But first I should probably ask if I'm the only one. Do family visits to the zoo ever make you uneasy too? And I’m not just talking about prices here. I'm talking about all those animals in their enclosures. Do you find yourself wondering about them? Ever since the story of the Toronto Zoo’s elephants exploded, there’s been lots of talk in our house about animals in captivity. If elephants are suffering so acutely—isolated and crushingly lonely, feet damaged and constantly infected from the concrete paths they were never meant to endure, dying prematurely—what about other animals? Are they suffering too?
What a fraught issue this is for families. On the one hand, viewing animals with our kids can invoke a rapturous joy and love of nature. I’ll always remember the way my son rushed at the aquariums at the zoo when he was a little guy. Nose-pressed, he would stand there endlessly captivated by these tiny flitting exotic fish. And doesn’t stuff like this give our kids a desire to respect and preserve the environment?
But more and more, zoo trips fill me with nagging questions. Here’s an example. On our recent March Break trip to Charleston, SC we visited Charlestown Landing, a historical state park which also features a small zoo. In the “Animal Forest”, you get to traipse along wooden boardwalks, masses of Spanish moss trailing in the breeze, and see animals that are (or were in olden days) native to the Lowcountry. As has become a habit for us, we critiqued the animals’ habitats. “The birds can’t fly away?!” my son asked eying all the netting around the seabird enclosure. There was little signage, so we couldn’t tell whether the egrets, pelicans and such, had been injured and rescued—or not. The otters, with their bubbling river and stone enclosure, seemed to be thriving though.
Then came the kicker. In the next enclosure, I stared straight into the eyes of a single black bear (although reportedly he has a roommate). It felt Alice-in-Wonderland strange. Perched on a wooden structure, placid and still, he looked like an overstuffed toy. Maddeningly though, I couldn’t find any details about this bear. What was the back story here? “I’ve got to look into this,” I told myself.
Well today I did. And the story that I uncovered about this bear literally gave me chills. Just a couple of clicks on Google and I found the story of “Memphis”. Last year, this 450-pound black bear was found “in the backyard of a Lowcountry residence, chained to a tree or pacing back and forth in a small dog trot”. I also read that South Carolina is “the only state where keeping bears and other wild animals, even cobras, is legal.”
While Memphis is safe now, some black bears in the state have seen a worse fate. My brief search also turned up news of an unspeakable underground practice of animal abuse that apparently still occurs today in Pakistan and South Carolina. It’s called “bear baying”. In 2010, the Associated Press broke the story including video evidence of baying events. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch what’s happening to these bears or even write about it in my own words but here’s how the Humane Society of the United States describes it. I’ll warn you. This is really tough to read:
“A black bear cowers in the corner of a pen in rural South Carolina. She is tethered to a stake, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers.
She is foaming at the mouth and popping her jaws, behavior that means she is terrified. Her captors have cut or removed her claws and many of her teeth, leaving her defenseless.
Three hounds run at the bear from one end of the arena, barking furiously. Some of them bite her face and legs. Others jump on her. She backs up on her hind legs, trying vainly to shield her face. The assault continues for four hours, as nearly 300 dogs attack her in quick succession.
This spectacle is a bear baiting competition, called a "bear bay" by participants, and is practiced only in South Carolina. It is similar to the archaic blood sport of bear baiting.”
HSUS investigators videotaped this scene during visits to four bear baiting events in the state hosted by breed clubs associated with American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club. According to attendees, the bear used in some of these events was a 15-year-old female taken from the wild as a cub.
On its website, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has this statement:
Please know that S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) does not consider bear baying/baiting a legitimate field trial and has never issued and will not issue permits for this activity.
As required by SC law, the only captive bears the SCDNR has permitted are those that were in captivity before January 1, 2006, and for which owners provided proof of possession prior to that date. No additional permits will be or have been issued for the captive possession of black bears in South Carolina, other than those legally possessed in another state and brought into South Carolina for temporary exhibition.
SCDNR does not consider the possession of black bears by individuals to be biologically sound, safe for the local community, or in the best long-term interest of the wild black bear resource. No further reproduction of captive black bears will be allowed in South Carolina.
In 2008, the South Carolina Attorney General issued an opinion that it is possible for bear baying/baiting to be prosecuted as animal cruelty under Title 47.
Activists maintain that an underground baying practice continues to exist. And petitions against this continue to circulate.
Asking questions about Memphis the bear led me to a horrible story of inhumanity, but I uncovered some signs of hope too. While Memphis endured years of mistreatment and is now unable to cope in the wild, he's been rescued and found a home at Charlestown Landing. And apparently there’s no evidence Memphis endured baying. Is the Animal Forest the best place for him? I don’t know, but I also know, he’s in a far better place today—and that things could be infinitely worse.
Sometimes zoos present us with stories like this. And sometimes on a simple trip to the zoo we encounter plenty of gray areas and ethical juggernauts. But there's more to the story. Zoos are also evolving, aiming to rescue animals, and/or protect and encourage endangered species. They're also looking at completely altering their animal environments. I think it’s worth staying in the loop, visiting zoos, and most of all, asking lots of hard questions. After all, for the Toronto Zoo’s elephants, it was such questions—from one passionate city councillor named Michelle Berardinetti—that changed everything. As I write, three weary elephants, Toka, Thika and Iringa, are reportedly this close to being loaded onto military helicopters and winging their way towards the warm embrace of a California sanctuary. I think that’s pretty awesome.
"Rescued bear now living at Charles Towne Landing," Post and Courier
"Investigation Documents Cruelty of Bear Baiting," The Humane Society of the United States, August 2010
"Uncovered in South Carolina: Bear Abuse for Show", Huffington Post, August 23, 2010
"Information Regarding Bear Baying/Baiting," www.dnr.sc.gov/admin/bearbb.html
"Zoo's elephants will be sent to sanctuary," Toronto Star, October 25, 2011
"RCAF Asked to Help Transport Three Toronto Zoo Elephants to California:Zoo Check," Montreal Gazette, March 21, 2013