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Should Austin limit public contact with wild animals at for-profit zoos, aquariums?

Wednesday, June 21, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

The Animal Advisory Commission continues to grapple with language on a proposed ordinance that would limit public contact with wild animals at for-profit zoos and aquariums.

At its June 12 meeting, the commission voted to convene a second working group to review the draft language, make changes if needed and present the results to the full commission at its next regular meeting.

Commissioners couldn’t agree on aspects of the language, including whether to require a specific accreditation, how to define “wild animal” and if the draft language would have potentially unintended consequences on businesses such as pet stores or mobile petting zoos.

The draft language prohibits any for-profit zoo or aquarium without Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation from allowing public interaction with wild animals. It also requires any animal bite or scratch to be reported, the animal to be quarantined for 30 days and the results of the quarantine be released to the member of the public who was bitten or scratched within three days.

Commissioner Paige Nilson said the issue arose after citizens at the commission’s February meeting raised concerns about the public interactions with wild animals at the Austin Aquarium. She said that until hearing the recent complaints, she hadn’t visited the facility since 2018. She was surprised to learn that the aquarium had expanded its program to include public interaction with mammals.

Nilson, a veterinarian, agreed to lead an Aquarium Working Group to investigate the complaints. Many of the complaints were raised again by members of the public during citizen communication on June 12.

“The Austin Aquarium optimizes the myriad of public safety hazards and animal welfare concerns associated with direct contact encounters,” said Michelle Sinnott, director of captive animal law enforcement for the PETA Foundation.

During a four-month period in 2022, a PETA investigator worked undercover at the aquarium, Sinnott said. The investigator “documented widespread suffering and neglect,” Sinnott said.

“PETA’s eyewitness also documented 34 incidents of animals attacking people during that four-month period, and according to public records, only one of those incidents was reported to animal services,” she said.

There also are publicly documented incidents at the aquarium. In 2019, the parents of a 10-year-old girl sued the aquarium, claiming that it failed to prevent a lemur from biting their daughter during an educational trip. The parents said the aquarium first claimed it couldn’t confirm the vaccination status of the lemur, which resulted in the family spending thousands in medical costs.

In May, a woman visiting the aquarium reported sustaining an injury when a lemur jumped onto her face. The aquarium told KVUE it was investigating the incident and blamed past incidents on visitors not following staff instructions.

Community members expressed concerns these kinds of incidents could lead to zoonotic disease, which are infections spread between humans and animals.

However, not every speaker agreed the new ordinance was the way to address the issues.

Phil Goss, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, spoke against a “collective punishment” rather than a targeted attempt to address specific concerns and actors.

“It sounds like this is targeted at one business, and I hate to see collective punishment happen in this. If there is one business, I would hope any new law could be tailored to address that one issue,” Goss said. “If someone is a bad driver, you don’t ban driving.”

Goss said Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities represent only the largest zoological institutions in the country and denied that they are necessarily superior to nonaccredited facilities when it comes to caring for animals. He said he has worked in accredited facilities and “seen plenty of inspectors look the other way” at animal welfare issues during that time.

Goss also expressed concern the definition in the ordinance could be applied to pet stores. “So a pet store cannot take something like a leopard gecko out of a cage to show to a customer,” he said.

The language concerning whether businesses would have to be brick and mortar to operate also is unclear, he said.

“(I’ve) given hundreds of presentations to schools and public libraries on reptiles and never was there any occurrence. So to say that these programs are inherently dangerous is an outright lie,” Goss said.

He said the definitions in the ordinance should be more specific.

“We’re talking about the definition of ‘wild animal’ (including) tortoises and tree frogs and geckos and small birds,” Goss said. “This is applying to all animals.”

The Austin Monitor reached out to the Austin Aquarium for comment.

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