Public to have its say about use of exotic animals for education in Toronto

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Public to have its say about use of exotic animals for education in Toronto

Toronto is asking the public for its say before it proceeds with plans to curtail the use of exotic animals for educational purposes.

A public meeting is being held on the issue on Monday night at Metro Hall. The city held a public meeting on Friday and it is consulting the public through an online survey.

Elizabeth Glibbery, director of Toronto Animal Services, said the city is reviewing its prohibited animals bylaw. That means it is deciding whether to add or remove animals from its list of prohibited animals and whether mobile zoos, or exotic animal businesses, will be allowed to continue to operate as they have done in Toronto.

"Currently, the bylaw permits businesses to bring animals in for the purposes of education. However, as of July 1, 2017, that will no longer be an option," Glibbery said.

"In the interim, we are doing consultation with the public in order to look whether we have to establish a new permitting process or whether we are going to permit prohibited animals from coming into the city for purposes of education.

"We're doing a pretty extensive consultation."

Under an exemption to the prohibited animals bylaw, companies are allowed to conduct educational programs using exotic animals and that means the creatures have been brought to schools, daycares, community centres and nursing homes and birthday parties, fairs and festivals. 

These companies teach people about exotic animals, let them see them, and in some cases, let them touch the animals. 

The bylaw exemption, or loophole, has allowed mobile zoos to flourish in the city. But the exemption will be removed from the bylaw on July 1.

Glibbery said city council wanted to remove the exemption last fall but it was told by about two dozen businesses that it had to consult them first. About 26 businesses will talk to city officials as part of the consultation.

Concerns focus on lack of oversight

Glibbery said there are concerns about the lack of oversight governing the use of exotic animals in Toronto, the welfare of the animals as well risks to public safety. Those concerns have been expressed by animal rights groups in letters to the city. 

No one has been bitten or attacked by an exotic animal in an education program that the city knows about, she said.

"There have been, thank goodness, no incidences yet in our jurisdiction," she said. 

The city has also received letters from nursing homes urging it to continue the exemption because the owners of the homes say contact with the exotic animals benefits their elderly tenants.

Toronto already has a long list of banned animals, including monkeys, tigers and alligators, but the city says regulations could be stronger governing mobile zoos. 

"If the recommendations are to permit these programs, we need to look at what kind of criteria would be required to permit these animals. Basically, the city would have a greater level of oversight, on the kinds of animals coming in, where they are being shown and how they are being transported," she said. 

Cheryl Sheridan, facility manager of Reptilia Zoo in Vaughan, said a change in the bylaw might prevent the zoo from conducting what she called specialty programs for certain groups of workers involving prohibited animals.

The zoo, for example, has what it calls its First Responders Program and it has taught members at the Canadian Forces, Environment Canada, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and police forces about animals they might encounter on the job.

A bylaw change means the programs might have run at the zoo as opposed to off site.

"It might have an impact on our ability to effectively give these programs to those clients," she said. "We hope we can find a level playing field so that we can continue to offer these programs in a safe and effective way." 

The city plans to meet with exotic animal businesses, animal welfare advocacy groups, provincial government officials, the Toronto Zoo and Toronto Public Health, before a bylaw change takes effect on July 1.

The consultation will continue this month. City staff will compile the information, including responses to the online survey, and prepare recommendations and a staff report for the city's licensing and standards committee by July 2016.