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Zoo Owes Explanations to the Public : Too few safeguards exist to keep animals from ending up in the wrong hands

The San Diego Zoological Society was quick to suspend relations with two private breeders who buy surplus zoo animals, after an animal rights group revealed last week that one of the breeders owns a hunting ranch and the other sold animals to such ranches.

“We should have known,” acknowledged a spokesman. He’s right. Left unanswered, however, was:

* Why a zoo justifiably famous for the quality of its exhibits didn’t know;

* Whether the zoo tries hard enough to check out the people it deals with.

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Surplus animals are an unavoidable consequence of captive breeding and limited space in zoos. Maintaining healthy herds and healthy gene pools means getting rid of animals that are too old or of the wrong sex or genetic line. Many are traded among zoos. But the supply of zoo homes doesn’t meet demand. And euthanasia for zoo animals--unlike for unwanted pets--is widely frowned upon. So surplus animals are often sold to commercial dealers and breeders. However, too few safeguards exist to keep animals from ending up in roadside menageries, with ill-equipped owners, or on private hunting ranches where they are killed for trophies.

For instance, the San Diego Zoological Society, which moves more zoo animals than anyone in the world, depends largely on the written promise of dealers to provide animals with humane care. Dealers also must promise to have their customers sign the same agreement. But the zoo has no formal follow-up system, allowing it to look the other way once animals are shipped.

The San Diego Zoo now admits it needs a stricter system of background checks and surveillance. If it follows through, that’s a real good start. But the zoo also owes the public, which supports it with taxes, fees and donations, a fuller explanation of these sales and its corrective plans.

The zoo also needs to do a better job of educating the public. Along with learning about the eating, breeding and living habits of the animals they see, people need to hear about the consequences of maintaining healthy collections of animals in captivity.

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This is a great, world-renowned zoo--one that the whole state can be proud of.

But when it slips up, as it has here, the best thing to do is to straighten the problem out quickly and fully.


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