Genesis Wildlife Center: A decent life for wildlife?

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CONCRETE JUNGLE: Inside the Genesis Wildlife Center

Published: Sunday, April 05, 2009
Updated: Sunday, April 5, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

A series of reports by The Times-Tribune about the conditions and operations of the Genesis Wildlife Center in Scranton’s Nay Aug Park.

Published: Sunday, April 05, 2009
Updated: Sunday, April 5, 2009 11:15 AM EDT
First of three parts

Margaret Miller, the 64-year-old director of the Genesis Wildlife Center, escorted a visitor into a side room full of caged birds that nattered and squawked when she entered.

She stood in the narrow middle of the room partitioned by parallel 2-by-4s suspended thigh-high, each board labeled in handwritten pen “Do Not Cross.” As an additional precaution, Ms. Miller likes to have a volunteer sit in the room to prevent people leaning over the wobbly boards and sticking their fingers into the birds’ cages. The birds are apt to bite, she said.

“Isn’t that right?” she asked the birds. The birds bobbed their heads.

Genesis Wildlife Center aims to be a sanctuary for animals that once were unwanted or abused. But a lack of adequate funding, modern facilities or a long-term plan means chronic problems often are overlooked or patched with makeshift solutions.

Since 2003, when the menagerie was moved to the city-owned building that once was part of the Nay Aug Zoo, the center has struggled to make a home fit for the animals, revealing limitations in both the facility and the way the center is run.

Related: About the Genesis Wildlife Center animals
Care fails inspections

The center strains to meet even the minimum standards of animal care set by the federal government under the Animal Welfare Act.

Inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between June 2005 and September 2007, obtained by The Sunday Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, describe an array of infractions.

Read the Inspections (.pdf)
In June 2007, four “grossly overweight” primates were given a “morning snack” of waffles coated with marshmallow topping. They had become “very sedentary” in their cages after apparently gaining back the weight lost on a previous diet.

In November 2005, a member of the public accompanied an employee and volunteer inside the tiger and cougar enclosure, where she was allowed to pet the tiger. Neither animal was restrained or under a handler’s control.

In June 2005, most of the medications stored in the office were noted to be expired, including an antibiotic that had been expired for a year but was being administered to a coatimundi, a long-tailed mammal in the raccoon family. The outdated medicines were still on site during an inspection two months later, when staff members threw them out.

None of the animals was examined by a veterinarian during the six months between October 2005 and April 2006, despite the center’s program calling for the animals to receive monthly checkups.

Throughout the 27 months of inspections there were numerous examples of noncompliance concerning the building, including dangerous or frayed wire in the animals’ metal enclosures, an exposed heater, peeling paint and wallpaper, and gaps and weeds around the perimeter fences that posed a risk to animal or human safety.

In the nine inspections during the period when records were released, Genesis was found to have 17 examples of noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act. During two of the nine inspections, the center was found to be violation-free. A Freedom of Information Act request for records of USDA inspections performed in 2008 and 2009 is still pending.

‘Is it going to kill them?’

Ms. Miller, who owns the animals, said she generally receives clean inspections. When she is cited, the violations most often have to do with maintenance of the city-owned building, “things that I have no control over,” she said, like the aging structure, the weeds around it, and the occasional mice that get inside.

“I think I’m doing a terrific job, and most people do. If I was doing something wrong, they would close me,” she said. “And if (the animals) get a waffle every once in a while, is it going to kill them? No. No, it won’t.”

She explained that the citation for having a visitor inside the tiger and cougar cage was a misunderstanding: The woman was the mother of the center’s lynx caretaker at the time and she was trained to work with big cats, though she was not wearing any identification when the inspector saw her.

“I don’t take people in with the cats because the cats would kill you,” Ms. Miller said.

Not all of Genesis’ inspectors have recorded violations. The state Game Commission, which regulates the center as a wildlife menagerie, has never issued a citation “for any deficiencies or blatant violations” in seven years of at least twice-annual inspections, said Mark Rutkowski, a conservation officer for the region.

A June 2008 inspection report — the only one released in response to a Right-to-Know records request — indicated the center passed all 22 categories on which it was evaluated, including providing bedding, clean water and adequately sized pens for the animals.

Read the Inspection Report (.pdf)
Mr. Rutkowski said visitors’ complaints to the Game Commission about the center often are about what he calls “aesthetics.”

“When people go there, they go there looking for these well-groomed animals you might see at the Bronx Zoo or Philadelphia Zoo, and that’s just not what the center is,” he said.

But the center’s most vocal critics say their concerns go beyond aesthetics: they fear it is unsafe for both people and animals and sends the wrong message to the public.

“The way they display those animals, the huge message you get from that place is these wild animals make good pets,” said Mary Sweeney, a former Scranton resident. “A big part of the attitude is, ‘Aren’t they cute.'”

Eunice Alexander, who grew up in the Hill Section next to the Nay Aug Zoo, said there is little educational value in displaying animals in small cages with concrete floors.

“You can’t really do education divorced from any kind of habitat context,” she said. “You’re showing them that animal seems to be OK in nothing.”

Backlash over breeder

The most sustained roar of public criticism leveled at Genesis Wildlife Center began a year ago and was caused by two tiger cubs then big enough to emit only fledgling mews.

Ms. Miller acquired the cubs two months after her beloved Siberian tiger, Reba, died. Many visitors were happy for the chance to see baby animals, but others questioned whether a small, aging facility that admittedly struggled to afford to stay open was an appropriate place to bring 11-week-old tigers.

Captive wildlife and animal sanctuary experts now say the transfer of the cubs had far graver implications.

Ms. Miller obtained the tigers from G.W. Exotic Animal Park, which formerly billed itself as a sanctuary but now considers itself a “conservancy and educational zoo” in Wynnewood, Okla. Sanctuary representatives say G.W. Exotic is notorious for inhumane treatment of its animals.

In 2006, the USDA fined the park $25,000, suspended its license for two weeks and put it on an 18-month probation for violating at least 14 regulations of the Animal Welfare Act.

The park is particularly infamous among animal sanctuary experts for breeding exotic animals indiscriminately to entice visitors who want to play with new cubs. For sanctuary accrediting agencies, such as the American Sanctuary Association and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, breeding breaks the cardinal rule of true sanctuaries because it adds to the population of unwanted captive species.

Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said acquiring cubs from the park makes Genesis complicit in G.W. Exotic’s behavior.

“Genesis is essentially enabling them to continue breeding these animals,” she said.

Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association, said Ms. Miller’s move is particularly problematic because of a surplus of adult tigers in the country.

“There probably wasn’t a single day in the last 10 years when someone didn’t call me about an adult tiger that didn’t have a place to go,” he said. “For them to get tigers from this breeder down in Oklahoma is ridiculous.”

Ms. Miller said she had “nothing to do with” G.W. Exotic’s practices as a breeder or its past USDA violations. She explained that she found a listing for the cubs in the Animal Finder’s Guide, a publication for those who raise captive wildlife. She was asked to make a donation to the park to reserve the cubs, and never got the money back.

She said she does not breed animals at her center — the male tiger and monkeys are neutered, she said, and the male lemurs were “fixed” after several reproduced. She also countered the claims that she is complicit in G.W. Exotic’s breeding.

“Do you think he’s going to stop? He’s not going to,” she said of G.W. Exotic. “I wanted two baby tigers that I wanted to save out of there. Does it mean I approve? No.”

Now she says she is “truly sorry” she brought the tigers to Genesis, in part because of the public criticism and in part because of the cost. The tigers each eat about 20 pounds of meat each day and a pallet of meat costs about $3,600.

Asked why she acquired the cats, knowing the high cost of feeding them, she said she had leftover meat when Reba died and other cats to feed.

“I had children coming and asking about Reba and not understanding death or where she was or why she went. And some of the cards from the children, that probably influenced me,” she said. “But if I could have flashed forward and seen everything, I probably would not have taken them.”

Higher standards

Around the country and the world, zoo, aquarium and sanctuary accrediting agencies have worked to set a true standard for humane, viable animal care and distinguish what they call “pseudo-sanctuaries” from real ones.

Accredited sanctuaries are marked by their exceptional care, their avoidance of any trade in animals, and their dedication to creating havens for animals that have been exploited. Once a sanctuary is accredited, it often is easier for it to receive funding and other grants.

Sanctuary accreditation exists because simply complying with the Animal Welfare Act “is so inadequate in terms of what these animals need,” said Kim Haddad, a board member of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the manager of the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition.

“Our standards are much, much higher” than USDA regulations, she said. “They take into account the natural history of the animal, the animal’s life experience.”

According to Mr. Weir, the director of the American Sanctuary Association, accredited sanctuaries should have steady finances, strong nonprofit boards, plenty of room for animals to roam and enrichment activities to stimulate them. They also should have a robust education program that focuses on why exotic animals should not be pets.

Both organizations also indicated their willingness to work with sanctuaries to help them meet such standards, if the sanctuaries disavow breeding and trade.

“The whole idea behind it, it’s not to shut every place down that’s not perfect,” Dr. Haddad said. “It’s to say, ‘Here’s how you do it right.'”

Genesis Wildlife Center is not accredited as either a sanctuary or a zoo, although Ms. Miller said she would like to work toward it. She had papers in her office about accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but had not heard of the American Sanctuary Association or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

She is in the process of cutting back at the center, working to place some of her tropical birds at an Ohio sanctuary.

“I’m thinking about not doing this (anymore),” she said.

She has been flustered by a stream of public criticism and believes she is being personally attacked, even as she draws consolation from students, volunteers and supporters she works with daily.

She said she wants everything for her center that critics want: a space that serves the needs of her animals and benefits the community.

“I would like it to be a place that, when people visit, they walk away saying, ‘Wow, did you see that amazing little wildlife center at Nay Aug Park?’ Not, ‘The building’s falling down. They’re not adequately staffed. They don’t have funding.’

“Why would you want people to walk away thinking something like that?”

Read more from the Concrete Jungle series

Contact the writer:

Close ‘zoo’ at Nay Aug

Published: Monday, March 09, 2009
Updated: Monday, March 9, 2009 4:13 AM EDT
Back when Scranton’s government operated a zoo at Nay Aug Park, the obsolete, wholly inadequate facility became a major embarrassment and a metaphor for the blighted park and the city itself.

The Doherty administration has strived mightily to restore the park, making it once again a source of pride. Yet it allows a reincarnation of the decrepit zoo to drag down the effort.

Although the Genesis Wildlife Center is not technically a zoo, it serves that purpose in terms of its role in the park. And, although it is not operated by the city, the center operates in much the way the city operated the former zoo — hand to mouth, month to month.

The center has a dedicated director and volunteers, and it might well do some good work. But it is far removed from the modern zoos that grace the parks of progressive American cities — the sort of parks to which the Doherty administration otherwise aspires.

Mr. Doherty saw the center as a means to establish a zoo-like presence at the park without binding the city government to a project that it could not afford. The question that the mayor and City Council should consider, going forward, is whether the center enhances the park. The answer, unfortunately, is that it does not.

If Mr. Doherty and council think a zoo is fundamental to the ongoing renaissance and long-term stability of the park, they should methodically go about establishing one. That would involve substantial planning, expert opinions, and a step-by-step implementation plan, including long-term sustainable funding.

The most likely objective conclusion, unfortunately, is that Scranton simply cannot afford to operate a zoo according to modern standards for humane treatment of animals and for amenities required by human visitors. That is why the city does not have its own zoo now.

If the government studies the matter and reaches that conclusion, it should help the wildlife center with a relocation, and use the old zoo grounds to enhance the park in a different way.

Nay Aug tiger cub fights infection

Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009
Updated: Sunday, January 25, 2009 8:11 AM EST
In the six months since Nay Aug Park welcomed two new tiger cubs, both big cats have grown up quickly, but the male continues to be plagued by health problems.

Ivan, a Siberian tiger now 7 months old and 130 pounds, has not been able to fully fight off ringworm he arrived with from Oklahoma. Margaret Miller, director of the Genesis Wildlife Center, said the fungus keeps reoccurring, and Ivan is under regular veterinary care. Otherwise, he is a healthy growing tiger, but Ms. Miller is worried his immune system could be compromised.

“With him tiring easily, that scares me,” she said.

The other tiger, an Indochinese named Alea, has a clean bill of health, and she and Ivan are inseparable. Both often share a pen now with the cougars at Genesis.

Tiger cubs debut at Nay Aug with video

A male tiger cub at the Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary on Friday, July 25, 2008. Linda Morgan/Staff Photograph

Published: Saturday, July 26, 2008
Updated: Saturday, July 26, 2008 1:00 AM EDT
If the newest stars at the Genesis Wildlife Center were feeling any effects of a cross-country trek, they didn’t seem to show it.

But two bottles of formula and some ground beef are apparently enough to conk a couple of tigers right out.

The Genesis sanctuary on Friday introduced two new tiger cubs, two months after the death in May of 15-year-old Siberian tiger Reba, a park favorite.

The Indochinese tigers, a male and a female, arrived Thursday night from G.W. Exotic Animal Park, a conservancy and educational zoo in Wynnewood, Okla.

“Long drive there, long drive back, but it was well worth it,” volunteer Robin Perri said.

With the acquisition of two new cubs, some have criticized the aging, outdated facilities as inadequate for such animals. Throughout the afternoon, though, visitors crowded in front of the enclosure for a glimpse at the cubs. Little kids grinned, and adults marveled.

“Oh my goodness gracious, isn’t he cute?”

“Wave to him!”

Staffers said the cubs were doing well and enjoying the attention.

Linda Layland, of South Scranton, said her 6-year-old granddaughter, Stephanie, bawled over the death of Reba.

On Friday, Ms. Layland carried her 18-month-old grandson, Jeremy, who doesn’t make a habit of sitting still for long but spent a half-hour watching the two cubs feed and play.

“The kids need something like this,” she said.

For now, the 11- and 12-week-old tigers will be housed in an enclosure next to the 3,700-square-foot cougar pen, and they will rotate time outside until a partition can be built between the big cats. Eventually, they will all share the single space, possibly also with the wildlife center’s Siberian lynx.

Mayor Chris Doherty is expected to announce a contest to name the two cubs.

Many residents’ concerns stem from the rocky history of the former Nay Aug Zoo. Twice in five years in the 1980s, Parade magazine named it among the worst zoos nationwide. The facilities date from 1938, with renovations in the 1970s, 1990s and in 2003, when the Genesis sanctuary moved there. In 1981, two Humane Society officials called the zoo “archaic” and recommended it be closed, which it was in 1991.

Genesis is not by definition a zoo, and its volunteers feel like they are catching flak for a burden that isn’t theirs.

“All the things the public wants, I want, too. But it’s not my building,” Genesis director Margaret Miller said.

Ms. Miller said the new cubs don’t represent a change in mission or direction. As a rescue, it’s rare for the center to acquire young, healthy animals, but Ms. Miller said they are simply replacing what was lost.

Reba’s death cast a pall over the center. The staff was devastated; the cougars didn’t eat. Ms. Miller said the cubs bring an infusion of energy and excitement.

“They fit in here just perfectly,” she said.

Contact the writer:

About the Genesis Wildlife Center animals

A pig nose turtle swims in a tank at the Genesis Wildlife Center at Nay Aug Park. April 1, 2009. PAMELA SUCHY / Staff Photographer

Published: Sunday, April 05, 2009
Updated: Sunday, April 5, 2009 9:20 AM EDT
More than 50 animals from over 20 species reside at the Genesis Wildlife Center. Click each for more information.

Bearcat (1)

Cougar (1)

Cougar (1)

Fennec foxes (2)

Genet cats (2)

Lynx (1)

Tigers (2)

Capuchin monkeys (3)

Lemurs (5)

Long-tailed macaques (2)

Patas monkey (1)

Rhesus macaques (2)

Spider monkey (1)

Fish (1)

Galapagos tortoises (2)

Pig-nosed turtles (2)

Red-eared slider turtles (About 20)

Red-foot tortoise (1)

Russian tortoises (2)

Spiny soft-shell turtle (1)

Fruit bats (5)

Two-toed sloths (3)

Various tropical birds


‘It’s like I lost a part of me’ with video and photos

Published: Thursday, May 08, 2008
Updated: Thursday, May 8, 2008 1:00 AM EDT
But as the sun beat down on the zoo area, the Elmo doll lay alone in the middle of the cage, which still contains mattresses and blankets for each of Reba’s animal roommates.


Visitors to the Genesis Wildlife Center in Nay Aug Park stared into an empty cage Wednesday, as if expecting Reba the tiger to toss around the Elmo doll she often played with to the delight of those young and old.

But as the sun beat down on the zoo area, the Elmo doll lay alone in the middle of the cage, which still contains mattresses and blankets for each of Reba’s animal roommates.

Reba, the beloved Siberian tiger, died late Tuesday. She was 15.

After Reba had been cremated early Wednesday, Katlynn, the cougar whom Reba helped raise, moved about slowly, apparently grieving for her companion. Katlynn barely mingled with the cage’s other cougar, Dakota.

“Katlynn licked Reba’s head as she died last night,” said a tearful Margaret Miller, director of the wildlife center. “This is what people don’t see: The real animals and what they’re really like.”

Ms. Miller raised Reba after she obtained her from a small zoo in Marshalls Creek in 1993.

“When I got her, she was nearly dead,” Ms. Miller recalled. “Her mother didn’t have any milk, one other cub had died, and Reba was in an incubator. I held Reba in the palm of my hand; she was so small.

“It’s like I’ve lost a part of me.”

Reba featured in a 2007 video about the Genesis Wildlife Center:

Contact the writer:
Reba, a park favorite since her arrival here in September 2003, suffered a seizure three weeks ago and was taken to the University of Pennsylvania, where doctors performed an MRI, a CT scan and blood test, all of which failed to show why the tiger was ill, Ms. Miller said. The average life expectancy of a Siberian tiger is 8 years in the wild, but 20 to 25 years in captivity, she said.

“It was a fluke blood clot that caused the seizure,” she said.

Tears flowed freely among the workers and passers-by at the Genesis Wildlife Center on Wednesday.

“I can’t believe we won’t see her anymore,” said Jesse Walker, a Dunmore resident and frequent visitor to the Wildlife Center. “I heard about Reba dying, and I felt bad. I wanted to see if I could see her just one more time, but it was too late.”

Ms. Miller said all the animals will eventually die, but the staff provides regular, first-rate care for all of them.

While the city pays heating bills and contributes $50,000 annually and the use of the building, Ms. Miller has said she needs about $150,000 more a year to run the facility.

The center has relied heavily on donations, and Ms. Miller has said that she often pays for some expenditures out of her own pocket.

One expense Ms. Miller would not have minded paying, if it were at all possible, was whatever the cost would have been to keep Reba alive.

“She was so adorable. Everyone loved her and she loved everyone,” said Fern Norton, wildlife center volunteer. “Margaret (Miller) is devastated, as are all of us.”

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:

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