16 March 2009

Aquarium deaths: stingrays at Calgary Zoo

Two stingrays died at Calgary zoo recently. About a year ago, 41 stingrays at the zoo's touch pool died within 24 hours. In January, another ray died from a parasite, in what is considered an 'unrelated' event to the earlier mass deaths.In early February 2009, the zoo admitted it lacked marine expertise which, coupled with mechanical break-downs of the life-support system, was likely to blame for the deaths. It is believed the rays died from a lack of dissolved oxygen.

The two stingrays that recently died were part of efforts to repopulate the exhibit--the goal is to have 20 rays in all --by shipping in five rays at a time. There were now 12 rays in the pool.

But the Calgary Zoo insists it will not close the exhibit because "it spreads an important message about conservation" and "remains popular with visitors". Adding that "the children's only chance to see rays is at the zoo" and that the zoo is "staffed with conservationists".

Zoocheck officials highlight that "animals are taken out of the wild to replenish those the Calgary Zoo killed" and "in the wild their natural lifespan can exceed 15 years."

Two new stingrays die at Calgary Zoo
The Canadian Press Globe and Mail 14 Mar 09;
CALGARY — Two more stingrays have died at the Calgary Zoo and officials are blaming it on a shipping problem.

Forty-one of the animals died about a year ago soon after the opening of an interactive exhibit where people could pet them in the water.

Last month the zoo's president admitted that human error was to blame for those deaths.

Last week, two rays that were part of a new shipment died after arriving at the zoo.

Zoo officials say the box and bag that carried the rays were damaged in transit, so the deaths were no surprise.

The rays were given antibiotics, but it was too late.

Zoocheck Canada campaign director Julie Woodyer is asking the city to call for an investigation.

“It wouldn't be the first time it's been done at a big, accredited zoo,” Ms. Woodyer said.

“It was done at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which is an esteemed facility, and if this zoo truly has such good practices, as they claim, then the only thing an investigation of that nature would reveal is that.”

Ms. Woodyer said she also wrote to the city asking for an independent inquiry after a Turkmenian markhor got caught in a rope in its enclosure in January and strangled to death.

“I got a letter back from the mayor, which I thought was astounding because it said ‘the zoo has our full support, regardless,”' she said.

Mayor Dave Bronconnier could not be reached for comment and Calgary Zoo spokeswoman Laurie Herron did not return calls.

More deaths mar zoo's ray exhibit
Stephane Massinon, Calgary Herald 14 Mar 09;
The troubled cow nose ray exhibit at the Calgary Zoo has suffered more losses.

Two more rays died since Sunday after arriving at the zoo in poor condition in the most recent shipment.

Though the cow nose rays were given antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medicine, they could not be saved. The first ray died four days after the shipment arrived and the other died two days later.

Cathy Gaviller, the zoo's director of conservation, education and research, said the animals were in "very poor condition" when they arrived.

The box and bag that carried the rays were damaged in transit, she said, and it was not surprising the two died from their injuries.

The zoo came under fire in early February 2009 when it admitted it lacked marine expertise which, coupled with mechanical break-downs of the life-support system, was likely to blame for the deaths. It's believed a lack of dissolved oxygen caused the rays to die.

Zoo officials reopened the exhibit with an improved life-support system and said they were confident they learned from their mistakes. It is repopulating the exhibit--the goal is to have 20 rays in all --by shipping in five rays at a time. There are now 12 rays in the pool.

In January, another ray died from a parasite. Its death is not related to the cause of the 41 deaths last year.

Gaviller insists the exhibit spreads an important message about conservation and there is no thought of closing it.

"The rays have been doing really well," said Gaviller.

"The exhibit remains popular with visitors."

She said the new life-support system that pumps oxygen into the water has proven successful and is providing oxygen saturation readings at 100 per cent, which is ideal.

"It's been working very, very well," said Gaviller.

But the news of the latest ray deaths prompted more criticism from animal-rights group Zoocheck.

The group has called for an outside investigation into the zoo's practices because it feels there are too many deaths at the Calgary Zoo.

"These are animals taken out of the wild to replenish animals that the Calgary Zoo killed," said Julie Woodyer, campaigns director of the Toronto-based group.

She said the new ray deaths remind her of the October 2007 death of a hippo that died after being transported from the Denver Zoo to Calgary.

"If they don't have the ability to bring them in safely and care for them, you shouldn't have them," she said.

Zoo visitors reacted with mixed feelings Friday after hearing the news of the latest deaths.

"It seems like they seem to have a problem with aquatic wildlife,"Tyler Martin said. "If they don't have the professionals to take care of that aspect, I don't know if they should be going in that direction."

While the deaths both this week and last year are sad, Patty Villasenor said the zoo is staffed with conservationists.

"I would trust in the experts," she said.

Patti Vanzeyl said her daughter has seen rays up close in Florida. But other children don't have that opportunity and their only chance to see rays is at the zoo.

"The zoo serves its purpose," she said.

Calgary zoo reeling from deaths of stingrays
Disaster raises concerns as similar 'touch-tank' attraction prepares to open at Toronto Zoo this week
James Stevenson, The Canadian Press Toronto Star 13 May 08
CALGARY – The sudden and mysterious deaths of 34 prized stingrays at the Calgary Zoo's new "touch tank" had veterinarians searching the water in vain Monday for some explanation.

The $250,000 cownosed ray exhibit – which looks more like an elongated hot tub than fish tank – sat lifeless and only half full of water Monday, less than three months after opening to much fanfare.

With preliminary water chemistry and food tests underway, zoo staff desperately tried to keep the remaining nine animals alive in small holding tanks – many bearing the same unknown black blotches on their bodies as the ones that have already died.

And with a similar "interactive" stingray exhibit set to open at the Toronto Zoo this week, zoo critics said such attractions are more about amusing the public and boosting gate revenues while ignoring concerns for the animals' welfare.

Sandie Black, the Calgary Zoo's head veterinarian, said Monday that an early investigation into the "tragedy" is centred around possible toxins in the water rather than a disease or problem in the food.

"Just the pattern of mortality would lead us to believe it's something to do with the water," said Black.

"What we're seeing is very, very acute. It's something that's happened over the last 24 hours, so we've been monitoring the health of these animals, watching their food, watching their behaviour.

"But based on what we saw, starting yesterday, this is not a long-standing problem, it's not something that's been brewing for a while."

So fast was the problem that although everything seemed normal just before noon, 26 rays were dead less than six hours later. Eight more had died by Monday morning.

Doug Whiteside, another Calgary Zoo veterinarian, said based on experiences from similar touch tanks throughout North America, such mass deaths were not likely caused by hand creams or sunscreens getting in the water.

"And based on the frequency of water changes here and the fact that it's a 10,000-gallon tank, it would have to be a pretty massive amount."

But Whiteside said there are other toxins – including commonly found items like herbicides and pesticides – where a small amount added to the tank could have deadly results.

"I don't think there's anything innocent that would be able to kill that many rays in a tank of that size, if that's what it ends up being."

If the preliminary water tests don't reveal anything, water and tissue samples will be sent away for more detailed testing – a process that could take upwards of two months to complete.

The mass stingray deaths are just the latest blow for Calgary's zoo, which solicits millions of dollars in corporate donations from the wealthy energy companies headquartered in this southern Alberta city to bring in a wide variety of exotic animals.

Last year, three gorillas died in agonizing succession for a variety of different reasons. And late last October, an attempt to import a six-year-old hippo from the Denver Zoo ended in tragedy when the animal died less than a day after its 28-hour transfer.

Black says the zoo's critics love to pull such tragic stories together "when they have absolutely no relation to each other."

"I feel that from an animal welfare standpoint, the zoo does an excellent job looking after the animals and while the ray thing is a tragedy and we hope we'll find a reason, it certainly doesn't need to be lumped in with the other events."

The zoo plans to view film from cameras at the entrance to the exhibit to see if there's any suspicious behaviour as part of the investigation.

Cathy Gaviller, the zoo's director of conservation and education, said the display was simply something new, exciting and engaging for visitors.

"People are just shocked. They're such engaging creatures, they really are," she said.

"You stand by the ray tank and watch the children and their faces when the rays come up and touch them or they get to feed them. The public has just enjoyed it so much. It's awful."

Zoocheck Canada, a group that opposes keeping wild animals in captivity, said Monday that the Calgary Zoo tragedy sounds initially like a "serious environmental problem."

Executive director Rob Laidlaw said when the "touch tank" exhibit first opened, his Toronto-based group expressed a variety of concerns.

"We have real concerns about the longevity of these animals. In the wild their natural lifespan can exceed 15 years," he said.

"And of course we're concerned about the safety and security – it's very hard to monitor what people are doing when there's a large crowd around these exhibits, when people have their hands under the water."

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