Zoo’s ‘Stingray Bay’ draws fire

An animal rights activist says Toronto Zoo officials are mutilating animals for a new exhibit. On May 16, the Toronto Zoo plans to open a petting zoo of sorts, but with a twist: patrons will be able to touch and interact with stingrays.

An unnamed spokesperson for the project, called Stingray Bay, said that the zoo has hired Living Exhibits, a habitat builder from San Diego, to construct a temporary 60,500-gallon tank that will house the 25 cownose and southern stingrays planned for the exhibit.

Living Exhibits has no apparent association with the San Diego Zoo, the spokesperson said.

The zoo’s website says that the aim of the exhibit is to “engage visitors and provide them with the opportunity to humanely and safely interact with these incredible creatures.”

Both of these species of stingray bear venomous barbs, but the zoo says that the animals will have these features removed from their bodies.

A spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Lisa Watne, calls the procedure “the ultimate violation” of the stingrays’ bodies.

“We certainly oppose this (barb-removal surgery) especially because they mutilate them just to make it possible for people to handle them,” she said.

‘(The stingrays) don’t want to be touched’

The zoo expects to charge $3 for patrons to use the exhibit, but will not charge for children under the age of three, thus encouraging very young children to participate in the exhibit. This interaction also drew objections from Watne and her organization.

“People don’t know how to handle wild animals, especially toddlers,” she said.  “If given the choice, (the stingrays) don’t want to be touched, but (they may not) be able to avoid being handled (in the planned habitat).”

Watne voiced other concerns about the exhibit with respect to the welfare of the animals. She said that stingrays are very sensitive to variations in temperature and acidity.

She cites this aspect of their captivity, among others, for a disastrous exhibit held by the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., a few years ago, in which all but three of the 19 stingrays that they featured had died.

“There was also one incident involving a young animal (which was fairly small) … that was sucked up into a water-cleaning device and was killed,” she said.

According to the Toronto Zoo website, The zoo also plans to have the animal handlers educate patrons about stingrays in the wild and raise awareness about conservation of their natural habitat.

Watne dismisses the value of this aspect of the exhibit.

“There’s no teaching value (with the petting zoo aspect,) and certainly (they’re not showing people) a respect for the animals,” she said.

Cownose stingrays are regarded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near-threatened on the endangered scale, and Southern Stingrays are likewise considered vulnerable by wildlife authorities in Brazil.

The Toronto Zoo will hold the exhibit from May to October 2008.