Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Don't save High Park Zoo.

If you google High Park Zoo today you'll likely see what I did: thousands of "Embattled High Park Zoo saved by last minute cash donation." The complete and total lack of original journalism or counterarguments aside, High Park Zoo had its budget cut in February and was basically screwed.

People who wanted the zoo to remain open have been fundraising, mainly through the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, and have raised about half of the original budget. Add a private funder, The Honey Family Foundation, who offered to match donations up to $50,000 per year and you've got a saved zoo!

For those of you who may not be familiar with the High Park Zoo, it's basically a bunch of enclosures (that date back to the 1890s, when they were used to hold captive deer) with animals like a yak, llama, bison, peacocks, and various other creatures. It's a free attraction and, according to the website, is very popular.

I don't want to rain on everyone's parade but it feels like this last minute redemption raises more questions than it answers. Let's start with non-animal related questions. The animals are cared for by Parks, Forestry and Recreation but it's almost impossible to understand whether or not the budget cut affects those individuals' jobs. I'd love to have an old budget breakdown for previous years and see how the funds were used and who administered them. Is that $114,000.00 used solely for animal care or does it also cover salary? Also, as with all services that get shifted from Government to Community, how can any institution run with uncertain funding?

Who are the Honey Family Foundation? There is no website for this Foundation, no link, no information, nothing.  In the Canada Revenue Agency Charities Directorate there is a "Honey and Leonard Wolfe Family Foundation" but that's about it. Even Private Foundations have to be registered with the CRA, so where is this mystery money coming from?

Here is why it's important to know where your money is coming from: many Charities and Foundations donate or invest money in things we may not agree with. A prime example is donations and investments in Israeli organizations/institutions/causes. Because many people don't agree with Israel's stance on Palestine and actively boycott anything to do with Israel, having money from a Foundation that supports Israel contribute to the reopening of a public zoo may be a conflict for some. As well, what kind of permissions or rights does such a large investment give to the Foundation? Naming Rights?Advertising Rights? If the zoo seeks out corporate investors then will it become the Pepsi Zoo?

Sarah Doucette, the City Councillor for Ward 13(High Park) says that the Honey Foundation donation gives the zoo time to "get more corporate donations and build [their] business plan."I would love to know why the High Park Zoo doesn't already have a business plan as well as an emergency contingency plan. For something that's been operating in one way or another since the 1900s the Zoo doesn't seem very prepared, which is a bit concerning where animals lives are involved.

So, there's that.

I know people are very sentimental about the zoo. It's a free place to take kids, it's been around forever, people's parents and grandparents went to the zoo. But sentiment and emotion can't really be our number one motivator when we're talking about creatures in captivity.

In one article, Sarah Doucette talks about visiting the zoo with her children and feeding the animals."She’s been “slimed’’ by gentle Jasper the bison, who shows his gratitude for awesome ungulate treats with dollops of drool." Of feeding the animals she says :“You can get up-close and personal with the animals here . . . they’ll smell you and breathe you. When I fed Jasper . . . he was so gentle.’

That the zoo is educational for children and offers them the opportunity to see animals "up close and personal" is a very popular argument for staying open, but I really question anyone who thinks that it is educational for a child to feed a bison. Encountering animals in captivity is not education, it teaches children that animals are there for their entertainment and enrichment. It teaches children that animals can and should be 'tamed', hand fed, touched, and photographed. I understand that wild animal encounters are few and far between in the City of Toronto but if you raise your child in a city chances are it won't see a bison.

I grew up in a remote area of Northern Alberta (where we didn't have a zoo). In the summer time bears were a regular fixture and the most important lesson I learned, which was hammered into my head in Grade 1 by my teacher whose husband was killed by a bear, was that wild animals are not toys and they first and foremost need distance from humans. Bears, our teacher told us, were not like teddy bears and resisting any temptation to touch or get close to them would probably save our lives. You don't want animals to "smell you and breathe you", wilderness and wild animals aren't a romance novel! We've driven animals to the brink (and beyond) of extinction because we want to be up close and personal with them.

Bison have been reintroduced in Alberta and roam in several parks. Knowing that a bison can kill you ensures that you won't pop out of your car when you see one and try to get near it. Bison are huge, roaming animals and I really can't imagine what keeping one in a paddock in the middle of a city teaches children.

Why not focus on teaching children about creatures that exist naturally in the GTA? Deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, skunks. High Park is gigantic and has so much wildlife in it, making it a perfect place for city kids to interact in healthy ways with animals. Hey, look, swans. Geese. Ducks. Instead of letting our kids feed these animals and chase them around, why not have a program that help kids understand observing without interfering? I once saw a group of children feed an entire loaf of bread to a Canadian Goose and try to pet it. Parents: geese can bite your child. Geese will bite your child if their are gosling around and you get too near them. There are educational opportunities abound in High Park without the zoo, and maybe it would be beneficial to focus on those.

And the most hated argument of all: should we really be keeping animals captive in Zoos or urban farms? I don't believe we should. The bison is a great example of why-what exactly is the purpose of keeping an animal that is born to migrate large distances in a small enclosure? I haven't been able to find an accurate list of the animals kept at the zoo but a few of them say that there are Capybara and Wallaby kept there, neither of which are found naturally in Canada. If there isn't proper and sustainable funding for the kinds of high quality care and habitats these animals need, then the zoo shouldn't exist, period. Is it humane to keep these animals? I would say that it isn't, but we all have different standards of what counts as humane treatment.

I can't be the only one who doesn't think this last minute donation is a reason to celebrate. Maybe the High Park Zoo should use this money to create a plan to return their animals to wherever they're loaned from or to the appropriate habitats safely and with the least amount of trauma possible and use the space for something else.


Anonymous said...

Well lots of viewpoints & arguments. I wanted to extend my view. 53 yr old white male here. I went to this zoo when I was a kid. I have taken my two kids there. I was there on my own yesterday. To me, an interesting & relaxing FREE thing to do. Here is my query..

The operating budget was quoted at $227,000 - I want to see a full breakdown please. The pens have not been altered / maintained in two decades. The fencing is heaving. I personally would expect this operation to have say 2 full time employees ($120,000) & some summer students. The animals are not consuming that filler figure in feed &

Anonymous said...

continued - the animals are not consuming the other half so my question is where is the other half of $227,000 actually going. I would like to see a full accounting of these budgets before donating or pressing city councel for continued funding. I expect you will find some corruption or preferred contractor or equivalent BS in action. Such is modern time, shut it all down & put up some condos.

tee said...

I think a full accounting of the budget would be a great thing to see,however, I've never seen it. City funds are never really fully accounted for and this is part of the problem with "saving" High Park Zoo. Any attraction that includes animals should be completely transparent, and High Park Zoo just doesn't seem worth saving if they can't even provide the animals with realistic, comfortable habitats.

Thanks for the comment!!

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