The San Diego Zoological Society suspended its dealings with two private animal breeders Tuesday after an animal rights group revealed that one of the breeders runs a hunting ranch and the other sold animals to hunting ranches to be killed as trophies.
Jeff Jouett, a spokesman for the San Diego Zoo, said the zoo did not realize until Tuesday that the two breeders had ties to private hunting ranches.
Only a few animals from the zoo were turned over to the questionable breeders and apparently none were hunted, although their offspring may have been. Still, Jouett acknowledged that, by dealing with the breeders, however unwittingly, the zoo had broken with its professional code of ethics and its own written policies.
“We should have known,” Jouett said after reviewing a stack of documents made public Tuesday by Friends of Animals. “We don’t condone hunting ranches, and we don’t deal with people who do. I’m shocked. I’m disappointed. And I’m glad it was pointed out to us.”
The disclosure was particularly embarrassing for the San Diego Zoo, world famous for its work in propagating endangered species. When such allegations have been raised in the past, the zoo has repeatedly denied any dealings--direct or indirect--with hunting ranches.
Like other zoos nationwide, the San Diego Zoo has publicly condemned the sale or transfer of any zoo animals to hunting farms, both because the animals are cruelly treated and because these ranches are widely thought to hinder legitimate breeding efforts.
Lisa Landres, a former elephant keeper at the San Diego Zoo and the Friends of Animals’ captive wildlife specialist, released documents Tuesday that showed that San Diego Zoo animals were transported to a Texas hunting ranch and to a New York game farm that does business with hunting ranches. Although no animals from the San Diego Zoo were hunted on ranches, their offspring may well have been, Landres said.
The allegations--timed to coincide with the annual conference of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in San Diego this week--suggest a national problem with the placement of so-called “surplus” zoo animals, she said.
Landres said the San Diego Zoo, although “brazen” in its dealings, is by no means the only zoo whose surplus animals have ended up in the hands of unscrupulous or unqualified private owners. Earlier this year, for example, a Monterey County rancher and his wife were convicted of violating state endangered species laws when they allowed hunters to kill exotic cats--some of them former zoo animals--at point-blank range.
“The disposal of unwanted zoo animals is a national problem--one that is not being responsibly addressed by the AAZPA or by the individual zoos themselves,” she said. “Every major zoo in the country is either contributing to the problem or turning their back on it.”
Until Tuesday, however, when Landres provided written proof, the San Diego Zoo had never acknowledged that any of its animals had been shipped to a hunting ranch.
At a news conference, Landres distributed copies of a California Department of Fish and Game permit, dated Sept. 6, 1990, that authorized the transfer “for captive breeding purposes” of two Asian sika deer from the San Diego Wild Animal Park to Dale Priour of Ingram, Tex.
Priour is the owner of Priour Ranch, a trophy game hunting ranch in Ingram. Landres provided a copy of the ranch brochure and fee schedule that showed that Priour charges customers $1,500 to shoot sika deer for trophies.
Jouett said later that the zoo had arranged to buy the two deer back from Priour, who had been using them to breed other deer. Four years ago, Jouett said, Priour had told the zoo he was not involved in the hunting business, and those records had not been updated. The zoo on Tuesday permanently suspended its relationship with Priour, Jouett said.
“We need to be more diligent in doing background checks. We need to update it more regularly and be more strict in our surveillance,” Jouett said. “We aren’t proud that two animals ended up at a hunting farm.”
Reached by phone Tuesday before the zoo had announced its decision to suspend business with him, Priour said the sika deer he received from San Diego are not candidates for hunting, but are used in breeding. Some of their offspring, he said, are sold to other exotic game ranchers. Some go to stock his hunting ranch.
Landres also provided documents from 1989 and 1990 that showed that the San Diego Zoo has transferred animals--including three sheep and one kangaroo--to the Catskill Game Farm in Catskill, N.Y. That game farm, in turn, does business with hunting farms, documents showed.
According to New York state records provided by Landres, the Catskill Game Farm in 1989 “disposed of” 15 whitetail deer by transporting them to Donald Van Vliet of Wellsboro, Pa. Van Vliet’s name is listed on the brochure for Stony Fork Hunts, a hunting ranch in Wellsboro that advertises year-round hunting for riflemen, handgun users and archers.
The same year, New York state records show that the Catskill Game Farm transported 12 whitetail deer to Priour, the owner of the Texas hunting ranch.
Jouett said the San Diego Zoo had done business with the Catskill Game Farm since 1952 and regarded the firm as a reputable dealer. The whitetail deer that were transported to hunting farms were native species, not zoo-born animals, Jouett noted. Nevertheless, the San Diego Zoo on Tuesday temporarily suspended its dealing with the farm pending investigation.
“We will ask for an accounting of zoo animals that have been placed there,” Jouett said. “We are confident they have not moved animals from our zoo or any other zoo to a hunting ranch, but we are checking to make sure.”
The AAZPA, the industry’s principal trade group whose members include the San Diego Zoo, specifically prohibits placing exotic animals at hunting ranches or with others unqualified to care for them properly.
Zoo officials acknowledge that, as they seek to protect the genetic integrity of captive breeding populations, surplus animals--or those that have no unique genetic value--are an essential byproduct. When these animals are transferred from zoos to private breeders, however, zoo officials concede, they often rely on the breeder’s reputation to ensure that the animals are well-treated in their new homes.
Since 1976, the San Diego Zoo has had its own policy to prevent its animals from ending up as trophies. Animal traders who receive zoo animals are required to sign “humane treatment agreements,” guaranteeing that they will not “cause mental or physical harm to the animals or treat them in an inhumane or cruel manner.”
Jouett said the wording of those agreements may be updated in light of the information made public Tuesday.
Landres provided additional records that indicate that some San Diego Zoo animals have found their way into the pet trade. A 1986 health certificate Landres distributed showed that an eastern gray kangaroo from the San Diego Wild Animal Park was transported to the Catskill Game Farm.
According to sales records, the kangaroo was later given to a man in Clifton Park, N.Y., who wanted to keep it as a pet. News accounts in the Clifton Park Times Record said the man was later cited for not having the correct permits. As he fought a battle in court to keep the kangaroo, which he called Fred, it was attacked by two dogs and killed, the news accounts said.
Jouett called the kangaroo’s death “tragic” and said the Catskill Game Farm had made a mistake in placing the animal.
“I regret that that happened,” Jouett said. “It’s four years ago. It’s history.”
The San Diego Zoo’s surplus animals became the focus of public scrutiny last year when a television news report on “60 Minutes” suggested that animals from some zoos end up on private hunting farms, often via wildlife auctions.
The report said that the San Diego Zoo has often entrusted its animals to an animal transporter named Earl Tatum. Tatum, the segment alleged, had used middlemen to sell exotic animals at wildlife auctions, where private hunting farms often buy their stock.
The zoo rebutted those charges, saying that of all the animal transporters in the country, Tatum had the best reputation. They continue to do business with Tatum. They did, however, sever their ties with another animal transporter mentioned in the report, James Fouts, who admitted he took endangered antelope from the San Diego Wild Animal Park to a Missouri wild animal auction in 1985.
In a letter to “60 Minutes” made public last year, Jouett wrote: “The San Diego Zoo does not sell its animals at wildlife auctions or to hunting ranches. We do not entrust our animals to anyone who does. We find both practices abhorrent.”
On Tuesday, as in the past, Jouett said he was suspicious of Landres, who resigned from the zoo in 1989 because, she said, the zoo was punishing her for being outspoken about the beating of the elephant Dunda in 1988.
“She has a long history of antagonizing the zoo and of playing fast and loose with the facts,” Jouett said.
Landres responded that the wrongdoing documented Tuesday was “one of the reasons why I am a former employee. I never think of myself as a disgruntled former employee. I am a disappointed former employee. And now, this is my job. This is what I get paid to do.”