They gather out on County Road 19, mostly on weekends in the summer. Kerri Bayford, co-owner of Papanack Zoo, seems almost to be looking for them, these unwanted visitors, on this grey spring day. But it is far too early. The zoo doesn’t open until May.
“Animal rights activists like to come in the summer,” she tells me. “I think that’s why I like spring and fall so much.”
“There’s one nice thing about bad weather,” she says, gazing out on the two-lane road that runs in front of the zoo. “You usually don’t get a lot of animal rights activists coming out to see you.”
Bayford is taking me on a tour of the zoo, located about 45 minutes east of Ottawa, which she purchased in 2014. In addition to lions, Arctic wolves, lemurs, and a python, we see work crews feverishly constructing pens for the three Kodiak bears — Ursula, Betty, and Whopper — that will spend their first summer at Papanack this year.
“They’re going to be part of our new bear safety program,” says Bayford. “I’m looking forward to seeing them. I’ve never actually seen a Kodiak.”
As we move on, she starts to list some of the changes they have planned for the upcoming season. There will be more educational programming, like the new bear safety presentations. Cabela’s, a hunting and camping store, is providing tents, which will simulate a campground experience for visitors learning how to stay safe while enjoying the great outdoors.
As usual, there will be summer camps for schoolchildren, group bookings, senior safaris. There will be promotions and contests. For about what it costs to go to a movie, visitors can meet all manner of native and exotic animals — the website shows zebras, tigers, alligators, primates, and porcupines, among others.
For most zoos in North America — particularly small regional zoos like Papanack — animal rights activists have become the elephant in the room.
The pun should be forgiven because it is rather apt. It was, after all, the decision by the Detroit Zoo in 2005 to relocate its elephants, Winky and Wanda, to a nature sanctuary — saying it had come to the conclusion that zoos were unhealthy places for elephants — that ramped up efforts by animal rights activists and started a wave of protests in front of zoos and circuses in North America.
The Papanack Zoo began as a private bird and exotic cat collection before opening to the public in 1994. It has never owned an elephant, and for nearly 20 years, there was never so much as a whisper of controversy about the zoo.
Indeed, it was a regional success story. Rumour has it that the year Papanack opened, an animation crew came from Montreal to sketch one of its lions; those sketches became Simba, of Lion King fame. In 1998, four white lion cubs were born at the zoo, and this also became an international news story (there were only 29 white lions in the world at the time).
They were heady days for the small zoo. But then, in 2012, an Asian water buffalo named Wilbur died. An employee posted photos of the dead animal — lying under a pile of snow, seemingly forgotten — to his Facebook page. A group of animal rights activists showed up the next weekend.
Papanack made the news again in 2016, when a white lion named Zeus escaped from its pen and had to be shot dead by one of the owners right outside the gates of the zoo. This happened eight months after Cecil the Lion was killed in Zimbabwe by a recreational big-game hunter (and orthodontist) from Minnesota.
Animal rights activists have been coming to Wendover fairly regularly ever since.
Michele Thorn is a member of the Animal Defence League of Ottawa and one of the organizers of the Papanack protests. A social worker by day, she has been a vegetarian for about 15 years and is an active member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Thorn spends most of her spare time organizing animal rights protests.
“My first [protest] was at a KFC in Toronto, and I was hooked,” she remembers. “Protests are a great way of getting your message out and connecting with people who are just as passionate about animal rights as you are.”
A few years later, Thorn started taking the lead in protests against the Shrine Circus, which at the time had a full range of animal acts. It wasn’t long before she was planning life around the Shrine schedule, travelling across Ontario to picket in front of the big top.
All that travel and hard work seem to have paid off. Thorn says that while she was handing out pamphlets, circus-goers conceded that they understood the arguments against performing animals and would reconsider future visits.
“There is not a single Shrine Circus booked anywhere in Ontario this summer,” Thorn says with pride. “We have been working so hard at getting rid of the circuses, and it looks like we’ve done it.”
So what does a passionate, committed animal rights activist do now that she has run the circus out of town?
“Zoos like Papanack are an obvious next target for us,” she says. “They are so wrong, and I think more and more people are realizing this.”
Bayford doesn’t realize this.
“I think zoos are magical places,” she says. “Most people will only see a lion in a zoo. Only see a tiger in a zoo. And that usually happens when we are children. For me, for a lot of people, zoos are a really good childhood memory.”
To activists, she says, “People have to come, to see for themselves, and then make a decision.” Bayford says the protesters, who take photos from the road, aren’t putting forth an accurate picture of what the animal enclosures are like. “If you’re going to come and take a picture, take the whole picture.”
There are an estimated 60 zoos in Ontario, ranging in size from regional zoos such as Papanack to large institutions like the Toronto Zoo, which has substantial government backing and financial resources. The number 60 is an approximation because there is no such thing in Ontario as a zoo licence. That doesn’t mean zoos are unregulated; they must still conform to the laws and regulations of numerous government ministries. In Ontario, many regulations fall under the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, which outlines standards of care for captive wildlife and marine mammals. But Rob Laidlaw of Zoo Check Canada points out that the act mostly deals with individual instances of neglect and abuse after they have occurred, and it’s not set up to regulate or license zoos.
And what exactly is a zoo, anyway? Is it a petting farm that charges admission? What about the reptile house in Niagara Falls? How about the fellow with the snakes and spiders who shows up at your kid’s birthday party?
“It’s hard to define what is and isn’t a zoo,” says David Fraser of the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. “It’s part of the reason they have become controversial. There are some bad operations out there, masquerading as zoos.”
Despite these problems, Fraser does not believe zoos are inherently bad. He says there is a fundamental difference between zoos and circuses. In a circus, “the animals are always there for our entertainment. They must perform for us in some sort of way. That’s not the case in zoos.”
Fraser says zoos need to be considered on an individual basis to determine whether they are good or bad, if they merit an animal rights protest. He points to CAZA (Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums) as an organization that helps to navigate among the safaris, wildlife parks, and zoos that are out there.
“If you are a zoo operator that is in it for the right reasons, if you have the welfare of the animals as your primary concern, you are probably running a good zoo, and I have no problem with that,” says Fraser.
Bayford believes she is in it for the right reasons. She volunteered with several animal rescue groups before buying Papanack. She says the welfare of the animals was the main reason she bought the zoo, which she admits had fallen on tough times by then.
“That’s what bothers me most about these animal rights activists,” she says. “Everyone working here is committed to the welfare of these animals. It is why most of the employees are here. It’s why I’m here. I’m here to make the zoo better — I’m here every day. But these activists think they’re the only ones that care about animals. That’s such BS. They just don’t like zoos. That’s all it is.”
Thorn makes no apologies for her protest work.
“The Papanack Zoo is exhibiting captured animals for money,” she says. “That’s the business model for a roadside zoo. And if you’re doing that, you don’t care about animals. How could you?”
As Thorn is asked to respond to some of the arguments often used in defence of zoos, it becomes obvious why there will never be a rapprochement between the two sides of the zoo debate. It is not that zoo owners and animal rights activists are opposed to each other. It’s more as if they are staring at each other in disbelief from different planets.
Are zoos not good ways to educate children about animals?
“Zoos are not about education,” says Thorn. “They are for-profit businesses, using animals to make money. Animals should be free.”
Many zoos are involved in conservation efforts, trying to protect or repopulate endangered species. Is this not good work?
“Most zoo conservation projects are PR stunts,” Thorn says. “Very little good has come from any of them.”
Many zoos have animals that can be found only in captivity. Is it not better to have an animal alive in a zoo than extinct in the wilderness?
“No,” says Thorn. “I would rather be dead than be held captive. I’m sure animals feel the same way.”
In response, Bayford says if animals were born in captivity, there’s nothing wrong with them living in captivity. It seems the people who love zoos and the people who want to shut them down will never find common ground. Even a friendly visit seems unlikely, as one last question to Thorn would seem to indicate.
“Have I ever been inside the Papanack Zoo?” she asks. “No, I never have. Why would I?