Canada

Hamers: Tiger King-esque animal abuse happens in Canada, too

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As an animal welfare researcher and advocate, I cherish my job. I get to observe fascinating animals and read about the incredible things animals can do. Staying on top of developments in the field means I also have to watch things I’d rather avoid: prime example, the recently released episodes of the Netflix series, Tiger King.

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I get it — the audience gets hooked on the backstabbing, the conspiracy theories, the characters; nobody knows what the truth is, and nobody seems to care as long as we feel entertained. The story is about people, but my heart truly goes out to the animals who are nearly invisible in the background, restlessly pacing or yelping out of fear.

My stomach turned during the mobile zoo scenes, when people sat in a circle to handle and touch animals, including monkeys and tiger cubs. The audience laughed while a wrangler was shaking a tiger cub to show people what an angry tiger cub looks like, throwing the cub into the audience as if the animal was a ball instead of a sentient being.

Canadians may be surprised to know these types of demeaning animal programs also take place here. In most jurisdictions, you don’t need anything to call yourself an animal “educator” or “expert.” If you have exotic animals, a car, and website you can be hired by anyone and take your animals anywhere under the guise of education and conservation. Even some zoos see these types of activities as a core piece of their earning model, despite the stress that traveling and handling causes for the animals.

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Thankfully, the use of tiger cubs and monkeys for these types of activities has substantially declined in Canada due to regulations often passed in response to a tragedy or incident. However, a whole slew of other animals is being overlooked, including parrots, large constrictor snakes and smaller mammals like armadillos. These animals deserve the same protection as lions and monkeys. They are sentient animals who can experience happiness and suffering, and in most cases would prefer not to be around people if they had the choice.

I remain baffled how our society decides which animals are worthy of protection and which aren’t. Many collectors and traders in the exotic pet industry are opportunistic and will exploit any animal species that is not protected.

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We have seen it over and over again. For example, British Columbia prohibits more than 1,200 animals from being kept as pets. Now servals have increased in popularity because they are not on the prohibited list — not because they make suitable pets. Ontario has the weakest regulations in Canada regarding wild animal ownership, forcing municipalities to deal with an ever-growing number of animal breeders, mobile zoos and exotic animal keepers, including people who have tigers and lions in their backyard.

Is there a solution? Of course there is. Wild animals shouldn’t be kept as pets or used as props during events. You don’t need a living animal to educate people about the species and to care about them. Look at dinosaurs. Many kids love them despite never having seen one in real life. Web cams and holograms allow us to experience wild animals virtually without inflicting any harm. Governments should pass stronger regulations to prohibit the keeping of animals if they can’t physically and psychologically thrive in a captive environment, are a danger to human health and safety and if their trade negatively impacts biodiversity in Canada or elsewhere. In the end, we must do more to protect habitats and transition livelihoods dependent on the commercial trade so wild animals can stay where they belong: in the wild.

Michèle Hamers is the wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection in Canada.

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