Michigan zoos hoping to breed large animals again

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New bill would allow Michigan zoos to breed large carnivores like tigers. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

By Crystal Chen
Capital News Service

Michigan zoos would again be allowed to breed large carnivores such as tigers and bears under a recently introduced bill.

Since 2000, zoos must take their large carnivores, including lions, leopards, cougars, jaguars, panthers and cheetahs, to states that allow breeding.

The law now prevents animals from mating as they would in nature, said Peter D’Arienzo, the chief executive officer of the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, citing anunintentional drafting error in the 2000 law.

The zoo has already had to move two male breeding-age Amur tigers to facilities in Wisconsin and South Dakota to breed because of the error in the current state law, he said.

D’Arienzo said the bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, would  provide a regulatory framework that will require all Michigan zoos to maintain high standards, meet specific breeding criteria and help zoos preserve endangered specifies for future generations.

“Conservation breeding programs are a key part of ensuring the preservation of endangered species and large carnivores, including tigers, bears and lions,” he said.

Valid reasons exist for the prohibition, said James Averill, the director of the Animal Industry Division at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“There were issues with large carnivores being owned by people as pets and having issues where they would get away from their owner and killed people,” Averill said.

Under the bill, an applicant for a license from the department would need to meet specific requirements, including being an organization focused on showing animals for education or exhibition purposes.

The Detroit Zoo, one of the five American Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos in the state, argues that the bill would put too much responsibility on the state for oversight, which was being handled appropriately by the AZA, according to a statement on the zoo’s website.

Matt Blakely, the director of policy and legislative affairs at Agriculture and Rural Development, said the proposed license is a way that qualified institutions could breed large carnivores in the state.

It does add responsibility to the state, he said, but “I would not say that’s too much responsibility.”

Blakely said the department and Gov. Rick Snyder have no position on the bill. He said allowing breeding can be good for conservation of endangered species.

The bill wouldn’t have any impact on wild animals, said Sarah Cummins, the legislative and regulatory specialist at the Wildlife Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“In current times, we do not allow people to, for example, catch a deer in Michigan and put it in the zoo,” she said. “Any animals that are game animals, or are threatened toendangered, they would not be able to capture them in the wild and put them in the zoo.”

But there might be a case where a seriously injured endangered or threatened animal could end up in a zoo permanently for educational purposes, Cummins said.

Averill, of Agriculture and Rural Development, said he doesn’t think the bill would have any impact on animal health.

“From my conservation standpoint, my hope is it will help encourage genetic diversity,” he said.

The bill is now in the House Agriculture Committee.

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