By Peter Fricker
The deaths of two giraffes at the Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre in Langley raise a simple question: Why?
According to necropsy results, one of the two died of peracute mortality syndrome, which has been associated with captive giraffes being kept in cooler climates instead of their natural tropical climate. Basically, the giraffes die when their diet doesn’t ensure they have enough fat to withstand cold temperatures. (The necropsy results for the second giraffe—a three-month old baby—have not been made public.)
The syndrome is not new, having been researched since 1978. (One literature review even cites cases going as far back as 1854.) A 2005 study makes specific recommendations on how to prevent PMS: “to reduce the risk of serous fat atrophy in captive giraffe, the provision of adequate levels of energy in the diet would appear to be the most effective preventative step...Persistent exposure to temperatures below 20 °C should be avoided unless the energy intake can be substantially increased.”
Yet Mountain View was keeping its giraffes in an unheated barn during freezing temperatures last December. What’s more, according to media reports, the consultant veterinarian for the centre said the giraffes were not getting enough energy in their diet and were therefore not retaining enough fat. His reported prescription for keeping captive giraffes alive was simple: “You need a diet that is as good as possible, good ventilation, insulation and warm housing. That’s all you need.”
But a good enough diet and warm housing were precisely what Mountain View failed to provide. The centre has been described as “world class” and “superb” by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, yet it apparently was unaware of the well-studied problem of captive giraffe mortality.
Veterinary science aside, wouldn’t it be common sense to provide heat to tropical animals during sub-zero temperatures? Other captive animal facilities seem to think so; a quick Google search found that zoos in Seattle, Dublin, and Bristol (all with climates similar to Vancouver’s) provide heated barns for their giraffes. Even the Greater Vancouver Zoo, which is no stranger to criticism about its animal care, has a heated giraffe barn.
Lack of heat for animals is among the allegations made in December by a group of current and former Mountain View staff. In a document provided to the Vancouver Humane Society and Zoocheck Canada just days before the giraffes died, they stated: “Heat is a serious issue at Mountain View...many of the tropical species get no heat at all during the winter months (e.g. zebras, giraffe, addax, sable antelope) and the rest get far less heat than they need.”
Their criticism was subsequently echoed by Douglas Richardson, a former manager who worked at the centre in 2003-04, who told one newspaper, “One of the main animal-welfare problems I tried to deal with was the lack of heating for the giraffes.” He was terminated in 2004.
Mountain View’s response to media questions about the giraffe deaths has been complete denial of responsibility. “All I know is we’ve had giraffes for 10 years and there has never [before] been an issue,” said spokesperson Malcolm Weatherstone to one reporter. Only after the giraffes died, and under orders from the B.C. SPCA, did the centre install heating for its remaining giraffes.
The SPCA’s investigation into other allegations made by the staff group is still underway, and it remains to be seen if any charges will be laid. But one thing is clear: in December, an animal designed by nature to live under the African sun died needlessly in a freezing cold barn in Canada.
The technical question of why this happened has been answered by the necropsy. But the moral question of why the giraffes died has not. The giraffes at Mountain View are not being bred for return to the wild. They are not part of any accredited species survival plan. (They are not endangered.) So why are they there? Presumably, they provide some pleasure for those who take the guided tours Mountain View makes available to the public. Or do they just satisfy a need, common to pre-adolescent boys and some zookeepers, to just collect living things?
Whatever the reason, people and institutions who keep exotic animals should be held accountable for their welfare. The B.C. SPCA has limited powers and cannot do this alone. The B.C. Ministry of the Environment, which regulates zoos in the province, has been virtually silent on the controversy. The ministry must decide whether to grant Mountain View an operating permit before April 1 this year. Will it do so while this cloud hangs over the centre? It should conduct a full investigation of the centre to determine if it is fit to operate.
Only the ministry can set and enforce standards that could ensure tragedies like the giraffe deaths will not occur again. Otherwise the welfare of zoo animals in B.C. will depend on the courage of whistle-blowers like the Mountain View staff. As even they would agree, that’s just not good enough.
Peter Fricker is the projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.