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The biggest scandals involving zoos

by Kim Mannix


For tourists across the globe, visiting a zoo can be an inspiring and educational experience. But not all zoos are created equal, and not all zoo owners have their animals’ best interest in mind. Here’s a list of 20 zoos from around the world that have made headlines for scandals involving alleged animal cruelty and neglect.

South Lakes Safari Zoo

Canadian Press Association

Between 2013 and 2016, nearly 500 animals died at the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, England, due to emaciation and hypothermia. An African spurred tortoise named Goliath also died after coming into contact with an electric fence. An investigation into conditions at the zoo also revealed multiple incidents of “contact” between animals and visitors, including monkeys jumping on people and a lemur climbing into a baby’s stroller. Zoo founder David Gill was refused a licence renewal, but the zoo was allowed to stay open under new owners.

Bowmanville Zoo


The Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario, once one of the biggest suppliers of animals for the film industry, was forced to close in October of 2016 after 97 years in operation. Business at the zoo declined significantly after PETA released an undercover video showing the zoo’s co-owner, Michael Hackenberger, allegedly whipping a tiger. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charged Hackenberger with four counts of causing animal distress and one of failing to comply with the standards of animal care, but PETA argued that the zoo owner should have faced criminal charges.

Berlin Zoo


The Berlin Zoo gained world fame after a rejected polar bear cub named Knut became an international sensation. But the zoo’s reputation was quickly tarnished in 2008 when news surfaced that many of the zoo’s animals may have been sold for slaughter. Green Party politician Claudia Hämmerling accused the zoo’s director, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, of delivering tigers to China to be killed for potency drugs and selling a pygmy hippopotamus and a family of Asiatic black bears for slaughter in the early 1990s. Hämmerling also said that more than a hundred animals had disappeared from the zoo. Blaszkiewitz denied the allegations.

Niagara Falls Marineland


In May 2019, activists called for the shutdown of Marineland in Niagara Falls after the death of three animals. Zoo officials closed the deer park that month after two deer were killed in a stampede, an incident allegedly caused by a father and son who were taunting the animals. Soon after, the zoo announced that an 18-year-old walrus named Apollo, which had died a few weeks before, had suffered a heart attack. He was the fourth walrus to die in two years.

Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo


In 2010, the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in China closed amidst reports that it had caused the deaths of 11 Siberian tigers. According to Chinese media and employee allegations, the tigers died of starvation or were shot after being fed nothing but chicken bones. Another 26 animals died within a year, including four camels, a lion, a brown bear, and a Mongolian horse. The Chinese government ordered an inquiry into the animal deaths.

Edmonton Valley Zoo


The animal rights group PETA sued the City of Edmonton in 2010, alleging that the city-owned Edmonton Valley Zoo was providing inadequate conditions for Lucy, an Asian elephant, resulting in illness and distress. The legal action came after years of animal rights activists arguing that the elephant should live in a more temperate climate and in the company of other animals. Celebrities like Bob Barker and comedian Steve-O advocated on the elephant’s behalf, but the zoo maintained that relocating Lucy, who arrived at the zoo in 1977, would kill her. As of 2019, all legal actions seeking to move the elephant have been struck down.

Copenhagen Zoo


A 2014 campaign to stop Copenhagen Zoo from euthanizing a giraffe named Marius was unsuccessful, resulting in backlash against the Danish zoo. The zoo defended the giraffe’s killing, saying inbreeding was a threat at any zoo. The giraffe’s dissection was live-streamed for educational purposes, and some of the meat was later fed to lions. The practice of dissecting animals before an audience is still common at zoos across Denmark.

Muskingum County Animal Farm

AP Photo / Mike Munden

Chaos erupted in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011 when police officers responded to calls that dozens of exotic animals were on the loose. They arrived to find the gates to the private Muskingum County Animal Farm unlocked and the animal cage doors left wide open. The property’s owner, Terry Thompson, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Thompson had had previous run-ins with the law and with neighbours. The police killed 49 animals, but three leopards, a grizzly bear, and two monkeys were captured and taken to the nearby Columbus Zoo.

Calgary Zoo


Following the death of a spider monkey from frostbite after it was left outside, Calgary Zoo officials began facing criticism for a series of strange and unfortunate animal deaths. A colony of bats died when their enclosure became overheated, a possum was crushed by a zoo worker’s foot, a capybara was killed by a hydraulic door, and an otter drowned after becoming entangled in a pair of pants given to it by a worker. In 2016, seven penguins were found dead at the back of the zoo’s Penguin Plunge exhibit. The zoo promised an investigation into why the penguins died, and an audit was ordered.

Armenian Zoo


The plight of abandoned animals at a zoo near the Armenian town of Gyumri became international news in 2016 after Britain’s Daily Mail reported on the deplorable conditions. The animals were brought to the zoo by an Armenian billionaire to entertain his rich friends, but the owner vanished, leaving no money to support the bears and lions left behind. The zoo’s caretakers, a poor, elderly couple, pleaded with the local government for financial help to take care of the animals. Thanks to donations from the public, the animals were eventually moved to safer facilities.

Thailand Tiger Temple


Wildlife officials raided the famed Tiger Temple at Thailand’s Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno monastery in 2016 after three tigers registered with the government went missing. Allegations spread that the monks were illegally breeding and trading tigers. The temple was a popular and profitable tourist attraction. In 2017, National Geographic reported that a nearby facility was in the works that would house the tigers and continue to grant viewing access to tourists.



After the 2013 documentary Blackfish exposed the cruel treatment of killer whales at performance facilities like SeaWorld, Deadline reported that SeaWorld’s ex-CEO had to pay US$5 million (C$6.6 million) for attempting to cover up the film’s backlash. Celebrities and other members of the public who had seen the documentary campaigned against SeaWorld for its treatment of the marine animals, and attendance at the parks declined.

Melaka Zoo


In 2013, a sun bear and a horse were poisoned at Melaka Zoo and Night Safari in Malaysia. The animals died after being fed poisoned food by a zoo visitor. Zoo officials said a plastic bag containing uneaten oranges, bananas, and sugar cane laced with poison had also been found at the chimpanzee enclosure. In response to the incident, the country’s chief minister ordered that animals be fed only with food bought from the zoo, and the zoo’s head veterinarian said closed-circuit cameras would be installed to protect the animals.

Papanack Zoo


In 2017, national Canadian charity Animal Justice released secret footage of animals being mistreated at Papanack Zoo near Ottawa. The video appeared to show workers hitting a lion cub and taking baby animals away from their mothers. Another zoo worker said on camera that several rare Père David’s deer broke their necks after running into the fence of their enclosure. The Ontario SPCA said it would launch a formal investigation for breaches of provincial animal welfare laws.

Marghazar Zoo


The mysterious death of an elephant named Saheli moved young animal advocates to gather and protest outside Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo in 2012. Protestors chanted and held placards condemning Saheli’s apparent neglect. In 2017, the same zoo came under investigation for the death of four lion cubs, believed to be caused by improper facilities and lack of care. After that event, a citizen told The News that although an investigation was launched any time an animal died at the zoo, the results were never released and no changes were ever made at the facilities.

Saint-Édouard Zoo

Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press Images

In June 2019, the Quebec workers’ safety board ordered the closure of the Saint-Édouard Zoo near Montreal, citing unsafe conditions for workers. Animal welfare advocates tried to relocate 100 wild and exotic animals, including lions, tigers, and wolves, but zoo owner Normand Trahan filed a motion to cancel the animal seizure warrants. Some members of the community rallied to support Trahan and keep the zoo open, but the Montreal SPCA filed criminal charges against him for animal cruelty and neglect.

Dartmoor Zoo


Dartmoor Zoo owner Benjamin Mee, the man whose story was told in the 2011 film We Bought A Zoo, starring Matt Damon, came under fire for animal cruelty in February 2019. Animal welfare advocates took issue with the British zoo’s Human vs. Beast competition, in which a team of four visitors would engage in a bout of tug-of-war against a lion or tiger. Hundreds of people signed an online petition calling for an end to the spectacle, but Mee dismissed the idea that the zoo was doing anything inappropriate. He said the activity was good for the animals because it mimicked life in the wild.

Cincinnati Zoo

John Minchillo / The Associated Press

In 2016, a boy slipped under a barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell 10 feet into the Gorilla World exhibit. After a gorilla named Harambe grabbed and dragged the boy, a zoo employee shot and killed the animal. The boy suffered serious injuries, but recovered quicker than the zoo’s reputation. Celebrities and citizens took to social media to condemn the zoo and the boy’s parents for allowing the accident to happen. A subsequent federal investigation concluded that the barrier at the gorilla enclosure did not meet standards.

Bandung Zoo


In 2018, animal rights activists were outraged when a viral video was released showing an orangutan at Indonesia’s Bandung Zoo smoking a cigarette. A visitor is seen throwing the lit cigarette into the enclosure, where it is picked up and smoked by a 22-year-old orangutan named Odon. A petition was launched to shut down the zoo for lack of supervision. The facility had previously been investigated for starving its bears.

Dallas World Aquarium


Daryl Richardson, owner of the Dallas World Aquarium, already had a reputation as a collector of rare and endangered species when he got into trouble with Panama authorities in 2013. Richardson and zoo biologist Luis Sigler were stopped when they attempted to export eight pygmy sloths to the U.S. They had captured the sloths from the forest near Bocas del Toro. PETA called on the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to investigate the zoo’s treatment of its animals.



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