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PETA urges investigation of wildebeest breakout

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-11-08


The season was over at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, and staffers were trying to herd the five wildebeests who inhabit the 14-acre African veldt exhibit into their winter quarters. They were having a bad time of it. Baiting the animals with food wasn’t working, and a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal you can rush. The five wildebeests became grouped near the access gate in the 10’ perimeter fence surrounding the enclosure. “They did not run and hit that gate head on at full speed,” says Mark Weldon, General Curator at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, dismissing one of the stories he’s heard about the incident. “They just all five pressed up against the gate and it popped open.” And the wildebeests wandered out into the city of Fort Wayne.

For an animal known for its thunderous migration across the great plains of Africa, the video footage shown on the local news of five bewildered wildebeests poking around the backyards and residential areas of Wells street was hardly the stuff of which compelling Nature Channel documentaries are made. But in all seriousness, things could have been much worse. Fortunately, no people were hurt, there was no major damage to property, and the situation was resolved very quickly.

Not all ended well, however: two of the animals suffered broken limbs during the incident and had to be destroyed. “I know some of the reports out said we shot them,” Weldon says. “We did not shoot them. They were humanely euthanized with drugs. There was never a firearm shot in this whole scenario.”

The event actually made the news in some national outlets, and a few days later, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) fired off a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Care Division (the branch in charge of regulating zoos), recommending the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo be investigated for possible violations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act. “There are parts of the Animal Welfare Act that relate to the handling of animals, and also appropriate housing and fencing to contain the animals,” says Lisa Wathne, PETA’s Captive Exotic Animal Specialist. “In our letter to the USDA, we cited those specific parts of the Animal Welfare Act, because it seems very obvious that the strength and size of the perimeter fencing was not adequate to contain the wildebeests, and that they weren’t being handled in a safe manner to begin with.”

Wathne explains that PETA contacts the USDA’s Animal Care Division whenever an escape or the death of an animal occurs. It’s also standard procedure for the USDA to do a preliminary investigation to decide if further investigation is necessary. In this case, an investigator from the USDA was in Fort Wayne the day after the event, two days before PETA released their letter. “The minute the wildebeests got outside our perimeter gate, and because two of them were injured so severely they had to be euthanized, it became a USDA matter,” says Weldon. “They were here the next day. They weren’t here because PETA asked them to come here, they were here because that’s their job, and we were fully aware they were coming.”

“There’s not an official investigation at this point,” says Jim Rogers, the spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “When we conduct an investigation, it can result in nothing, or it can result in a ticket (letter to the file) and stipulation, which is sort of an on-the-spot penalty, or it can result in charges, where we say we believe you violated the Animal Welfare Act and we can prove it in court.”

In the letter, PETA specifically cites three possible violations. “The maximum penalty for a violation is $2,750 per count, per animal, per day, so they can add up pretty quick,” says Rogers. “An animal escape or an animal death doesn’t necessarily constitute a violation. What we look for a lot of times is some sort of negligence. Someone leaving a gate open could be a problem, as opposed to an animal breaking a gate that was previously thought to be unbreakable.”

That appears to be exactly what happened in this case. Mark Weldon, who has been with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo for 33 years, says they’ve herded these particular wildebeests before, and never had any problem. What happened was simply a terrible mistake, and all they can do is identify the problem and take steps to prevent it ever happening again. “Next year will be our 40th season, and this is the first major event like this that happened,” Weldon says. “I’m not saying it’s an excuse by any means. Certainly, we feel bad — really, really bad — about the loss of the two animals, and we wish the event wouldn’t have happened. It happened, and we learned from it.”

The death of the two wildebeests was a stark postscript to the generally humorous coverage the breakout received. For the benefit of those of us unfamiliar with hoof stock (horses, wildebeest, zebras, donkeys, gazelles, etc), Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo veterinarian Joe Smith explains why the two animals were euthanized. “It is possible for us to go in there and put in pins and screws and casts and whatever we want in that fracture and get it all set back into place,” he says. “The problem is with these four-legged hoof stock is that we can’t keep them off it. We can’t maintain bandages or casts or any sort of post-operative care. These guys are so skittish that they’re still going to want to run on that leg. Unlike with a dog or cat, where you can sort of keep them down, you can’t do that with a wildebeest. Daily attention for these wildebeests would be knocking them down constantly, and you don’t even want to be in the same stall as a wildebeest.”

The USDA regularly conducts unannounced inspections of zoos once or twice a year, and the record of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a good one. Whether or not the USDA will proceed with an official investigation of the wildebeest escape will be determined by the results of the preliminary inspection. As Jim Rogers said, it could result in absolutely nothing happening, and if the USDA decides to continue and finds there were violations of the Animal Welfare Act, they may not even be the same violations PETA recommends pursuing. PETA is, of course, absolutely opposed to zoos (one source, who asked not to be identified, said PETA regularly “blows things out of proportion”). “The USDA would have been out here regardless of whether PETA sent the letter or not,” says Mark Weldon. “We’re not fighting the USDA. They’re doing their job. We try our darndest to prevent these things from happening, but obviously, we’re human, and things happen at times. We’re all on the same side as far as doing the best job we can for the animals.”

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