The Unlikely Conservationist

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


Animal Care Issues

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. 




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.


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?

Please Oppose SB 716!!!!

As many of you know our elephant friends in CA are fighting a terrible bill, SB 716 that would ban the elephant guide! This bill is backed by animal rights organizations and a certain questionable sanctuary that want to see the end of elephants in human care! Our last hope to kill this terrible bill is a Veto by Governor Brown. So please click on the post below and send your letter politely asking the governor to veto this bill to the email address listed and they will hand deliver the letters to the governor. We only have until Sep 10th to get this done, please send letters and share this post so we can get as many letter opposing SB 716 as possible! ‪#‎NOSB716‬—SB-716.html?soid=1102271207835&aid=sFAPyTTYUUU

The battle for San Antonio Zoo’s elephant “Lucky”

Why is it that people who have no experience with animals seem to think they know what is best for them? I can’t believe the gall of the city councilman for pushing the San Antonio Zoo into mediation with the radical Animal Legal Defense Fund over the care of the zoo’s elephant. This is an old elephant that does not like other elephants and she is perfectly fine where she is. There is absolutely no basis for ALDF’s push to send her to the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary, it would be a death sentence for her. Even AZA has signed off on this elephant being alone, remaining with her keepers, staying where she is. Perhaps the residents of San Antonio, the city council, and the animal rights groups should leave animal care decisions up to those in the zoological industry that have these animals best interest in mind.

This is the individual hands on care that elephants managed in a
This is the individual hands on care that elephants managed in a “free contact” system enjoy.

Animals Working for a Living?


Animals should never be required to earn a living, right? Animals earning their keep is down right cruelty and undignified at that, or at least that is what HSUS and PETA would lead you to believe.

For the most part, the majority of people on earth have to earn a living to survive, and so do animals in the wild in their own way. So why is it, that it’s wrong for animals in human care to engage in commercial activity? Perhaps it isn’t wrong at all and actually leads to a better life for all animals!

I’m going to use circus elephants as a case study here, although almost any animal fits this model. As you probably have heard the biggest stars of The Greatest Show on Earth are hanging up their signature headpieces and heading trunk first to the Center for Elephant Conservation. The CEC is a totally unique facility in that it was specially designed to maintain the Western hemispheres largest herd of Asian Elephants. The center is located on 200 pristine acres in Central Florida with a state of the art facility that was built to serve every need that an Asian Elephant might have. The facility is staffed with the best in the elephant husbandry business, and a top of the line veterinary staff. The CEC even has its own staff research scientist that devotes all her time to elephant reproduction and ensuring that we have elephants for many generations to come.

Now as you can imagine a facility like that doesn’t come cheap! It costs an average of $65,000 a year to take care of each of the elephants that call the center home. So where do the funds come from to run this elephant enterprise? In a round about way the elephants earned this money and are now reaping the rewards. Years of touring and performing with the circus has allowed for a very cushy lifestyle for these larger than life performers. I mean a huge farm in Florida and world-class vet care on an unlimited healthcare budget, I wish we could all be so lucky.

The argument will be made by some that the same results could be achieved by a non-profit soliciting donations from the American public. Sure, it’s possible but highly unlikely. There are many animal facilities that rely solely on donations and are able to take care of their animals. However none of them are able to get within 100 miles of the quality of facility and conservation work that elephants performing in the circus has funded. The revenue that the circus has generated has led to 26 births at the elephant center and helps pay for conservation work with wild elephants as well.

The moral of the story is that as usual the public has been sold a bill of goods by the animal rights industry. The Ringling elephants were able to entertain untold numbers of children, spread the message of conservation, and potentially save their species all by just traveling with the circus. These pampered pachyderms are being well compensated for their “work”.  Obviously this entire idea of working for a living is a human concept and not something that animals can comprehend. Although regardless of comprehension the result is the same, hard work pays off, especially if you are the biggest stars of the world’s most famous circus. The elephants may be coming off the road in the next few years, but their hard work will pay dividends for generations of Asian Elephants.

—-Gavin Livingston

What’s the big deal with the elephant guide?

This is the freedom that the elephant guide and free contact allows.
This is the freedom that the elephant guide and free contact allows.

What happens when you have an animal husbandry tool that has been used for generations and is approved by the USDA, AVMA, EMA, AZA, and ZAA but animal rights activists insist that its use is inherently cruel? What has begun to happen is that tool, the elephant guide is being outlawed, mainly on the city level but currently a ban is possible in the largest state in the country. Even if you don’t have elephants at your facility and have never worked with an elephant this issue directly affects your business. There is a much bigger issue at play here and if you study all the politics involved with this one little tool, the implications for our entire industry will become readily apparent.

The guide is used by zoos, exhibitors, and circus and was adapted from tools that have been used in the elephants range countries for hundreds of years. The animal rights activists didn’t initially come after the guide; first they tried to ban performing animals all together. But they found that to be somewhat challenging because, by and large, the American public likes to go to zoos and the circus, so outright bans on elephant acts were usually unsuccessful. That’s when they changed their strategy; they pushed for bans of the tool that is essential for working elephants in free contact, the guide. This tactic has proven unfortunately to be more successful in the legislative arena. The main area of attack are city councils in America’s large cities that are frequented by circuses and elephant exhibitors.

You see, its much easier for activist groups to tell the public that a tool they’ve never heard of is abusive and should be banned than it is to convince them that they shouldn’t go to zoos or the circus. Slowly but surely they have started to win the propaganda war, not with the truth, but never the less public perception is shifting. Never mind that all the facts are on the side of those who manage elephants in free contact with the guide. The passion and emotion are on the side of the activists and as the old adage goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”.

Playing on the public’s lack of knowledge about elephant husbandry, the animal rights crowd is able to spin their own narrative about what the elephant guide is used for. Elephants who are cared for in free contact are managed using voice commands with the assistance of this highly specialized tool, which you may have also heard referred to as a bullhook. The goal of working an elephant in a free contact system is that the animal will respond to voice commands for general husbandry tasks. However if they don’t respond or are unable to hear you this tool acts as an extension of the handler’s arm and they are able to cue the elephant at specific points to get the elephant to either raise a foot, lie down for a bath, or for vet work. This tool is never meant to be harmful to the elephant in any way, it simply allows someone the size of a person to effectively communicate with an animal that is 9,000-10,000 pounds and work in a harmonious manner.

I know for certain that the elephant guide is not abusive. It is in fact just the opposite. The guide allows elephants’ freedom that those who are managed in protected contact without the guide rarely get to experience. I have grown up in the zoological animal industry and have followed the legislative woes surrounding this issue for the past several years, but it wasn’t until this spring that I became a die hard believer and advocate for the use of the elephant guide. I was blessed with the opportunity to be an elephant care intern at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. During my time at the elephant center I was given the amazing opportunity to work with and around the best in the elephant business, people who are true experts in elephant care and the proper use of the guide.

From the outset it was clear that there was something special about the Center for Elephant Conservation and I knew that there must be a reason why they are able to so successfully maintain North America’s largest and most genetically diverse herd of Asian Elephants. The recipe for their success all starts with this tool. The use of the guide allows for elephant handlers to form a close intimate relationship with these massive creatures based on trust and mutual respect. The elephants at the CEC have access to world-class veterinarians and elephant reproductive specialists, but none of that would lead to the success they have had without the use of the guide. The guide allows the vets and researchers hands on unfettered access to the elephants that would be impossible without the use of this tool. All of that combined with the largess that The Greatest Show on Earth provides has allowed for 26 births since the facility’s inception.

My time at the CEC and my training in the proper use of the guide when handling elephants allowed me to see that it would be a travesty if this husbandry tool were legislated into the history books. The problem we face is that members of the public and our legislator’s opinions’ are not shaped by first hand experience with elephants or big cats or whichever the hot button species of the moment is. All they have to go on is second hand information that is usually supplied by those who don’t support the zoological industry.

It is up to all of us to not only educate the public about all aspects involving animal care regardless of species, but we must stand united as an industry. The same organizations that want to ban the elephant guide also want to see an end to all animals in human care regardless of the species or the animals’ importance to captive conservation efforts. The main lesson that the animal industry must learn from the battle over the elephant guide is to never turn on our own. The animal activists have successfully brought a couple of zoos into their corner that disapprove of free contact with elephants, and they have used that to define the entire elephant industry. To say that the guide isn’t necessary because, a couple of zoos say that it isn’t is outrageous. When other members of our industry join the animal activists on an issue, it not only helps their case legislatively, but it seals the issue for members of the public because if a certain big zoo doesn’t approve of the guide, then it must be cruel.

Above all else it’s essential that we support one another in this industry. We have to present a united front and can’t let our busy daily task of animal care prevent us from fighting for our fellow members of the animal community. Dog breeders, horse racing, circus, agriculture, and zoos are all under attack from the same groups who present a united front when they oppose us, so the least we can do is stand united as well. We in this great organization are the animal care professionals and experts, not the legislators or animal rights activists. It is about time we start to define the narrative on animal care instead of letting those opposed to everything we stand for define it for us. So the next time there is going to be a legislative hearing on the elephant guide or any animal issue, get involved!

—Gavin Livingston

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