A recent report by the federal Department of Agriculture raises concerns about animal care and conditions at the Buffalo Zoo after three polar bears died there in the last 16 months.
Care at the Buffalo Zoo is so dangerously poor that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums should immediately revoke the zoo's accreditation, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argued in a letter to the association.
"The zoo's most recent [department] inspection reports reveal an appalling pattern of carelessness, negligence and incompetence," PETA spokeswoman Lisa Wathne wrote.
This is the first time in Wathne's five years at PETA that the organization has asked the association to revoke a zoo's accreditation, she said.
A spokesman for the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums said that PETA is not a credible source on animal care but that the group will investigate the concerns raised in the Agriculture Department reports.
Buffalo Zoo officials issued a statement calling PETA's complaint a "gross misrepresentation" but declined to comment further.
"The health and welfare of the 1,200 animals in our care is, as always, the top priority and driving principle in everything we do at the Buffalo Zoo. That will never change," Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said in the statement.
PETA officials based their letter to the zoo association on incidents cataloged in the most recent USDA inspections of the Buffalo Zoo. The department licenses zoos and other facilities where animals are displayed or trained.
The report raises a range of issues about animal care at the zoo.
Perhaps most seriously, the report notes that three polar bears have died since August 2006 in cases where insufficient care and supervision might have been contributing factors.
In the first case, a bear named Danny was found in summer 2006 by keepers to be suffering from low weight and extensive fly bites to his ears.
In August 2006, veterinarians anesthetized Danny so that he could be treated for his ailments, according to the report.
A zookeeper who had been monitoring Danny while he was still immobilized left his holding area for two hours and, upon returning, found the bear dead in an empty pool.
"A safe environment needs to be provided when animals are anesthetized to prevent injury during this period," the report states.
Several polar bears at the zoo ate garbage left in their exhibit, according to the report, which stated that zookeepers should do a better job of keeping out foreign objects.
A necropsy performed on a polar bear named Kelly that died in November 2006 showed that the bear had a number of stones and a plastic toy in her stomach.
A third bear, Becky, underwent surgery this past February for an internal obstruction.
The surgery found plastic rims in her stomach, and Becky had previously gotten her mouth locked shut by pieces of garbage, the report found.
Becky died a day after the February surgery.
The three polar bear deaths "did raise some suspicion. It is something that we're following up on," said Jessica Milteer, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
The department's report also noted the possibility that a fourth polar bear, Kinapak, consumed part of a rat trap and a garbage bag found in the exhibit.
Kinapak died of a chronic heart condition May 27, said Jennifer Fields, a Buffalo Zoo spokeswoman. The zoo now has one polar bear, a 6-year-old female named Anana.
The Agriculture Department's report raised other concerns, noting the May 18 death of a hyena that was crushed by a boulder included in its exhibit.
None of the animal deaths was reported to The Buffalo News by the zoo, which regularly invites The News and other media outlets to report on animal births at the facility.
Fields said the zoo does not report every death to the media because animal deaths are regular occurrences at a zoo.
The zoo makes an exception in the case of the death of a well-known animal, Fields said, such as when Omega, the silverback gorilla, died in 2005.
Finally, the Agriculture Department report contends that the zoo twice did not take sufficient care in introducing animals that were expected to live together in an exhibit, leading to injuries to two tigers and a wolf.
The report contains a number of recommendations of action the zoo should take to enhance the safety of its animals. The zoo was not fined as a result of those citations.
PETA relied on the department's report in writing its strongly worded letter to the zoo association.
"This is beyond belief that this is an accredited zoo," Wathne told The News. "This is the kind of information that we typically find in the inspection reports of unaccredited, roadside zoos."
The zoo association has only received PETA's letter, not the USDA reports, said Steve Feldman, an association spokesman.
Feldman called PETA an "extremist" organization but said the association would follow up on the reports with the Buffalo Zoo.
However, he said, the fact that animals have died at the Buffalo Zoo is not, on its own, a sign of poor care at the zoo because animal deaths are normal in zoos and in the wild.
Feldman added that the zoo responded quickly to issues raised by the association in 2006.
"We have a lot of confidence in the expertise of the veterinarians and staff at the Buffalo Zoo," he said.
Buffalo Zoo officials declined to comment on the specific incidents cited in the reports because they are awaiting a final report from the department.
The statement noted that some of the allegations raised in an initial June 13 inspection report were removed from the amended August 2007 report.
For example, the June report criticized treatment of elephants by trainers at the Buffalo Zoo, but the August report makes no mention of that alleged mistreatment.
And the zoo has been addressing structural problems in its sea lion exhibit that were noted in the June and August reports.
A small number of zoos, just 216 nationwide, have met the high standards required for accreditation by the national association.
The Buffalo Zoo is the third-oldest zoo in the country. The national association last year delayed reaccrediting the zoo because of substandard conditions at its elephant house and an inadequate veterinary-care facility.
However, the zoo is pumping $2.5 million into improvements to those facilities. The zoo also has invested heavily to create new exhibit spaces and currently is building a new tropical rain forest exhibit.