/ 8 November 2023

No evidence of animal neglect, says Joburg zoo, in response to online petition

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo has denied any ill-treatment of animals after a petition made rounds on social media alleging that the zoo was neglecting their needs and restricting their freedom.

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo has denied any ill-treatment of animals after a petition made the rounds on social media alleging that the zoo was neglecting the needs and restricting the freedom of its animals.

The petition, which has more than 30 000 signatures since it started in August, was launched after a visitor alleged that “according to our own observation we saw that: the lions look extremely underweight, bones are visible, and the enclosures look tiny”.

“The hippo could barely move in his tiny enclosure and we observed minimal water, we could not see that he could immerse himself in water and swim. The elephants look extremely depressed and we could not observe any form of stimulation. The giraffes were observed eating sticks.”

Johannesburg Zoo’s animal welfare manager, Piet Lesiba Malepa, said the entity had contacted the complainant along with a legal representative and the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) to investigate the allegation, but no evidence of neglect was found.

“Since the establishment of the zoos, there has always been an anti-zoo sentiment and it does not matter what we do, they will find an issue but as long as we are adhering to zoo guidelines then we know we have nothing to hide,” Malepa said.

The Mail & Guardian was shown the measures that the zoo implements to adhere to the five freedoms of animal welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from distress, freedom from discomfort and the freedom to express behaviours that promote well-being.

“We make sure that each animal follows a specific diet that is outlined with a nutritionist, they are tested twice a month for any type of illnesses, we vaccinate them and we place elements inside their enclosures which replicates their natural habitat,” Malepa.

Executive manager Louise Gordon said the zoo includes recreational activities and training for the animals to ensure their mental health.

“We take care of our animals — we do not even dart them unless necessary, they are trained to follow our keeper’s instructions and the animals actually follow them,” she said.

“Zoos are always going to be around and I give my time to make [the animals’] lives as comfortable as possible while they are in captivity — I can’t set them free so I look after them as best as I can,” said Cherene Williams, a senior veterinary nurse at the zoo’s hospital.

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo said the zoo is regularly inspected to ensure that it is adhering to guidelines stipulated by the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development.

This is not the first time the zoo has faced criticism over its enclosures. In 2020, a Facebook post by a zoo visitor showed rundown facilities and large piles of litter and featured complaints about the animal enclosures.

After numerous requests for comment on the state of the zoo, Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo invited journalists to inspect the facilities and flag any concerns.

In 2019, the NSPCA said it would take legal action against the zoo over its decision to obtain a second elephant. Since then, two additional elephants have been brought into the zoo.

Founded in 1904, the Johannesburg Zoo covers 55 hectares and houses more than 320 species, totalling about 2 000 animals. It was home to Africa’s last polar bear until 2014.

A November 2021 report by a parliamentary research unit flagged legislative shortcomings in South Africa where standards for domestic animals are applied across the whole range of wild animals with “often dire results”. 

South Africa has split the animal welfare mandate between the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment and the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development but various studies, according to the parliamentary document, have highlighted the inability of these departments to work together to regulate norms and standards relating to the welfare of wildlife in captivity. 

The parliamentary report says the regulation of wild animal welfare is “generally outdated” and does not address animal welfare holistically within the context of biodiversity conservation.