Anyone who listened to Donna Fernandes' detailed rebuttal of criticisms of the Buffalo Zoo must have felt better about the old and beloved facility. While it is wise to withhold final judgment until federal regulators issue a follow-up report, it seems clear that the initial findings were off base.
Fernandes, the zoo's devoted president, offered specific responses to each criticism in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's preliminary report, including the deaths of four polar bears over 16 months. Her point, which is persuasive and backed up by zoo records, is that each of the bears had medical problems unrelated to the quality of care they received, which Fernandes says met all accepted standards.
Assuming that is the case, then the USDA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the shrill and generally unreliable animal rights group, have done the zoo and its supporters a real disservice. (PETA, which got hold of the preliminary report, predictably called for the zoo's accreditation to be yanked. Yet zoo officials say federal inspectors now wish the initial review had covered more completely the details Fernandes has made public. Oops.)
To be sure, the Buffalo Zoo has had all the weaknesses of an old zoo in a poor city. But zoo officials have been making notable improvements over the past several years, and plan for more, including a new polar bear exhibit with salt water instead of fresh and a design based on new polar bear display standards that were evolving until very recently.
In the meantime, Department of Agriculture follow-up investigators already have visited the zoo and will submit a report by the end of the year for the department to release after review.
It took humans a long time to ensure that animals kept in captivity were treated humanely, with their nutritional, medical and social needs met. It is an artificial life to which we subject wild animals, and while some of that helps us to understand and care for them in the wild, much of it is simply for our own pleasure and education. When we keep animals, wild or domesticated, we take on the obligation to do it right.
That holds true for critics and regulators, as well. Organizations such as PETA and the Department of Agriculture have their own obligations to make sure they are right before they fire the weapons at their disposal. Unless they review and correct any failures, which the Department of Agriculture now may well be doing, they hurt their own credibility as well as that of the organization they wrongly faulted.