The GuZoo opened its doors to visitors last week after the owner put the government-ordered decommission process on hold by calling a judicial review.
“We’re back, same as we were before,” said GuZoo owner Lynn Gustafson last week. “It feels pretty good, it’s still kind of maddening or whatever you want to call it, the way the whole thing has been carried out.”
But animal protection charity Zoocheck Canada says the staying of the decommissioning is just another stall tactic Gustafson is using to keep the controversial zoo alive.
“I’m not surprised at all. It’s been one stall tactic after the next, not the least of which was trying to call the zoo a place of worship,” says Zoocheck’s campaign director Julie Woodyer. She’s referring to Gustafson’s threats of turning the GuZoo into a spiritual sanctuary, as well as him saying he would taxidermy the animals, if the GuZoo were to be shut down by Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development ministry.
“It will probably buy him a few more months, but we feel confident that the decision to close the zoo will be upheld and that the government has done a significant amount of research and due diligence in coming to their conclusion to close the zoo,” says Woodyer.
Zoocheck has been monitoring the zoo for a number of years.
The judicial review will not question the reasoning behind the decommission order, but will call into question the protocol and procedure behind the 60-day decommission order.
Having drawn attention for sub-standard conditions in which the over 400 animals are alleged to be living in, the GuZoo has been criticized since opening in 1990. This was again revived when photos were uploaded to Facebook at the end of March, depicting dirty water, intermingling of species, fecal build up in cages, and even bloodied animals appearing to be eating garbage.
“To this day I don’t have anything in writing saying why they gave me this decommission thing,” said Gustafson last Thursday.
But Alberta Sustainable Resource Development has published the “CAZA Report” on their website, a written review of the GuZoo’s condition. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) was contracted by the Alberta government in April to conduct a review of the operations of the zoo facility. The report says during the May inspection 108 elements of the Alberta Zoo Standards were assessed and rated. Based on the assessment, 45 elements “did not meet standards but with effort could do so”, and 32 elements “does not meet standards and is unlikely to do so”. Thirty-one elements met standards.
The “GuZoo achieved a rating of 49%”, the report says, going on to identify two significant underlying issues affecting the operations of the GuZoo; the first is resources, the second is the position of the owner relative to many of the requirements of the Alberta Zoo Standards.
Lack of financial resources is at the base of many of the inadequate structures at the facilities, the report says. A lack of proper animal identification, inappropriate staff training, the inconsistent role of a veterinarian as described in the Zoo Standards have been issues Gustafson has stated he has no intention in correcting, writes CAZA, adding, “The owner has a lifetime of experience with farm animals but does not have similar experience and knowledge with modern wildlife and exotic animal design techniques.”
Gustafson says they completed the review in May, when Alberta still faced lingering winter weather. “Most of it was kind of fabricated. There was the odd thing we have changed. There were some things we were going to do before the inspection was complete. When you’re cleaning up in the spring you break some boards off here and there. We kind of left them because we figured they’d complain about them and they’ll want us to fix them and we’d do it anyway. We cleaned that sort of thing up.”
Gustafson blames social media for reviving the attention this spring.
“If it wasn’t for that, this whole situation wouldn’t be here right now. This social media thing – petitioning the government – the government just catered to them which they should never have done without facts. They just catered to shut them up, and that didn’t even shut them up because they kept on doing it anyway.”
Gustafson says accidents at major zoos, such as the death of 40 cownose rays at the Calgary Zoo in 2008, get blown out of proportion because of the media.
“If you have live animals, you’re going to have dead animals. That’s life... They make a big issue out of the Calgary Zoo with some of the losses they’ve had. Well, accidents happen,” says Gustafson. “It’s the same here, we’re not fancy like the polished zoos are with the aesthetics, it’s just plain and simple. If you see an older vehicle with the power windows, you don’t take them off the road. They may laugh at it, but they don’t take it off the road.”
Zoocheck’s Woodyer says, “The facility continues to be substandard, has been for years, and the facility operator has refused to do basic record keeping.”
Woodyer adds complaints have been received by Zoocheck for 15 years, but investigations have only been effective since 2005 when Alberta passed the Alberta Zoo Standards legislation. Before then, a lack of legislation provided no tools to deal with poor zoo conditions.
A year after the Zoo Standards were passed, Woodyer says Zoocheck investigated the GuZoo and found over 100 violations.
“They knew at that time there were violations. I think since that time, they (the Alberta government) has been desperately trying to bring him into compliance, and now enough is just enough. If someone gets hurt they (Alberta government) are liable because they aren’t enforcing the law,” says Woodyer.
Not all the animals at the GuZoo fall under the zoo permit, a minotrity of the 400 animals are classified as exotic. If the GuZoo loses the protected animals, Woodyer suspects it would turn into a petting zoo of sorts with unprotected animals.
Gustafson told The Mail that over the past month, he’s out $20,000 with lost revenues and legal fees.
“Why not have spent the money over the years improving the facility and complying with the zoo standards rather than now ponying up thousands in legal fees to challenge something the government has done a really good job on?,” says Woodyer.
“The court will find they followed proper process because the government was extremely careful.”
If the courts find the government followed correct procedure during their investigation, the decommissioning process will begin again.