Updating Ontario’s Zoo Licensing to Include Exotic Animals

The front page of today’s Toronto Star highlights an investigation into reports of animal suffering at Marineland, a popular Ontario tourist attraction that houses dolphins, whales and other marine mammals. The Star investigation includes interviews with former Marineland employees that cite unhealthy water, chronic short staffing and the poor welfare of the park’s animals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I find this story disturbing, particularly since I’ve been calling for a formal and transparent review of Ontario’s zoo licensing policies for years.

Laudably, in March 2009 the Ontario government passed a regulation (O. Reg. 60/09) under the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (OSPCA Act) that establishes standards of care for animals kept in captivity in Ontario, including in zoos, aquariums, and theme parks. Under this regulation, captive wildlife must be provided with adequate and appropriate care, facilities and services to ensure their safety and general welfare, as well as a daily routine that facilitates and stimulates natural movement and behaviour. And even though the regulation also requires that captive wildlife be kept in compatible social groups to ensure animal welfare, the Toronto Star reports that Marineland keeps an orca – a whale species with complex and long-lasting social bonds – in isolation.

In reading the Toronto Star article, I’m struck by the fact that while O. Reg. 60/09 contains specific standards of care for captive primates – including requirements of daily interaction, a varied range of daily activities, and interactive furnishings – it doesn’t contain standards specific to dolphins and whales, which are also highly intelligent and social animals. Furthermore, I’ve noted previously (see page 130 of the ECO’s 2008/2009 Annual Report) that while amendments to the OSPCA Act improve Ontario’s general animal welfare standards, they fail to address the need to review the front-end regulation of Ontario’s zoo industry. In particular, there are no licensing requirements for exotic (non-native) wildlife or native wildlife that aren’t prescribed as “game wildlife ” or “specially protected wildlife”  under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 (FWCA). So while a licence from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is required to keep chipmunks, raccoons, wild turkeys and bullfrogs in captivity, a licence isn’t required to keep whales, dolphins, lions, chimps or elephants.

In my 2005/2006 Annual Report, I recommended that MNR engage in a formal and transparent review of its zoo-licensing policies, posting a proposal on the Environmental Registry for public comment. When the government made no progress on this front, I argued in my 2008/2009 Annual Report that Ontario’s zoo-licensing system should be revised to prevent substandard facilities with inadequately trained staff from obtaining exotic species in the first place. Unfortunately, six years have now passed and MNR has failed to follow my recommendation. I can only hope that the Toronto Star investigation compels the Ontario government to act on this important issue and review the adequacy of zoo licensing in Ontario.

Read one of my previous blog posts to learn more about Ontario’s native marine mammals.