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.

2 thoughts on “Updating Ontario’s Zoo Licensing to Include Exotic Animals

  1. I’m glad to see someone is looking out for the welfare of captive animals. We have a local lady trying to get a license to have a wildlife refuge for sick and injured animals, and she has been jumping through hoops for more than 2 years to try to get licensed. It’s ridiculous that if someone wants to house tigers or whales there wouldn’t be any of the same type of process. I also hope that the situation at marineland helps to bring this issue more to the front. The MNR should be happy to have another avenue for revenue – they could easily turn a profit from licensing and inspecting these types of facilities. Here’s hoping they see the need.


  2. Dear Gord Miller,

    I fully share your concerns about Marineland and other roadside zoos. I also share Deanna’s concern about how the MNR allows roadside zoos to exist, but makes it hard for wildlife rehabilitators to do their lifesaving work.

    I believe that the OSPCA Act should be amended to protect all wildlife, native or not, with specific rules pertaining to each species. Each person should not only have a licence to keep wild animals, but should register each one, along with veterinary records, with the OSPCA and the MNR. All acquisitions, births, and deaths, should also be registered. Anyone who already has wild animals could be allowed to keep them (unless the animals are treated very poorly), but in order to breed them, they would have to obtain another licence as well. Animals currently in surplus should not be bred.

    Facilities should be made secure, so that animals can not harm themselves or the public. All enclosures should have a double barrier, to prevent visitors from feeding them. Enclosures should be made big enough for the animals to behave normally. Any facility with too small enclosures would have to enlarge the enclosures, find new homes for the animals, or phase the animals out gradually.

    The use of wildlife in circuses, fur farms, labs, and hunting ranches should be banned. No one should be allowed to send wildlife to these places, in Ontario or out of province, and no one should be allowed to destroy healthy wildlife in captivity.

    Any person whose wildlife gets harmed or harms people should be prosecuted, and the animal sent to a sanctuary or decent zoo.

    Anyone who breaks these rules should be prosecuted under the OSPCA Act. In the worst cases, these animals should be removed and sent to sanctuaries or legitimate zoos.


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