

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Lion at Bowmanville Zoo/Facebook

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it started investigating in the wake of the videos and charged Hackenberger with four counts of causing an animal distress and one count of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for an animal.

“Animal cruelty is a serious offence,” the OSPCA said in a release in April. “Our investigative unit has spent significant time reviewing the facility and interviewing all involved. Our priority is always the health and welfare of the animals.”

Which brings us to this week, when officials said attendance has dropped dramatically, down 65 per cent since last summer and that there was no way to recover.

“What they said is not true,” it wrote in a letter on Facebook. “But it doesn’t matter – the damage is done.”

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Serval cat at Bowmanville Zoo/Facebook

Here is the full letter:

It is with great sadness that we announce that at the end of the 2016 season, Bowmanville Zoological Park will be closing.
As the oldest private zoo in North America, established in 1919, Bowmanville Zoo has been a destination for millions of guests. In addition, the zoo’s animals have appeared in countless film, television, documentary and live productions. If you watch TV or go to the movies, you’ve seen our animals.
The untrue allegations made by PETA in regards to a tiger incident have created a climate in which the zoo can no longer operate. People are staying away because they believe PETA’s allegations. The fact is PETA released only a short piece of a long video, and then misrepresented what transpired in that short part. What they said is not true, but it doesn’t matter – the damage is done.
Bowmanville Zoo is proud of its long history of superb animal care, conservation work and celebrating the human-animal bond.
From walking African elephants to Queen’s Park to draw attention to the plight of elephants, to recent work on new non-invasive stress testing techniques for camels, to fulfilling a dying child’s wish to have time with a lion cub, the Zoo has always emphasized conservation, education and a passion for animals.
Although there is no way forward at this point, we would like to thank our many constituencies.
First, one of our greatest pleasures has been our co-op program where young kids get to work with animals. To watch them learn and grow never ceased to amaze and delight us. We will miss them.
Second, the residents of Bowmanville have always been enthusiastic supporters of the zoo and we have made many good friends over the years and take many fond memories with us – our thanks to our community.
Finally – and most importantly – thanks to our guests. Operating a zoo is an expensive endeavour. Without you, our dreams would never have been possible. We have always tried to make a visit to the Bowmanville Zoo special. We will miss you most of all.
The world is changing. There is no doubt about that. But while we are texting and sharing videos, living vicariously through smartphones, we hope the world doesn’t lose sight of the special bond between animals and humans, a bond that comes from holding, playing and laughing. The digital world is great, but it cannot replace real life. If we lose zoos, we will all lose something very important, something that connects us to a dwindling natural world, not through WiFi, but through touch, voice and emotion.

Many zoo-goers posted their support of the facility and decrying PETA’s tactics on social media, while others said it was time for the zoo to go.

PETA issued a statement saying: “Our investigation dispels all doubts that not only should this animal prison close, it never should have opened.”

Photos Bowmanville Zoological Park/Facebook

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