Poll finds 88% support for provincial licenses for zoos in Ontario

A new poll commissioned by World Animal Protection (WAP) shows that 88 per cent of Ontarians surveyed support regulations that would create licenses for zoos in the province and set standards for animal safety and welfare.

Nine percent of the 1,020 people randomly polled by Nanos Research somewhat support these changes, according to the advocacy group.

It calls on provincial parties to incorporate animal welfare regulations into their platforms ahead of the June 2 election.

“Ontario has one of the weakest regulations around captive wildlife and especially exotic wildlife,” said Michèle Hamers, wildlife campaign manager for WAP.

“We need better regulation with more teeth to ensure the province enforces animal welfare standards and the public is protected.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General responded to the poll results by saying that Ontario has the “toughest penalties” for animal cruelty in Canada.

Brent Ross said the Provincial Animal Welfare Act, passed January 1, 2020, sets standards for animal care, including those in zoos.

It covers offenses such as causing or permitting an animal’s distress, and is enforced by inspectors, some of whom have expertise in zoos and aquariums, Ross said.

Regulations need more ‘teeth’, says WAP

But Hamers said the current situation largely leaves the rules for keeping animals up to municipalities.

The ministry inspects zoos and aquariums, WAP said, but the patchwork of regulations creates less accountability.

If a municipality doesn’t have regulations in place, it’s possible to open a roadside zoo or keep a potentially dangerous animal like a tiger or lion, Hamers explained.

“At the moment…most of these facilities are operating to their own standards.”

“We’ve seen animals escape, we’ve seen mutilations in the past, because often these places allow close interaction with animals.”

One group that Canadian zoos have turned to for a set of standards is the Accredited Canadian Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).

CEO Jim Facette said its standards are the “best to follow,” adding that the organization has worked with the province for 18 months through the Ontario Animal Welfare Advisory Table.

Ross said the advisory group includes veterinarians, academics and advocates who advise the department on how to improve animal welfare.

British Columbia, New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan all follow CAZA standards for new installations, Facette noted in an email to CBC.

But Hamers said CAZA is an “industry body that represents zoos” and that World Animal Protection would prefer to see the government come up with and enforce the regulations.

Michèle Hamers is the Wildlife Campaigner for World Animal Protection Canada. (Provided by Michele Hamers)

She pointed out that CAZA standards had long allowed elephant rides and shows and were the subject of a WAP campaign calling for an end to them.

The poll the group just commissioned also found that 87% of people support or somewhat support regulations prohibiting interactions with animals, such as rides or selfies, Hamers added.

Elephant rides took place at the African Lion Safari in Flamborough, Ontario until 2019 when a trainer was injured by an elephant named Maggie.

The attack was investigated by the CBC, which found that CAZA continued to allow rides a decade after its American counterpart, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, halted the practice due to security concerns for staff working with elephants.

CAZA announced that it banned elephant rides for its members in December.

“The importance of clear regulations is that the province would have the opportunity to regulate these places and monitor them more closely and ensure that public health and safety measures are in place,” Hamers said.

His comments came as Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, appeared in court on Wednesday for allegedly using dolphins and whales to play and entertain patrons without permission from the Ontario government.

The next court appearance in the case is set for April 20.

Hamers said his organization was also encouraged by the reintroduction of a federal bill on Tuesday that would phase out keeping animals in captivity.

Senator Marty Klyne introduced the bill, backed by primatologist Jane Goodall, that would phase out elephants in captivity, end big cats and other exotic animals in roadside zoos and give some animals a status legal in court.

“It’s very exciting,” Hamers said.

“This bill would have a huge impact on animals in Canada.”