The Unlikely Conservationist

The real story behind the zoological animal industry, what the animal rights activists don't want you to know!

SeaWorld’s Big Mistake

SeaWorld has sold out the entire zoological community, as well as their loyal customers.

I am going to assume that if you are reading this you’re aware of SeaWorld’s very recent announcement to end Killer Whale breeding, and partner with “The Humane Society of the United States” HSUS. If you are not familiar with the details, you can find them here:

SeaWorld has undoubtedly had a rough time since the “documentary” Blackfish was released, attendance has slumped and profits have decreased. Although, recently attendance numbers appeared to be on the rise, and the decline in profits had stopped. When I heard a SeaWorld spokeswomen speak at a conference last fall, she seemed cautiously optimistic about the future of the company and their Killer Whale program. We knew they were changing things in San Diego, but I don’t think anyone expected anything like what has occurred.

There really are two totally separate issues at play here, and SeaWorld made mistakes in how it handled both of them. The first issue, is the end of the breeding program, which for many reasons as a zoological professional I strongly disagree with, and can’t support. With that being said, if the company felt it was out of options, breeding could have been phased out in a manner that met their objective for good press, and didn’t alienate their loyal customers or the zoo community. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I could have accepted that decision. The company might have said: “Starting in 2019 SeaWorld will no longer be breeding its Killer Whale’s because the controversy surrounding the program, while totally baseless and unfounded is having a negative impact on our company, and this change will allow us to move forward with the best interest of our animals in mind.” This could have been sold to the general public, and more importantly the extremely loyal SeaWorld fans. They wouldn’t have liked it, but would most likely, accept it and move forward.

The second and frankly most pressing issue is the unholy alliance with HSUS, and even going so far as to partner with them. The SeaWorld CEO appeared with Wayne Pacelle on CBS, and showed him around the park like he was a VIP guest. This is where SeaWorld made their biggest mistake. For the past 3 years SeaWorld has been cultivating their fan base, mobilizing them, allowing pro SeaWorld Facebook blogs access, and educating these fans. So by now these 700,000+ loyal followers (the count of just a few of the pages) have been educated about the shady dealings of HSUS and their quest to end zoos and aquariums forever. In that respect, SeaWorld has been immensely successful, more so than I had even realized.

After yesterdays announcement, I have monitored the pro SeaWorld Facebook pages, and while of course everyone is upset that the breeding program will end, the real betrayal is felt over the HSUS partnership. This is where SeaWorld’s executive team made their biggest error, in my opinion. The loyal park guests had been told for years now that HSUS was bad, and rightfully so, but now all of the sudden they are an important partner going forward? Needless to say these people are very upset and unhappy, myself included.

By partnering with HSUS, SeaWorld has opened a pandoras box that I’m not sure can be shut, at the very least it has undone years of work to expose the radical intentions of the HSUS. Groups like Humane Watch, NAIA, Protect The Harvest, and SeaWorld have worked tirelessly to educate the public about the true intentions of HSUS. Now with this alliance, HSUS gets to wrap themselves in the cloth of “reasonability”, and says it just wants to work with companies, they don’t have to be enemies. Of course the subtext is that an animal facility does not have to be at odds with HSUS, as long as it does what the “charity” wants.

The unintended consequence of this new alliance is that HSUS now has total legitimacy to take on any zoological group that they want. Our argument, although still accurate, that HSUS don’t believe in zoos, will be a much harder sell with SeaWorld by their side. This is why  this is a betrayal of the entire zoological community in addition to the park’s fans that have been so loyal standing with the company in this fight against animal rights extremists. If you doubt this, just wait, HSUS will be arriving at a zoo near you looking to make changes or phase out breeding programs. All of this will be under the guise of “animal welfare”, when in reality it is just a slow methodical march toward the end of animals in human care. Don’t be surprised if you hear HSUS say that all zoos should now end their elephant breeding programs, due to a shift in public sentiment, after SeaWorld’s momentous decision.

Then we have the issue of incrementalism, for SeaWorld itself. Since this announcement is unlikely to change the minds of devoted  animal rights activists, the next calls will be for the end of Dolphin and Beluga Whale breeding. As a matter of fact on their official FB page today, HSUS has already said that they will continue to work on “welfare” improvements for the other animals at the parks. That is activist speak for, we are coming for the Dolphins and Beluga Whales next. The end of the breeding programs is the only “welfare” move that could possibly be made, by a group who believe that animals being in human care is inherently cruel. Everyone knows that SeaWorld provides the best care humanly possible to marine mammals, so there are no major welfare improvements that can be made going forward, aside from stopping all together. As we have seen with the activist’s attacks on the Blue World project, larger enclosures are not what they are looking for.

What would SeaWorld be without its marine mammals? Just another mediocre theme park? That’s harsh, but true. The animals are what make SeaWorld special. There is a possibility that the company anticipates a future with little, to no animals. HSUS also said yesterday something to that effect, assuring their followers that they will continue to pressure SeaWorld to phase out all live animals at the park.The new CEO of SeaWorld Joel Manby does not come from a zoological background, nor do any of the board of directors that manage this publicly traded company. So it’s possible that they just see this as a stepping stone to an entirely different park. Only time will tell. One thing is certain though, an animal based attraction or facility can’t be a publicly traded company. If Blackfish had occurred, and SeaWorld had been a privately owned company, as it has been in the past, it would have had time to re cultivate its image and lick their wounds to emerge another day. However, the high expectations of Wall Street don’t allow for years of down revenue,  and they are certainly not symatheic to ideological battles with animal activists.

So when it is all said and done, who wins? Not SeaWorld’s fans who love the theatrical shows. Not future generations of children, who may never get the opportunity to see an Orca up close. The whales don’t win, a population with no further breeding means inevitably there will be whales forced to live alone. This also appears to be the end of the amazing proposed Blue World project which would have created immensely huge whale exhibits, provided natural currents for the whales, and created an immersive experience for guests. The only clear winner I see is HSUS, they got part of what they wanted, come out looking like heroes, and now have a direct line to the CEO to ask for further concessions down the line.

So the final question becomes, “What do we as animal people or zoo lovers think about SeaWorld after this”? For myself, I still 100% support the animal care staff at SeaWorld because this is in no way their fault, and not what they wanted. Most of them likely knew nothing about it until the announcement was made. They are as innocent as the animals in this unfortunate series of events. The corporate team at SeaWorld on the other hand, I have lost all respect for, and I have voiced my concerns and disappointment to the company. I encourage all of you to do the same, let them know how you feel about this. At the end of the day, I will most likely continue to visit SeaWorld Orlando as long as the whale shows are in their current format, because I love them. However once the changes take place, I doubt I will be back, as the magic that is a Shamu show will have faded into the past. If you have seen a Shamu show, you know that there is really nothing else quite like it.

Above all else, please remember that HSUS is a radicle animal rights group and no matter who they partner with, that is still true. Their eventual goal is the end of zoos, which as you know will mean certain extinction for many species, that rely on human intervention and care to survive.  SeaWorld provided the world with the amazing gift of bringing millions of people up close to Killer Whales. Amazing creatures who’s wild populations are declining rapidly. So there is a chance that in 100 years, if our oceans continue to be polluted, that there may not be any Killer Whales left in the wild. There would have been an amazing assurance colony in place at SeaWorld, but instead they chose to manage their whale collection into extinction. 




Reality Check- Importing Elephants From Africa

“You can’t reason someone out of a position, in which they were not reasoned into”

Finally after a long protracted battle 18 African Elephants are in the air and on their way to 3 of the United States top zoos! This is after a litany of tricks and delays that the activist groups went to, including an eleventh hour lawsuit to prevent the movement, but ultimately the good guys prevailed this time.

Yesterday, I saw anther zoological industry person post that the people who didn’t want the elephants imported cared about them just as much as those of us in the zoological community do. I naturally am skeptical of that argument, but lets for a moment assume that it is true, but then one would have to suspend reality in order for their arguments to hold weight. Those of us in the zoo world have to live in reality, we work with animals to educate the public and fight extinction every day. While the activists live in a fantasy world where the wild is still a safe place, and elephants roam the plains in big herds not bothered by man. This thought  process, is very dangerous, because it ignores the facts on the ground. As the old saying goes “The path to hell is paved with good intentions”. So even if well intended these people are dangerous for elephants and all the animals that they “fight” for.

To provide a little background on this group of elephants, in case you are not familiar with their story. These 18 elephants are from a privately owned and managed game reserve in Swaziland. Swaziland is experiencing historic droughts and thus the reserve is out of food for the elephants to survive. Also the overpopulation of elephants in this area in putting pressure on the critically endangered Black Rhino, so a deal was struck to send these 18 elephants to US zoos to allow for their lives to be spared from a culling and to free up space for Rhinos, as well as raise funds for rhino conservation. Seems pretty straight forward doesn’t it? They call it a win-win situation, the US gets much needed elephant genetics and the game reserve gets money for Rhino conservation and the elephants are not killed. Call me crazy but I think that elephants are much better off alive than dead in a cull, but not all the activists feel that way.

So after the move was announced yesterday I went on the Facebook page of one of the groups opposing the move and made the mistake of trying to reason with them and provide them with facts, not feelings, about why these elephants are lucky to move to the US. Well as you can imagine it didn’t go well at all. This is where the quote at the top of the post come in, “You can’t reason someone out of a position, in which they were not reasoned into”.  Now since I put my views and posts out there to the general public I occasionally receive hateful messages and mild threats, but last night was a whole different level of crazy. These people who supposedly love elephants so much, looked at my personal FB page that I was commenting from and saw pictures of myself with Ringling elephants from my time working at the Center for Elephant Conservation. They then proceeded to tell me that they hoped that “my circus elephants kill me”, as well as calling me horrible names, and wishing all sorts of deplorable things would happen to me that frankly I don’t feel comfortable repeating here.

The moral of this story is that people who think only with their emotions and not logic or facts can’t be reasoned with. These people are not well, they have taken their perceived love of animals, in this case an elephant, and turned  “saving them” into their identity. My hope would be that these people are less aggressive and hateful in person, but if you have ever seen a SeaWorld or Ringling protest you know that is generally not the case.

So what this means is that all we can do as animal people and those that support the work we do is keep fighting the good fight to prevent extinction, but we can’t expect to reason with zealots. We have reached a point in our society where the facts no longer matter to many people, but that does not mean that we should stop giving them. There are animal people that I know, who have it 1000x worse than I do, that receive very serious threats on a regular basis but they keep doing their work. Why? Because we love our animals and there is nothing more important than preventing the loss of elephants, rhinos, birds, frogs, from the planet forever.

Be sure to support the three zoos that had the courage to import these elephants, The Dallas Zoo, Omaha Zoo, and the Sedgwick County Zoo. These facility put the elephants first, and were willing to stand up to activist criticism, something that not all zoos are willing to do. If you can please thank these zoos, and reward their efforts by going to visit these elephants at their new homes this summer.


Stop Apologizing For Zoos!

Frankly I have had enough of all the zoo apologists out there. Frequently in social media, and in news articles I see people involved in every facet of the zoological industry apologizing for animals in “captivity”. Even zoo directors try to explain why it’s an unfortunate necessity to keep animals in human care. The director of the Detroit Zoo has even gone so far, as to align himself with groups that actively oppose the great work that zoos do. Enough is enough!

I saw a zookeeper the other day use the term “necessary evil” to describe zoos. Why in the world would anyone involved with a zoo think they are anything but amazing?

About a year ago I read a book by Thomas French called Zoo Story,  overall it was a  pretty good book but what has stuck with me a year later, is that when Mr. French asked many of the keepers at the zoo about “captivity” they said it was a “necessary evil” and that they wished the animals that they cared for could be back in the wild living free.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, I do not wish the animals that I work with could be returned to the so called “wild”. This thought process by people who are supposed to know the most about exotic animals leads me to believe that they are simply out of touch with the reality of what the wild really is like. For example, one of the species I work with are Olive Baboons, by all objective measures these Baboons have wonderful fulfilled lives in human care. On the opposite end of the spectrum wild Baboons in Africa are shot daily because they are seen as pests, and I firmly believe that human baboon conflict will one day lead to species like Olive Baboons, who currently have stable populations to become threatened or even endangered due to human encroachment.

Zoos and zoological breeding facilities as a savior of species and genetic diversity isn’t just an advertising slogan, it’s the truth. The natural world as we know it, is in danger on all fronts. Many of the earths megafauna like elephants and rhino’s could in the very near future, go extinct in the wild. If zoos and ex-situ breeding programs didn’t exist some of the earths largest and most amazing creatures would be lost to the world and no more relevant than the dinosaurs. Is the work of preserving the planets creatures a “necessary evil”? I certainly don’t think so, if anything zoos are giving the world a great gift, that gift is saving us from ourselves. In 100 years when many of the worlds species have gone extinct from poaching, habitat loss, and human conflict, I think people living then will be thanking us. Asian Elephants, Snow Leopards, and Panamanian Golden Frogs are priceless works of art that if lost to the world can never be recovered. One species of frog saved by a zoo or breeding program is more precious and special to the world than a painting like the Mona Lisa could ever be, and I just hope that society wakes up and realizes that before it’s too late.

Zoos, aquariums, breeding facilties, and the people that work for them are the last line of defense for the natural world. If you are an animal care professional, don’t apologize for the work you do, be proud and shout it from the rooftop! If you don’t work with zoological animals be sure to thank a zookeeper or animal care professional, because they are fighting like mad to save the earth’s most precious works of art, for everyone.

–Gavin Livingston, The Unlikely Conservationist


An Inside look at The Center for Elephant Conservation

A great look at what I consider to be the finest elephant facility in the world. The Center for Elephant Conservation and their dedicated staff with the help of Feld Entertainment do more for the preservation of Asian Elephants than any other facility in America.

The CEC is home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest and most genetically diverse herd of Asian Elephants. In addition to having the largest herd, they also have the largest population of bull elephants which helps provide a diverse gene pool for zoos  and other elephant facilities around the country.

It is no accident that this facility has had 26 births since its founding in 1995. This place is specifically designed to provide the absolute best of care for young elephants, adult elephants, and geriatric elephants. Each animal receives world class care from handlers with decades of experience, and veterinary and reproductive care from some of the most renown  elephant experts in the world.

With their large herd the CEC is uniquely positioned to conduct cutting edge reproductive and health research on their Asian Elephants in an effort to not only better care for them but hopefully ensure the survival of the species. The CEC and Feld Entertainment are also involved in significant in-situ conservation efforts in Sri Lanka. Funding is provided to help with projects to reduce human elephant conflict, conduct census work to determine elephant population levels, and supporting facilities that care for orphaned elephants.

I was so fortunate to get to work at the CEC  and get to learn elephant husbandry from the best in the industry. I have been to many many zoos and breeding facilities in my life and I can say with absolute confidence that there is no place as unique and special as the Center for Elephant Conservation.


Happy World Monkey Day!

Happy World Monkey Day!
Did you know that over half of the Worlds primates are faced with the threat of extinction? Habitat loss, disease, human conflict, and the bushmeat trade are all putting unprecedented pressure on the worlds primate populations. In celebration of #WorldMonkeyDay I am featuring the:

DeBrazza’s Guenon
The DeBrazza is an Old-World Primate and a member of the Guenon group of monkeys which is made up of very colorful medium sized primates. Did you know that the word Guenon originates from the French word for monkey? DeBrazza’s live in the forests and swamp lands of Central Africa. Although they are not yet endangered in the wild, their populations are very spread out and decentralized making it difficult to protect their habitats. The DeBrazza is currently recognized as an appendix II species by CITES.
Unfortunately DeBrazza’s are underrepresented in American zoological institutions. Although there are facilities working to help preserve this beautiful and unusual monkey through captive breeding programs. Pictured is an adult female DeBrazza that resides at our facility.

Saving African Rhinos


One of the greatest wildlife conservation failings of our time is the inability to stop the rampant rhino poaching happening throughout Africa and particularly in South Africa. South Africa is losing an average of 5 rhinos per day to poaching despite the efforts put forth by the South African government and over one hundred NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). The irony here, as far as southern white rhinos are concerned, is that it was the South African government – in partnership with the game ranching industry – that brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction in the 1970s.  Saving the southern white rhino from extinction is one of the great conservation stories of our time and now it is in serious jeopardy.

As recently as 2007, there were only a handful of white rhinos poached in all of South Africa. Now, we are on pace to lose as many…

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ALDF Makes a Power Play for Lucky The Elephant

The “Animal Legal Defense Fund” (ADLF) has stepped up their continued harassment of the San Antonio Zoo by filing a lawsuit alleging that the zoo has violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by housing a single female Asian Elephant, Lucky.

To begin, it is beyond comprehension that the ALDF knows what is best for this elephant. The ALDF is a radicle animal rights organization that uses the legal system to bully and harass anyone or any facility that it does not agree with or dares to stand up to them. The ALDF is a legal group and is not comprised of individuals who are experts in the care of elephants in a zoological setting. The San Antonio Zoo on the other hand is a highly respected zoological institution that is accredited by both AZA and ZAA. The zoo has gone out of its way to do what is right for their elephant even in the face of negative media generated by the ALDF and PETA. It is my belief that one of the reasons the ALDF is pursing this legal action is due to SA Zoo pushing back and defending themselves as strongly as they have.

It would have been the easy thing for San Antonio Zoo to just throw up their hands and say you can take Lucky to a “Sanctuary”, it probably would have been the smart thing to do financially. However San Antonio Zoo has chosen to put the welfare of Lucky first and leave her where she is, and defend her against these animal rights extremists.

The general claim that ALDF is making is that the SA Zoo is “taking” i.e.: harming their elephant under the Endangered Species Act. Mind you the USDA, Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Zoological Association of America have all signed off on the zoo’s elephant care, but ALDF just thinks they know better.

Lucky the elephant is old for an Asian elephant, she is 55 years old, much older than she would be if she were in the wild. This elephant has lived a good long life and has a team of  seven full time keepers dedicated solely to her every need. Lucky also happens to be an elephant that prefers the company of her keepers to other elephants, in other words she is a loner that does not like other elephants. In the past other elephants have been aggressive toward Lucky and have even knocked her down. Yet ALDF wants this elephant who does not like other elephants, and perhaps even fears them to be sent to a “sanctuary” to live with other elephants.

According to the lawsuit the elephants enclosure is to small, there is inadequate shelter and the substrate of the exhibit is to hard. The thing that is hard to believe about that,is that lucky is 55 years old and has been at the zoo thriving for a very long time and is in relatively good health for her age. So the argument that her exhibit and care is somehow a “takings”i.e.: harming her, just does not hold water, simply because the elephant has thrived for this long at her current facility.

I will spare  you the waste of time reading through the legal filing, I did that part, you shouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. The ALDF is alleging that a few residents of the city have developed a relationship with this elephant by viewing her and that by having this relationship and deciding she is unhappy; that is causing them distress and thus they are suing. They were even bold enough to claim that the decision to visit and see the elephant or deciding not to see her because these residents don’t agree with the zoo has cause aesthetic, emotional, and recreational injuries on the plaintiffs. Yes you read that right, having to make a decision whether or not to visit the zoo to see this elephant is causing not one but three types of fictional injuries upon these vexatious litigants.

Make no mistake this lawsuit is not about Lucky or even the welfare of elephants in human care. This lawsuit is just another move by the animal rights industry to try and besmirch the reputation of zoos in the court of public opinion. Groups like the ALDF would rather live in a fantasy world where all elephants are safe in the wild, than live in the real world where zoological institutions are doing everything they can to save both Asian and African elephants from extinction.

San Antonio Zoo needs the support of the entire animal industry and the zoo going public as they stand up to the animal rights industry. The zoo is doing what is best for their elephant while ALDF is just using Lucky as a pawn in their political game of swaying public opinion away from zoos and toward the alleged utopia of a “sanctuary”.

I am supporting Lucky, her keepers, and the San Antonio Zoo, will you do the same?

Sometimes The Good Guys Win, The CA Ban of the Elephant Guide Has Been Vetoed!

Sometimes The Good Guys Win, The CA Ban of the Elephant Guide Has Been Vetoed!

If you are involved in the animal business and especially the exotic animal business it is very easy to get discouraged with all the negative publicity and nasty legislation that we are confronted with daily. Every once in a while though we get some good news. Today California Governor Brown vetoed SB 716 the bill that would have banned the use of the elephant guide in America’s largest state.

What is really interesting is why he vetoed the bill. The veto letter states ” Each of these bills creates a new crime– usually by finding a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that is already proscribed”. This is a very astute assessment by the governor because that was the exact argument that was made against this bill in the first place. Very strong animal cruelty laws are already in place in the state of California, so if elephants are being abused as the animal activist groups claim, then it is already illegal!!! The truth of course is that the guide is not abusive and is never intended to be, it is just a husbandry tool, nothing insidious.

This is without a doubt a huge win for those who fought tooth and nail to stop this bill. The Johnson’s at Have Trunk Will Travel did an amazing job mobilizing people in the industry to write, email, call, and tweet out against this bill. As an industry we need to learn from this hard fought victory in CA. We are stronger together than apart and this has made that abundantly clear.

I wish that I could tell you that this fight was over, but unfortunately that is far from the truth. The fight to use best management practices to take care of elephants and all other animals will be a life long one.  HSUS is not very happy with the outcome of this piece of legislation and HSUS czar Wayne Pacelle had this to say on his blog today. “The Humane Society of the United States and the thousands and thousands of supporters of SB 716 will return to the legislature next year with a version of the legislation that Governor Brown can sign and on the same timetable that SB 716 envisioned”

His threats of legislation for next year have been heard loud and clear, so this fight is far from over. What this means is that it is up to each and every one of us to continue to educate our lawmakers and inform the public about how the elephant guide is really used. It is also imperative that we take action when necessary. It is not difficult to make a phone call and write a letter, when the way of life for ourselves and our animals is at stake.

—Gavin Livingston, The Unlikely Conservationist

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