Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled senior attorney Anna Frostic’s name.
A proposed amendment to the Animal Welfare Act, if enacted, may have dire consequences for Goddard’s Tanganyika Wildlife Park.
The change the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is considering stems from a petition from multiple animal welfare organizations and the Detroit Zoological Society.
The petition, which seeks to “prohibit public contact with potentially dangerous animals,” would effectively shut down the park’s popular Lemur Island, a place where people can walk beside and feed the zoo’s lemurs.
“For us, that’s huge,” said Matt Fouts, assistant director of Tanganyika Wildlife Park. “It’s like telling Worlds of Fun they can’t have the Mamba or any of the roller coasters anymore. … Financially, it has a lot of implications.”
The petition has been circulating since 2012, and public comments have been accepted three different times. The most recent opportunity for public comment closed this week.
According to the petitioners, there is “abundant scientific evidence” that contact with big cats, bears and “non-human primates” is unsafe and inhumane.
Tanganyika Wildlife Park is a zoo privately owned by Jim Fouts that, up until 2007, was an exotic animal breeding operation.
The park opened to the public in 2008, and its main draw was that it gave guests the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals – feeding and, in many cases, touching them. Tanganyika is accredited by the Zoological Association of America, an organization formed by directors who split from the better-known Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting agency for the Sedgwick County Zoo and other major zoos.
The petition was originally submitted in 2012 and revised in 2013. Organizations sponsoring it include the Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue and Detroit Zoological Society.
Contact is currently prohibited with some nonhuman primates – such as gorillas, chimps and macaques – but the petition seeks to expand that prohibition to all nonhuman primates, including lemurs.
“Big cats, bears, and nonhuman primates are inherently dangerous species that pose a significant threat to public health and safety,” the petition reads in part. It seeks to keep a minimum distance of 15 feet between the public and any of those animals, “unless there is a permanent barrier(s) that prevents direct physical contact, or risk of direct physical contact, between the animal and the public.”
Anna Frostic, senior attorney for wildlife litigation with the Humane Society of the United States, drafted the petition.
She said activities like those at Tanganyika – specifically lemur-feeding – are “not good from an animal welfare perspective.”
There’s plenty of evidence that allowing public feeding of exotic animals creates concerns for the husbandry of those animals in terms of making sure they receive … proper nutrition in terms of amount of food and type of food.
Anna Frostic, senior attorney for wildlife litigation with the Humane Society of the United States
“There’s plenty of evidence that allowing public feeding of exotic animals creates concerns for the husbandry of those animals in terms of making sure they receive … proper nutrition in terms of amount of food and type of food,” Frostic said. “Accredited AZA institutions do not allow members of the public to feed lemurs. That is something that conservation professionals have already decided is not good from an animal welfare perspective.
“That activity is squarely in sight with the petition and that is something we are seeking to address.”
Matt Fouts said the lemurs at Tanganyika are always under a keeper’s close watch, mitigating any risk the lemurs pose.
“Their regular diet is incorporated into their public feeding, which is meticulously managed and overseen by our team, our veterinarian and the USDA,” he said. “Furthermore, those babies that have grown up with public feeding have gone to other zoological facilities, including AZA facilities, and bred just fine. While contact with lemurs is not as common in the U.S., there are plenty of facilities in Europe and Australia that allow lemur feeding, which is where we got the idea.”
Interactive feeding stations like those at Lemur Island help Tanganyika make money to care for its animals during the winter, when it closes to the public. Matt Fouts said it costs about $600,000 to care for the park’s animals every winter, and the revenue it gains from the purchase of dried cranberries to feed the lemurs goes toward that purpose.
The Goddard wildlife park had to restrict interactivity at its Lemur Island last year as a “compromise” with the USDA, Fouts said. People can no longer sit on the rock on the island and let lemurs crawl all over them. The experience is limited to feeding lemurs that sit on a wooden fence while being fed.
The park does not allow photos in the area unless they are taken by a keeper. According to Fouts (replying to a negative review on Yelp), if a photo is published “that USDA did not like,” the park could be fined and forced to close the island.
A year ago the USDA … asked us to change our experience, and that’s caused some problems for us in terms of revenue.
Matt Fouts, assistant director of Tanganyika Wildlife Park
“A year ago the USDA … asked us to change our experience, and that’s caused some problems for us in terms of revenue,” he said in an interview.
If Tanganyika were forced to close Lemur Island, Fouts estimates it would result in a direct loss of about $100,000. More importantly, he says, it would likely result in a drastic attendance decline. Fouts projects losses of around $500,000, about a quarter of the park’s yearly budget.
“The biggest impact is the indirect cost, because now, even though we don’t have the revenue specifically from lemurs, that’s our No. 1 attraction,” he said. “You take the elephants from the zoo or you take the roller coaster from the amusement park … and fewer people are going in general.”
Limitations on breeding
The proposed amendment also seeks to prevent the practice of taking young animals away from their mothers to bottle-feed them, a process Tanganyika regularly engages in.
“It would potentially destroy all of our successful breeding programs,” Fouts said. “Our little family-owned facility here has been the most successful at breeding rare and endangered big cats. If we can’t pull them, the success of those breeding programs may drop significantly, if not stop altogether.”
Fouts said “pulling” young, rare big cats from their mothers has two main benefits from a breeding standpoint.
“First, we can ensure their survival, because there are instances where animals in a managed environment will kill their young … so we can ensure that they live by pulling them and having them in a nursery,” Fouts said.
“The other thing is they acclimate to people because they’re around people – they associate (people) with food, as far as where their food is coming from.”
Jason Pratte, behavioral husbandry manager and animal training coordinator for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, wrote in a letter attached to the original petition that “it is imperative that female big cats and bears are allowed to raise their young in a species-typical fashion.”
The petition seeks to amend the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit public contact with lemurs. It also seeks to stop the practice of taking leopards and other young big cats from their mothers.
“Hand-reared large carnivores often suffer from long-term behavioral abnormalities, as they are often overly-bonded to humans and do not know how to interact with their cohorts,” Pratte wrote. “Simply put, premature maternal deprivation is inhumane.”
Fouts said Tanganyika participates in international Species Survival Plans (a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and it is “incredibly important that we’re able to do everything we can to make sure those breeding programs are successful.”
Tanganyika breeds many exotic animals – including Amur leopards and clouded leopards – and many of those animals stay at Tanganyika “if we can make a good pair genetically,” Matt Fouts said. The rest go to other zoological facilities, many of which are AZA zoos, he said.
“These animals are very rare. If you take the Amur leopard, for instance, there’s only a handful of facilities successfully breeding them,” Fouts said. “This is the rarest big cat in the world. There’s 35 to 40 of them in the wild and a couple hundred in captivity worldwide, but if we can’t breed them and their numbers diminish in captivity, it’s not like we can just go to the wild and pull some new blood in. There’s only 40 of them to begin with.”
Frostic, the attorney with the Humane Society of the United States, said “the mere breeding of these animals by these facilities is questionable, very questionable.”
“I can tell you Tanganyika and other (Zoological Association of America) institutions do not have science-based population management plans,” Frostic said. “It’s very questionable from a conservation standpoint. The breeding that they conduct is not for scientific or conservation purposes – it is for commercial purposes.”
Fouts said the Humane Society “is entitled to their opinion, but they clearly don’t know the first thing about our facility or our breeding programs.”
“AZA institutions have sent us some of the most genetically valuable pairs based on their science-based population management plans because of our successful track record – a track record that includes increasing the worldwide managed population of clouded leopards by over 15 percent,” Fouts said. “Second, Tanganyika assisted ZAA in developing a science-based animal management plan for cheetahs, which was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.”
In its most recent public comment period, the agriculture department sought feedback on several questions, including which factors should be considered for an animal to be designated suitable for public contact and which animals qualify as “dangerous animals.”
It was looking specifically for “scientific and fact-based feedback,” according to the USDA.
Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist with the USDA, said the agency will review the 6,169 comments it received and then come to a conclusion. In total, 21,549 comments were received, when the ones from 2013 are included.
The agricultural department has no time line on when or if it will act on the petition.
If the federal government decides to amend the Animal Welfare Act as the petition describes, Fouts said it’s hard to predict Tanganyika’s future.
“I don’t know that we could sustain,” he said. “Would we have to close or just be dramatically different? It’s hard to say.”