Happenings at S.C. animal park have activists howling

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By RACHEL E. LEONARD, Staff Writer
Published April 22, 2007

There’s no doubt Hollywild Animal Park owner David Meeks has a passion for animals.

So do animal rights advocates who would rejoice in seeing the park shut down. That’s where the similarities come to a screeching halt and warring philosophies on exotic animal care come into play.

Carolina Animal Action, a North Carolina-based animal rights group calling for the park to ban breeding and acceptance of new animals in light of inspections alleging animal welfare violations, opposes keeping wild animals in captivity. If exotic animals are confined to zoos, the group maintains, allowing close contact with the public and using animals as entertainment in commercials and movies should be stopped.

The Hollywild philosophy stresses socializing animals for contact with the public, which Meeks says keeps critters happy and also allows his animals to appear in films, commercials and photo shoots. It’s a way of thinking that has allowed the Inman-area park to flourish as a popular attraction for tourists, locals and schoolchildren through an educational pilot program.

Meeks, who also serves as the nonprofit park’s executive director, takes pride in socializing animals to properly react to and, for some, interact with people.

“There’s not an animal ever born that once you put him in an enclosure, he doesn’t know that he’s enclosed,” he said. “But we don’t want them to think he’s in a pen, in a cell. We want him to enjoy where he’s at and have fun with that.

“We want them to be stimulated. The people that come in the park are a huge stimuli to our animals.”

Traditionally human-shy wolves come to Meeks when he approaches them. A photograph in his office features a smiling Jeanna Raney-Beasley, Miss South Carolina 2001, posed atop an elephant. Hollywild employees know their animals by name and socialize with them each day, said head keeper Jeanne Peters, a former employee of Zoo Atlanta.

“The animals here are happier than any animals I have ever worked with,” she said. “They have a relationship with the keeper.”

Animal care

Pongo easily learned to buckle a seat belt around his hips.

The orangutan at Hollywild has been featured in countless commercials and 62 feature films. Pongo’s task was to buckle the seat belt during a commercial for a state seat belt safety campaign.

The day he arrived for the video shoot in Columbia, Pongo refused to perform the task. Meeks had an idea – Pongo might be interested in unbuckling a seat belt. The great ape unbuckled it happily, and the footage was reversed so the final product depicted Pongo buckling the belt.

That’s only one example of an animal eager to perform a trick for the camera, Meeks said. His animals are never harmed or unduly coerced to complete a task, he said.

But animal rights groups take issue with the practice. Most animals are beaten or deprived of food to perform, said Leslie Armstrong, a Carolina Animal Action volunteer. That’s especially true for large cats and bears.

“Animals like that are wild animals, and when people use them for television commercials or any way that involves entertainment, there’s absolutely no way they can train them without being abusive,” Armstrong said. “It’s just a known fact that animals that are wild are not going to respond to any other types of training techniques.”

Lisa Wathne, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said hauling wild animals to movie sets is stressful and can’t be considered natural in any way. She also is concerned about excessive handling by humans.

“One thing that always surprises me is that people don’t realize in these type of situations, in order to be handled by people, animals have to be removed from the mother at a very young age, far younger than their mother would naturally wean them and send them out on their own. And that is something that is extremely cruel, not only for the babies, but for the mothers. All animals have strong maternal instincts, and they do not willingly give up their babies.”

Meeks agrees, to an extent. Raising a baby animal only around humans is a horrible thing, he said.

At Hollywild, the baby stays with its mother for at least 72 hours. It’s then taken away and reared alongside animals of its own species and other species, sometimes visiting the mother.

When that’s done, Meeks said, the animals “know us, they know other animals and they know their own kind.”

The exception is primates, who are reared along with other primates in a group society.

The lesser of two evils?

While opposing wild animals kept in captivity, groups including Carolina Animal Action and PETA say zoos should at least be accredited by the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Hollywild is not.

Terri David, Carolina Animal Action vice president, said the exotic animals remain dangerous, even if properly socialized, and diseases easily can spread if human contact is too close. Exotic animals born in captivity have the same instincts as their cousins born in the wild, said Wathne, with PETA.

For animals to be physically and psychologically healthy, she said, they need the opportunity to express natural behaviors.

“The number one concern of anyone holding wild animals in captivity should be to provide them with as natural an environment as possible,” Wathne said. “That means a space that is close to the size they would have as their territory in the wild, as close to the land they would have in the wild, and one that provides them with the behavioral opportunities that they have in the wild.”

The space is tight at Hollywild, with about 750 animals housed on 100 acres. But if an animal doesn’t adjust well to the conditions, Meeks said, it heads to a sanctuary, a zoo or might be traded for another animal of the same species with different characteristics.

“We don’t want any animals in here who don’t want to be in there,” he said.

He maintains properly socialized animals are more likely to alert keepers to any sickness they experience and are less likely to attack people.

“They’re happy,” Meeks said. “They don’t feel threatened when a person comes in. They like to have the people looking at them.”

In business

Meeks himself is a “card-carrying” member of PETA but disagrees with some of the group’s standards for animal care. People simply enjoy the up-close access to animals, he said.

That environment also provides for education, said Sharon Foulks-Hammonds, Hollywild board president. Visitors, especially children, she said, learn to respect the animals.

“I think that that allows, especially children and young adults, to learn more about the types of animal species and not just the animals themselves, but their habitats, and it teaches them some form of responsibility about caring about animals.”

The bottom line is a great deal of people like what they see at Hollywild. It brings them back, year after year, and it’s by their choice the park flourishes.

Rachel E. Leonard can be reached at 562-7230 or rachel.leonard@shj.com.

http://www.goupstate.com/article/20070422/ NEWS/704220375/1051/NEWS01

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