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Zoo challenges report on polar bear deaths

Three polar bears at the Buffalo Zoo whose deaths raised concerns in a federal inspections report died because of illness, not substandard conditions, Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said Friday.

A recent Department of Agriculture report that cited care and conditions at the zoo as factors in the bears' deaths over a six-month period is filled with inaccuracies, Fernandes said.

"The exhibit did not contribute to the death of those animals," Fernandes said.

However, the Buffalo Zoo does intend to replace the aging polar bear exhibit with a new, long-planned Arctic Edge habitat, she added.

News of the deaths of the polar bears and other issues raised in the Agriculture Department report, disclosed by The News on Wednesday, has sparked fierce debate locally.

Supporters say the zoo is a valuable community resource and the deaths aren't the fault of keepers who are dedicated to the animals' best interests.

"I'm very supportive of the Buffalo Zoo," said Jon Herzog, 34, of Buffalo, who was visiting the zoo Friday. "I personally don't believe the zoo has done anything in neglect. The zoo is definitely moving in the right direction. I want to wait to see, before jumping to a conclusion of what happened."

Critics, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have called for the zoo to lose its accreditation. Others don't go that far, but say they worry the zoo doesn't have enough money to properly care for its animals.

"I think the people working at the zoo are doing it with the best of intentions, but their hands are tied" by financial problems, said Lisa Boulden, a nurse from Grand Island, who e-mailed The News after reading Wednesday's article.

The Agriculture Department highlighted concerns about animal care and conditions in a June 13 inspections report that was updated in August. The department licenses zoos and other facilities that house or train animals and conducts regular on-site inspections.

The August report notes that three polar bears died at the zoo between August 2006 and February 2007.

One bear died following surgery, while under the effect of anesthesia, after he was left alone, the report stated.

Two of the bears ate garbage that had made its way into the exhibit, the USDA inspector found, and the report suggests the garbage may have been a factor in the bears' deaths.

The report also cites the zoo for the death of a hyena that was crushed by a boulder in its exhibit and criticizes keepers for improperly introducing animals that were to live together.

Fernandes said the inspections document is a preliminary report that is not entirely factual.

"The report is inaccurate, and we challenged it," she said.

The deaths of the bears did concern zoo staffers, Fernandes said, and she had employees test the water and the exhibit itself for an environmental or biological explanation.

However, the three bears died from diseases, she said.

Danny, who died in August 2006, died from congestive heart failure, Fernandes said. He was watched closely after his surgery and was left alone briefly, but not for the two hours claimed in the USDA report, she said.

Kelly, who died in November 2006, was euthanized because of kidney failure.

And Becky, who died last February, had cancer of the gallbladder, she said.

Kelly and Becky had eaten foreign objects, Fernandes agreed, but the garbage didn't play a role in their deaths.

A fourth polar bear, Kinapak, also had eaten garbage, but his death May 27 was because of a chronic heart condition, and it was not noted in the report.

In response to the inspections report, PETA sent a letter to the national group that accredits zoos asking that the Buffalo Zoo's accreditation be revoked.

A spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has said the group would look into the concerns raised by the Department of Agriculture.

One member of the Buffalo Zoo's board of directors said he couldn't comment on the specific claims made by PETA and the Department of Agriculture, but he defended zoo operations generally.

"I have great confidence in [Fernandes], the management and staff at the zoo. And I am confident that the zoo provides a high level of care to animals at the zoo," said Hal D. Payne, a vice chairman of the zoo board.

A number of people writing on the Inside the News blog on The News Web site stated that they find the conditions at the Buffalo Zoo deplorable and they want the zoo shut down.

Some of these critics said keeping any animal in a zoo is cruel, while others said it is the Buffalo Zoo in particular that doesn't have the staff or funding to care for its animals.

But the zoo has its online defenders, as well, with some pointing out the dedication of the staff and arguing that critics shouldn't jump to conclusions about the polar bears' deaths.

At the zoo Friday, it was a cool, crisp day, mostly sunny, with only a few clouds.

The thermometer said 29 degrees -- perfect polar bear weather.

Anana, the zoo's remaining polar bear, paced back and forth, just behind the moat that separated her from zoo patrons.

On the other side of the moat, most visitors seemed sympathetic to the zoo.

"I'm actually a zoo science student, and I study these kinds of things," said Hannah Fullmer, 21, of Atlantic City, a student at Delaware Valley College. "That's what made me want to come and see the zoo. So far, I'm impressed. The animals look nice and healthy."

Fullmer said people often overreact to such stories, not realizing how much maintenance and upkeep is required. She gave a mixed report, though, on how 6-year-old Anana looked.

"She's definitely stressed, you can tell the way she keeps rolling on her front paw," Fullmer said. "But she looks OK. She's healthy for sure, a good body weight and good color."

Rachel Roberts of Kenmore, visiting the zoo with her husband Charlie and two children, had a different view.

"We come to the zoo quite a lot, and the bears never seem happy," she said. "The polar bears pace back and forth a lot. It is always kind of depressing to look at them. Some of the animals -- the sea lions and sea otters -- seem happier."

Of 10 zoo patrons interviewed late Friday morning, most seemed sympathetic to the zoo on this issue. Several are regular visitors to the zoo.

Mitchell Lott, 33, of Rochester, believes the polar bears are in the wrong environment here, but he wasn't blaming the zoo.

"If the rest of the animals are healthy, you wouldn't pin this one problem on the zoo," he said. "The other animals aren't mistreated or neglected."

The Buffalo Zoo announced in 2001 plans for a wide range of new exhibits, including an Arctic Edge exhibit that would house polar bears, reindeer, arctic wolves and snowy owls.

The exhibit was supposed to open by 2007, but its design and construction have been delayed because of issues of financial priorities and of evolving guidelines for proper polar bear care.

The project, including an underwater viewing area for the bears, still is listed on the zoo's Web site and remains a priority for the zoo, Fernandes said.

"I would like to see a better polar bear exhibit. That is a very old exhibit," she said.

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