Closer to Justice for One Animal Abuser

After a long period of little or no progress in our efforts to help the animals victimized by the Canadian zoo industry, we have witnessed a sudden and heartening leap toward justice.

On April 13, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) laid five charges of animal cruelty against Michael Hackenberger, owner/director of Bowmanville Zoo near Toronto, in light of undercover footage released in December. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) secretly filmed Hackenberger appearing to continually whip a cowering tiger named Uno. He was also caught on camera describing his use of whips to train animals, bragging that "I can carve my initials in their side."

While this incident got widespread media coverage, it was not an isolated event. Hackenberger, who has owned Bowmanville Zoo since 1986, has a long and brutal history of animal mistreatment.

Compounding the misery evident at his shoddy roadside zoo, Hackenberger also exploits animals for use in films, commercials, and traveling shows. In January 1999, the Weekend Post reported that the zoo's lion, Bongo, had been featured in 14 movies and commercials over the preceding decade. That same year, another one of the zoo's lions was subdued with a fire extinguisher after biting two trainers at Paramount Canada's Wonderland theme park. In 2008, a martial arts teacher was left with broken ribs and a bloodied lung from a photo shoot with one of the zoo's lions. And, Hackenberger appeared on YouTube last August berating and intimidating a baboon for not properly riding on a pony during a live television family show called Breakfast Television.

Hackenberger's most famous victim, however, was the tiger who starred in the 2012 Oscar-winning film Life of Pi. For all of his self-proclaimed expertise, Hackenberger claims that he didn't know that the tiger, Jonas, had a hole in his diaphragm where his liver pressed on his lungs. This allegedly proved fatal when Jonas died during surgery to repair the previously undetected congenital condition.

You may assume that there are authorities responsible for cracking down on this type of abuse and exploitation. However, the authorities that exist are reluctant--to the point of stagnation. Throughout its history, Bowmanville Zoo has maintained its accreditation with the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), the Canadian version of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This month also marks the first time the OSPCA has laid charges against Hackenberger, thereby holding him responsible for his actions against animals.

Now, we have reason to hope that Hackenberger will finally be held accountable. Following the OSPCA's announcement that it was charging Hackenberger, CAZA stripped him of his membership (although not, unfortunately, the zoo itself).

While long overdue, these charges are crucial for addressing the systemic animal abuse that has plagued Bowmanville Zoo for decades. Strong legal and institutional action sets a precedent, and serves as a sharp reminder to other exhibitors that there are consequences for the merciless devaluation of animals' lives.

We must ensure that justice is carried out in full, and that the suffering of these animals serves as an impetus to prevent future abuse. Hackenberger, and others like him, have skirted punishment for too long. No more.

Keep wildlife in the wild.