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Humane Society reports poor conditions for Catoctin Zoo animals

Kelsi Loos
Frederick News-Post

(12/4) A Humane Society of the United States report called out the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve & Zoo near Thurmont for inadequately caring for animals, but the zoo's executive director said the report was written with a political agenda.

The overview of problems at Maryland zoos, released Wednesday, pointed out inadequacies at Catoctin, Plumpton Park and Tri-State zoos.

The report highlights concerns at Catoctin Zoo, including poor training for keepers, bear cages that are too small and a poorly maintained macaque cage, among other issues.

Capuchins were also kept in an undersized cage, the Humane Society said, and their food can end up on the ground beneath the wire flooring, possibly leading to them being underfed, or eating food tainted with feces. The tiger cage may not be tall enough to contain the animals, according to the report.

An Animal Welfare Act complaint from January 2012 corroborates some of the allegations. The document noted several cease-and-desist orders issued in prior years to the zoo for failing to maintain structurally sound facilities, provide adequate ventilation in indoor facilities and maintain sanitary conditions for the animals.

Richard Hahn, executive director of the Global Wildlife Trust Inc., the nonprofit that runs the zoo, said the Humane Society report was based on hasty observations. The paper said that the sun bears were kept in cages that provided no items for mental stimulation. Hahn countered that there is a pool in the cage and they place rocks, hay, peanut butter and marshmallows in the cage on a rotating basis to pique the animals' curiosity.

"Many of the things they cited were opinions," he said, noting that it included negative reviews from the public.

The zoo holds training sessions with its zookeepers every week, Hahn said, and sends them to various conferences on zoo design and other topics. The zoo has 20 full-time staff members year-round, including a veterinarian, and 40 employees in the summer.

The zoo evaluates animals' well-being on a daily basis, he said, checking them for lethargy, thinning hair and other signs of illness.

To determine an appropriate habitat for the animals, Catoctin Zoo looks to how other zoos house their animals, according to Hahn.

"We try to emulate them and then we watch the animals," Hahn said. "It's common sense. You look at the animal."

The Humane Society took a broader look at why poor conditions for animals are allowed to persist at some zoos.

Maryland law prohibits importing, offering for sale, trading, bartering, possessing, breeding or exchanging exotic species. There is, however, an exemption for zoos with an Animal Welfare Act license from the USDA. The report argued that the exemption constituted a loophole that allows for irresponsible animal care as long as the owner gets a license.

The report said animal welfare could be improved with stronger accreditation standards for zoos and noted positive results in Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities.

Hahn said he believed that the Humane Society issued the report to prepare to lobby to make the AZA the only authority on zoos. He added that it's much more expensive to be accredited by the AZA than the Zoological Association of America, the group that accredits Catoctin Zoo.

"They have a program, they have a purpose," he said. "They do that by tugging by the heartstrings."

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