More at Stake Than Money for Honolulu Zoo
by Nicholas Fillmore, Court House News, June 16, 2016
HONOLULU (CN) — The Honolulu Zoo has blamed the recent loss of its accreditation on funding issues, but some advocates question the use of throwing more money at the problem.
"Zoos are anachronisms," said Catherine Goeggel, a former chief of the Zoological Society. "They're prisons for animals. The reasons zoos were created — for people to see animals they wouldn't otherwise see — no longer exist."
Goeggel, who founded the nonprofit Animal Rights Hawaii, said a Hawaiian biome would be more suitable for a setting with so many endangered sea birds, insects and plants.
Indeed Hawaii is sometimes referred to as the extinction capital of the world, as the home to thousands of endangered species.
Heather Rally, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, complained that zoos fail utterly in their mission as conservators, and as educators.
"In the wild, elephants cover 50 miles in a day," Rally said in an interview. "Animal captivity changes animals behaviorally and genetically. They cannot just be released into the wild, which is setting them up for failure. And after decades of keeping these animals in captivity, we no longer know how to actually care for them."
When the Association of Zoos and Aquariums failed the Honolulu Zoo in March, it took umbrage in particular with the facility's handling of a pair of post-reproductive Asian elephant females.
Among various concerns for the elephants, the AZA criticized the zoo's limited shade, brackish pools and untested chlorine levels in the pools.
Citing a lack of animal enrichment, the AZA said there were only "some old tires and logs attached to bollards and a boomer ball in the pool, but nothing that appeared to be changed regularly by the staff or used by the elephants."
Meanwhile rocks in the yard could hurt the animals' feet and pose problems if the elephants threw them, according to the report.
"Of course the AZA had a major problem with the elephants," Goeggel said. "Lack of water. No enrichment. This barren, sad exhibit."
Goeggel noted that "the elephants were recently found playing with a car battery that got in there somehow, or they unearthed."
The Honolulu Zoo must a wait a year before it can reapply for AZA accreditation, but the association noted the facility is no stranger to quick fixes.
In a preface to its report, the AZA said the Honolulu Zoo has "a history of allowing the facility and programs to deteriorate between accreditation inspections, then rallying with increased attention and funding immediately prior to the inspection, only to let it deteriorate again before the next inspection."
Honolulu Zoo director Baird Flemming did not return phone calls seeking comment, but has in the past made public remarks writing these concerns off as funding issues.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell appeared to answer the call, proposing a $1.2 million increase to the zoo's operating budget for fiscal year 2017.
The proposed $6.8 million budget would include six new animal-keeper jobs and four other new employee positions.
For Goeggel, the problem is more than cosmetic.
"Everything is not OK with the animals," she said.
Goeggel noted that the zoo's chimp troop was "wonderful" in the beginning.
Now if you look, the Plexiglas is all clouded up, which is from chimps rushing the glass and acting out," she said.
The AZA report flags one chimp that twice escaped its enclosure.
"Rosie the Hippo died from stress and from the heat, they believe," Goeggel said. "They'd drained the pool and were using jackhammers near the cages."
Goeggel also spoke to a series of other "random bizarre incidents."
"A tiger briefly got out of its enclosure," she said. "There was a case of someone stuffing dead animals into the fridge with staff lunches. A meerkat disappeared; when they did the head count one was missing."
The AZA also complained about "unrestricted contact" between the animals and their keepers.
Speaking to this issue, Goeggel noted that "several of the keepers at the zoo came from Las Vegas, where the animals do shows."
"I was watching them put the animals through their paces, and it reminded me of the circus," she said. "They had the animals doing tricks, basically, with use of an 'ankus,' this nasty bull hook they use in the elephants tender spots, in the armpit, behind the ears."
Goeggel worried that things will get worse if the zoo gets a bull elephant.
"When they're in musth they're uncontrollable," she said.
At a time of flux for societal attitudes toward zoos in general, the Honolulu Zoo's loss off accreditation paints a picture of an institution mired in bureaucratic inaction and philosophical funk.
Noting that the society has 12 full-time staffers, Goeggel said in an interview that "only a very small percentage of funds actually goes to the zoo."
Goeggel said the society enjoyed funding triple what it is now when she started.
"And every year the fund would get smaller," Goeggel said. "At the same time, the Zoological Society has grown to the point that it needs to be audited or disbanded."
Though the AZA is a private entity with little practical control over a facility's operation, the Honolulu Zoo scored poorly as well with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA reports have flagged rusted metal, flaking paint, inaccessible areas and a moldy, wooden nesting box as posing significant dangers to animals.