June 23, 2007
Critics accuse Taronga and Western Plains zoos of putting commercialism before animal welfare, writes Kelly Burke.
THE Sydney veterinarian Dr Tom Lonsdale has written to politicians and protested to zoo directors. He has badgered zoo keepers, been threatened with legal action and wrote about it in his 2001 book, Raw Meaty Bones.
But 12 years after first seeing the sponsor’s sign, the cheetahs at Western Plains Zoo are still being fed Whiskas Milk Plus.
“They have assured me they draw the line at jelly-meat,” he says. “But the justification that they ‘like’ Whiskas milk is about as absurd as saying nicotine addicts ‘like’ smoking.”
While Uncle Ben’s, according to its old sponsorship sign, said it was supplying “an essential vitamin supplement” to the cats, Lonsdale begged to differ. He still says a processed liquid food has no place in any adult wild animal’s diet.
It was a clear case, he argued, of zoo management placing their sponsors’ needs above the animals’ wellbeing.
Uncle Ben’s longstanding sponsorship of the cheetahs at Dubbo (and a since deceased white tiger at Taronga) ended in 2005. But the wild animals are still enjoying “sporadic” treats of Whiskas Milk Plus, according to the director of Taronga and Western Plains zoos, Guy Cooper.
The orang-utans at Mosman, on the other hand, have never eaten a Happy Meal, even though McDonald’s funded the building of their $3.1 million enclosure in 1993.
According to a former zoo keeper and whistleblower, Rebecca McKeough, however, the sponsor’s insistence on extensive rainforest landscaping for aesthetic reasons outside the animals’ enclosure meant the area allocated for the orang-utans is smaller than planned.
Although a member of the zoos’ governing body, the Zoological Parks Board, at the time, Cooper became the director of Taronga and Western Plains zoos after both those sponsorship deals were signed in the early 1990s. But now, halfway through an ambitious $225 million, 12-year upgrade, the zoos’ competing priorities of animal welfare and commercial viability are increasingly under the microscope.
After an unfortunate series of deaths at both zoos in the past two years, the State Government has demanded an explanation.
Suggestions that the welfare of the elephants at Western Plains was compromised by cost cutting, possibly leading to the deaths of two of the four animals over the past six months, were raised by one of their keepers, Jason Kauntze-Cockburn, who resigned in protest several weeks ago. He is not the only staff member convinced that the Dubbo outpost’s less-than-efficient record as a money-spinner has left it begging for staff and basic animal requirements, while its glamorous city cousin parades its new $50 million Asian elephant exhibit and pushes ahead with a $54 million marine exhibit scheduled to open in December.
“Upper management has got to change their outlook [on Western Plains] on the whole – not just the elephant piece,” the head of the combined zoos’ elephant department, Gary Miller, wrote in an email to Kauntze-Cockburn on April 29, one month before his resignation.
“It’s not just our management but the park board as well. I’m going to continue to fight for the increased funding and support with Cameron [Kerr, general manager of sales and communications] and Guy. It feels like climbing a mountain …”
Cooper insists that Western Plains Zoo is far from understaffed and that no animal’s welfare has been compromised by budget constraints.
“In the past five years we’ve increased life sciences staff by one third,” he says. “Sure, we’d always like to have more people everywhere. But we’re growing the business and can be very pleased with what we’re achieving.”
The combined zoos’ balance sheet shows the institutions are hardly starved of funds. Although attendances were static for five years (and even declining marginally at Dubbo), annual income jumped from $62 million to almost $75 million in the past financial year, through increased government funding and revenue from the zoos’ businesses. Unpublished data for this financial year puts the zoos’ revenue at $85 million, but less than one-fifth of that has been generated by Western Plains.
For the $225 million upgrade, 60 per cent of the money comes from the State Government, while the zoos’ fund-raising arm, the Taronga Foundation, is expected to contribute 25 per cent. The rest is being financed through loans, on which the zoo is paying only the interest. The principal will be picked up by the State Government later.
People, not animals, are the zoos’ largest single cost. Yet according to the most recent annual report, fewer than half the staff have anything to do with the care of the animals, nor are they involved in conservation or education programs. In 2005-06, almost one in 10 of the staff were in the marketing and communications department.
In 2000, when the State Government committed itself to Taronga’s multimillion-dollar refurbishment, the Zoological Parks Board was urged to “strengthen its finance and marketing skills” and to reduce the board’s number from 13 to 10. Dropped were the places traditionally reserved for RSPCA and other animal welfare groups.
Cooper says the professional qualifications of the panel that makes up the institution’s zoological and ethics committee more than compensate for the lack of animal experts on the board, which now just has one member with a professional zoological background, Dr Anthony English, a retired University of Sydney vet.
The board’s chairman, Leonard Bleasel, is the retired chief executive of a gas company, while the rest of the board comprises two public servants with backgrounds in finance, two marketing professionals, the Mayor of Dubbo, another Dubbo resident and longstanding volunteer, an accountant and a former ABC newsreader-turned-wildlife-commentator.
Cooper’s own background is in marketing, having served in executive positions at SC Johnson and Son (a manufacturer of household, personal care and commercial cleaning products) and Unilever before moving from the board to the director’s chair in 1999.
“My background may be in marketing, but I’m a frustrated vet,” Cooper confesses. “Being a vet was my life’s ambition. Now I have 10 working for me.”
Dr Nicki Mazur, author of After the Ark: Environmental Policy Making and the Zoo, says the recent debate hardly makes Taronga and Western Plains zoos unique.
“While zoos have come a long way down the conservation path since their origins, a range of social, institutional and political forces have introduced commercial goals that often compete – and conflict – with the public-good objectives like conservation, education and research,” she says.
“The trend of economic rationalism and managerialism that has been with us since the mid-1980s set up special tensions in zoos, where zoo staff try to reconcile conflicts between the public-good objectives … and the economic mandates of commercialisation.”
According to the retired Department of Education bureaucrat Graham Sims, who recently ended his long Zoo Friends membership, neither the board nor the executive team at Taronga is short on managerialism.
“But leadership – that’s a very different thing,” he says. “Taronga is being managed. There’s very little vision there.”
While writing articles for the Zoo Friends magazine, Sims inquired why management did not make public animal autopsy reports. “I was told it was bad PR,” he recalls.
When Taronga’s entrance was reconfigured to force patrons through the gift shop before entering the zoo proper, he felt uneasy. The unease grew when he started receiving letters “written” by individual keepers, accompanied by their photograph (“the keepers were inevitably young females”), pleading for extra donations for their particular animal.
“I’m enough of a realist to wonder whether these letters might have been written in the marketing department,” he says.
But it was the controversy over the import of five Asian elephants last year that convinced him to hand in his Zoo Friends membership.
Like many of the zoo’s recent critics, Sims believes the $50 million exercise placed commercialism over the elephants’ needs. If animal welfare were paramount, he says, the elephants would have been housed at Dubbo and given hectares to roam in.
Cooper describes the push to move the elephants to Dubbo as a “rearguard action from a few people” miffed at losing their court attempt to stop the animals’ import to Australia last year.
“The fact is, for a breeding program, [Taronga] is the best place to do it. We are doubling the size of the accommodation … and all the elephants get taken for walks around the zoo. We’re very comfortable this is the best place for them.”
But Cooper can’t deny that Taronga needs the elephants to pull in the big spenders. Twenty-five per cent of paid admissions at Taronga are from overseas visitors, compared with just 1 per cent at Dubbo.
The opening of the gift shop next to the Wild Asia exhibit (which includes the elephant enclosure) “achieved record profit levels by increasing spend per visitor by 22 per cent”, according to the annual report.
And for the first time in five years, zoo attendance figures are up, by 6 per cent. Add that to the revenue boost and, overall, it has been a successful year for both zoos, Cooper says.
“Given the fact we’ve gone through the most dramatic rebuilding program that any zoo has probably ever entertained, I think that’s a very, very good result,” he says.
“Good facilities for animals and keeping staff are the cornerstone of good welfare for animals and I make no apologies for that. There is nothing worse than a broke zoo.”
Green gloss can’t hide a dismal record
COLLECTIVELY, the world’s zoos have enormous resources at their fingertips, says Rob Laidlaw, a captive wildlife specialist and the executive director of the Canadian zoo watchdog Zoocheck.
But when it comes to meaningful conservation programs, zoos’ contributions are “pathetically minuscule in comparison to the resources they command”.
“Anyone reviewing the literature produced by zoos worldwide would inevitably be led to conclude that the ‘modern ark’ is saving innumerable wildlife species from extinction and restoring them to their wild habitats,” he writes. But contrary to popular belief, the international record on reintroductions to the wild is dismal.
“Only 16 species worldwide have established self-sustaining populations in the wild as a result of captive breeding efforts, and most of those programs were initiated by government wildlife agencies, not zoos,” Laidlaw writes.
As zoos become the target of intense public scrutiny and criticism, many have tried in response to “repackage” themselves as institutions devoted to wildlife conservation, public education and animal welfare.
“[Zoos claiming] they teach visitors about wildlife conservation and habitat protection, and their contention that they motivate members of the public to become directly involved in wildlife conservation work doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Laidlaw says.
“The truth is that scant empirical evidence exists to prove that the primary vehicle for education in most zoos – the animal in the cage – actually teaches anyone anything. Also, the legions of conservationists that zoos should have produced, if their claims were true, have never materialised.”