On Sunday, I visited Storybook Gardens. It has been four years since I was last there, on the coldest day of the year. At that time, I was checking things out in light of the new business plan that had been put forward by staff.
|Harbour seal photo courtesy of the city of London|
Many of the submissions dealt with the zoo operations of the park. This should have come as no surprise. The creation of the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee at city hall meant that those concerned about animal welfare had a forum for learning and sharing information. The mandate of that committee included making recommendations about the use of animals in entertainment. And it did.
Additionally, Londoners had recently become concerned about roadside zoos since our city had just received an international black eye in having within its city limits the Likkety-Split Zoo, notorious for its inadequate facilities, especially for Tyson, the kangaroo. That zoo was eventually shut down leaving Storybook Gardens as our only other zoo.
Although licensed by the province, the zoo at Storybook Gardens is the only municipally operated zoo that has not been accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Standards for zoos have been increasing; for the city to meet these standards in order to be accredited would cost millions of dollars, dollars which could not be reclaimed by box office sales. Although many visitors have a sentimental attachment to some of the animals, they are not a big attraction for children, holding their attention only briefly.
It is clear from the comments from the public at the April 2008 public participation meeting that the condition of the captive animals, both indigenous and exotic, were of foremost concern. Delegation after delegation spoke of the inadequate conditions, the small cages, the inability of the inmates to behave naturally due to the limitations of their imposed habitat. Many suggested that, failing major improvements and enlargements of the existing enclosures, the zoo be converted into an animal sanctuary or rehabilitation centre or, failing that, to have the animals relocated to more suitable surrounding.
Following the public participation meeting, the city invited the public to participate on a task force to make recommendations on the business plan. A number of work groups were established as part of this task force dealing with environmental initiatives, interactive play, literacy, storybook themes, and animal care. About 30 people responded to the invitation and participated, giving up their spare time to attend at four meetings over the summer. The Animal Care working group recommended that the wild animal portion of the zoo be phased out and improvements made for the remaining domestic animals. This, along with other recommendations, was submitted to council in time to be included in the 2009 budget.
The concern about the condition of the animals is clear from the recommendations made by staff. Nearly half of them dealt with this, including the following:
- Take immediate and low cost steps to improve conditions for the animals at Storybook.
- Bring no new animals to the park. Farm animals may well be seen as acceptable as they complement the petting zoo concept.
- Any animals leaving Storybook must be transferred to an equal or better environment.
- Members of the committee will continue to assist in the sourcing of alternative homes for specific animals.
This was the plan that was adopted by council in December 2008. It was recognized at the time that this would be a slow process. It is not easy finding appropriate accommodations for animals. Locations are few and transportation difficult and expensive.
But recently, some opportunities have presented themselves, thanks to the continuing efforts of Storybook Gardens staff and Friends of Captive Animals (FOCA) and its founder, Vicki Van Linden, who has been tireless in her efforts to improve the lives of animals in captivity. By working with Zoocheck, a national animal protection charity established in 1984 to promote and protect the interests and well-being of wild animals, they identified appropriate homes for the remaining wild animals at no cost to the city. Even the transportation costs, which can be formidable, are being covered by Zoocheck.
So where are they going?
According to the city press release,
- The four harbour seals will be moved to The St. Louis Zoo in Missouri, which is currently constructing a new, $18 million state-of-the-art pool
- The pair of Lynx will be moved to PAWS Wildlife Sanctuary in California
- The beavers and otter will be moved to Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary near Rousseau ON
- The birds of prey will be moved to Sandy Pines Wildlife Sanctuary near Nepean ON
It has been three years since council adopted the plan. Many of the current councillors wouldn’t be familiar with the history. Even for me, who had taken a great interest in the issue, a refresher course was in order.
That’s why I went back to the zoo on Sunday. I wanted to know what Londoners would be losing and what the animals would be gaining.
Storybook Gardens has been in my life since it opened in 1958. I routed for Slippery when he tried to make his great escape prior to the opening. Although thousands came out to greet him when he was finally captured and returned ten days or so later, I’m sure it was not a happy homecoming for him. There is little joy in swimming around in circles.
That’s what I saw on Sunday, the seals swimming in circles until feeding time when they entertained the skaters there with their antics in vying for fish. But the diversion was short-lived; soon the spectators returned to their skating and then their homes. The seals returned to swimming in circles.
"Last summer, our group did an observational study of the Harbour seals, with co-operation from management and staff,” says Van Linden. “We observed that the seals 'pattern swimming,' a repetitive behaviour that indicates stress. There were other problems directly related to the design of the pool. There is no way to fix these things without spending millions of dollars. So we are thrilled that these seals are going to move to a penthouse lifestyle in an $18 million dollar pool and habitat. We wish them well."
That thought was echoed by Cathy Casagrande, supervisor of guest services at Storybook. “We will miss the animals,” she acknowledged, but she recognized their lives would be significantly improved by being relocated. “We can only do so much, “she said.
It’s clear that the staff is much attached to the animals. The woman who was feeding the seals knew their sexes, their ages, their habits. She too will miss them.
When I reached the otter enclosure, the sole occupant immediately dove into the water and bobbed up and down in front of me. Whether he hoped to be fed or was just desperate for any diversion, I don’t know. But it must be lonely for a gregarious animal to live in solitary confinement. Life will be better in an animal sanctuary, for the otter and the beavers, too. I didn’t see the lynx.
I used to go to Storybook Gardens more frequently, chaperoning a grade 1 class and various nieces and nephews. I rarely stayed long at the animal enclosures; they just made me too sad.
But many Londoners will feel a sense of loss. It’s hard not to be sentimental over the components of what, in retrospect, is an idyllic childhood. They’ll be looking for an opportunity to say farewell. I’m sure that that too is part of the plan.
"We hope that kind Londoners will be generous in wishing these animals well. They are all going to facilities much better designed to meet their needs,” say Van Linden. “They deserve that, and we are thrilled that the animals are all taking a big step up in quality of life."