TAMPA, Fla. -- A recent report released by an international animal protection group on the state of zoos and animal attractions in Florida has spawned both anger and elation among operators of the facilities. The June 18 report by the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals said Florida was chosen 'as a barometer by which to measure a cross-section of zoos in America.' Just two of 21 facilities received an endorsement from British veterinarian John Gripper who toured the sites in March and April. But the standards by which he assessed the sites were not those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates animal facilities, but those of the British Zoo Licensing Act. That didn't sit well with some of the operators of the 19 sites criticized. 'He's not an expert on Florida wildlife, and I doubt his credentials,' said David Piper Jr., operator of Everglades Wonder Gardens, a 5-acre site near Naples, Fla. '(Gripper) said our deer appeared emaciated and malnourished. Well, Florida white-tailed deer are naturally smaller than their northern -- or European -- cousins because of the heat, not nutrition.' Piper accused the WSPA of being 'fanatics who are opposed to animals in cages, period.' 'I'm really sick of these guys telling me how to run a business -- the animals are my livelihood, and it's in my own best interest to keep them healthy,' he said. Carol Lewis is a co-owner and operator of Wildlife on Easy Street in Tampa, a 40-acre site housing numerous species of big cats mostly rescued from fur farms.
The WSPA report claimed most cats were 'in barren cages without any environmental enrichment,' which Lewis disputes. 'I spend a bloody fortune on toys for these cats, and there's no way you could walk though this place and not see that,' she said. 'And apparently (Gripper) thinks the cages should be completely sheltered from the sun. Big cats need to be in the sun sometimes, and each has an enclosure they can go in at any time.' Both Piper and Lewis also questioned Gripper's claim that some cages were too small for British standards. Piper said his smallest enclosure was four times the USDA minimum size, and Lewis said her smallest was three times the U.S. minimum. Asked why WSPA chose Florida as an indicator of zoo quality for the country, National Projects Director John Walsh in Boston told United Press International there had been 'a number of complaints' about attractions from British tourists. 'And if Florida is tourist rich, we would have expected them to have higher standards than other states,' Walsh said. He said a meeting was scheduled July 17 with British colleagues to draw up a list of parks in other American states to be reviewed. One of the two sites given passing grades in the study was Tampa's Busch Gardens, a 300-acre amusement park and home to about 2,700 animals, some of which roam free on a 67-acre plateau modeled to resemble an African veldt. Margo McKnight, one of the park's conservation specialists said, the facility was 'very proud' to receive the WSPA endorsement, but did not completely stand behind Walsh's statement that 'the bigger zoos should be trying to improve the standard of the little ones.' 'It's true that zoos don't live alone -- we're not islands when it comes to animal collections -- we trade, and loan animals,' McKnight said, explaining that Busch Gardens is a member of, and accredited by the American Zoological Association. 'I'd like to believe that every zoo would like to be accredited, but obviously there are exceptions.' As an example, she noted the facility provided refuge for dozens of animals from Miami's Metrozoo in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Florida. Another curator of one of the sites criticized for 'alligator wrestling' -- Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead -- denied virtually all of the WSPA claims. 'Quite simply, we don't do an alligator wrestling show -- we do an educational show,' said Bob Freer. The 200-acre site south of Miami is primarily a farm, which sells about 100 mature alligators per year for their meat and hides. But Freer says the staff of six puts on shows, which includes passing around a young alligator with its mouth taped shut. 'This is a working farm, and when we have to move one alligator from one pit to another, people can watch -- it's not wrestling,' he said. Meanwhile, Donna Ross of the Florida Attractions Association, of which several of the criticized sites are members, dismissed the report saying she had never heard of the WSPA before, and suggested Florida was chosen as a target. 'We're better to target as a public relations effort. The name Florida always gets the eyes and ears of the world,' she said. 'In Italy, they know where Florida is, but they probably don't know where Montana is.'