Wisconsin Republicans consider bill to weaken oversight of roadside zoos

Two Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill to exempt state license requirements for zoos accredited by the Zoological Association of America, which critics argue has weak animal treatment standards standards.

Associated Press

August 29, 2023

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A video still image shows Van Wanggaard sitting at a table while speaking into a microphone in a room with another person seated in the background, with a video graphic at bottom including the text Senate Bill 126 and Definition of Public Zoos & Aquariums for Purposes of Captive Wildlife Regulations.

In a WisconsinEye video still image, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, testifies to the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Labor, Regulatory Reform, Veterans and Military Affairs on Aug. 29, 2023. Wanggaard discussed Senate Bill 126, a proposal he is co-sponsoring that would exempt zoos accredited by the Zoological Association of America from state license requirements. (Credit: Courtesy of WisconsinEye)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin zoos could escape state oversight if the operations earn accreditation from an organization that animal rights advocates have blasted for having what they argue are weak animal treatment standards under a Republican bill heard on Aug. 29.

Currently in Wisconsin, zoos that earn accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, or AZA, are exempt from state Department of Natural Resources license requirements. Under Sen. Van Wanggaard and Rep. Alex Dallman’s bill, zoos that earn accreditation from the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA, would also be exempt from license requirements.

Wanggaard told a Senate committee on Aug. 29 that the proposal would create “parity and consistency” for zoos.

“It simply doesn’t make sense for the state to require different licenses because it (a zoo) uses different accreditation,” Wanggaard said. “This is a common-sense bill that will simplify state license requirements.”

But animal rights activists countered that the AZA’s standards are far superior to the ZAA and that group has been trying to convince legislatures around the country to exempt its members from government oversight. Similar bills failed in Minnesota in 2022 and in Michigan in 2013.

“The ZAA is a made-up accrediting organization for roadside zoos to dupe the unsuspecting public that the zoo they’re visiting actually helps animals,” Bethanie Gengler, director of Roadside Zoo News, a website that posts news articles about animal abuse at roadside zoos, told the committee. “The point is to remove DNR oversight.”

Zoos in the United States are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as state government entities. Wisconsin DNR zoo license holders must follow multiple requirements, including building pens to state specifications, providing an enriching environment for the animals and submitting quarterly and annual reports.

But accredited AZA members don’t need DNR licenses. The organization has operated for nearly 100 years and has been accrediting zoos since 1974.

According to the organization’s website, the accreditation process involves a comprehensive review of a facility’s operation, including animal welfare, veterinary services, guest services, finances and staffing. The association boasts about 240 members, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom; SeaWorld in Florida and Texas; Atlantis aquariums in Dubai and Bermuda; and the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The ZAA launched in 2005. Its website calls accreditation a multi-phase process that can take months and includes reviews of animal care, nutrition and facility aesthetics.

“We focus on the safety of the animal and (zoo) professionals and visitors,” ZAA Executive Director Kelly George told the committee.

The organization has more than 60 members. The Wildwood Wildlife Park and Zoo in Minocqua is the only member in Wisconsin.

Matt Schoebel, who runs Animal Entertainment Inc., told the committee that he is trying to earn ZAA accreditation. The DNR has cited Animal Entertainment Inc. three times in 2023 for record-keeping violations, although two citations were dismissed. If the bill passes and Schoebel wins ZAA accreditation he would no longer be subject to the DNR’s record-keeping requirements. The company’s Timbavati Wildlife Park in Wisconsin Dells is the only entity registered in favor of the bill, according to state ethics records.

The ZAA is extremely strict, down to demanding zoo operators repair chipped paint, he told the committee.

Megan Nicholson, the Humane Society of the United States’ Wisconsin director, told the committee the USDA launched enforcement actions against 26 ZAA-accredited facilities between 2010 and 2022. She said people have been hurt by an elephant, an orangutan, a tiger, a bear and lion cubs at ZAA-accredited facilities.

“Rather than exempt a subpar zoo trade organization, we suggest making all things equal by removing exemptions for both AZA and ZAA,” Nicholson said in written remarks submitted to the committee. “If creating a level playing field is truly the intent of this legislation, holding all facilities accountable to state oversight, regardless of accreditation status, would resolve the issue.”

The bill must pass the Senate and Assembly, both controlled by Republicans, before it would go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu didn’t immediately respond to messages inquiring about the bill’s prospects.

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