An animal rights group is accusing The Florida Aquarium of animal cruelty violations after a former employee said sharks and rays were intentionally deprived of food. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation is asking law enforcement to investigate the death of a nurse shark in November and alleged malnourishment of Atlantic stingrays last year. Jared Goodman is director of animal law at the PETA Foundation.
“PETA is calling on law enforcement in Florida that is responsible for enforcing the Cruelty to Animals Law, to investigate a whistleblower’s detailed report of food deprivation training at The Florida Aquarium, which reportedly resulted in substantial weight loss in several stingrays and potentially the death of a nurse shark named ‘Weezy’ who was found dead at the bottom of his tank.
“The law is clear that starving animals to train them for visitor interactions is a violation of Florida’s Cruelty to Animals Law and if the authorities’ investigation corroborates this report, then we’re calling on them to hold the Aquarium fully responsible.”
This is an anonymous whistleblower; is there any information you can give me to help our listeners understand better, what position this person had at the Aquarium, that they might have some authority here, in making these claims?
“The individual was a trainer or biologist at the Aquarium–the terms were kind of used interchangeably–and just had first-hand experience related to this issue and witnessed the animals not being fed and spoke with other individuals there who were responsible for withholding food.”
Really, in any kind of training, I imagine that food is used as a reward. Though I guess there could be a fine line between withholding food and using food as a reward, how do we know that this has crossed the line? What kind of evidence do you have for that?
“Well the whistleblower reported that several of the stingrays had a dramatic weight loss, to the point where they were then taken off that training schedule and of course the fact that they were ultimately sufficiently fed does not insulate the responsible party from starving them initially, if that’s indeed what happened and “Weezy” the nurse shark died, presumably from malnutrition.”
Your press release mentions a third party, Precision Behavior; you call them a “captive animal training consulting group.” What’s their role in all of this?
“Precision Behavior reportedly is the one who dictated the training program. They were called in by the Aquarium to help train these animals. They directed the Aquarium and of course, Aquarium management signed off on this plan to withhold food from the animals in order to get to train them for interactions.”
This biologist/trainer was an employee there, working at the Aquarium and then all of a sudden the protocols shifted, they went to this Precision Behavior, third party captive animal training consulting group and at that point is when this new regime began and that’s when the complaint is starting. Do I have that right?
“That’s exactly right. According to the former employee, there was sort of a shift in approach at the Aquarium, where they began to focus more on sort of public interactions and less on conservation. We see specifically, the nurse shark who died, was not going to be part of interaction, in fact, there was another nurse shark named “Charlie” who was being trained to sit in a guest’s lap while being hand fed by a trainer. The reason that “Weezy” was being fed or was subject to this food deprivation training, was to just ensure that “Weezy” had no interest in the food that was being given to “Charlie” during the interaction.”
Is there a specific agency that you filed this with?
“It was filed with the Director of the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center, which is responsible for enforcing Cruelty to Animal laws in the county and also Andrew Warren, the State Attorney for the 13th Judicial District.”
Goodman would not say how long the whistleblower had worked at the Aquarium in order to protect the anonymity of the trainer.
The Florida Aquarium declined WMNF News’ interview request but issued this statement:
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently issued false filed animal food deprivation claims against The Florida Aquarium in regard to its stingrays and a nurse shark.
The Florida Aquarium Senior Vice President of Conservation, Husbandry and Research, Margo McKnight, states, “We are greatly saddened to lose our nurse shark, ‘Weezy.’ We have never and would never implement a food deprivation program for any of our animals. In contrast to the claims, our comprehensive wellness program includes environmental, nutritional and behavioral aspects carried out by a highly trained and passionate staff. All of the animals at The Florida Aquarium, whether an otter, lemur, shark or stingray, receive the highest standards of care—including time and resources spent to understand mortality. Just as with human health care, preventative measures are employed whenever possible. The pathology report on the shark in question clearly indicated a chronic lesion on his heart valve. He was in good health other than his heart condition. Weezy shared his half a million gallon habitat with thousands of other animals with many fed by broadcast feeding—food dispersed across the entire exhibit—which results in a lot of food available to all residents. It would be impossible to withhold food from any animal living in that habitat. We are not yet sure what the allegations about underweight rays may be, but all of our populations are very healthy and closely monitored daily.”
Zoological and aquatic institutions are one of our best conservation agents in addressing the increasing destruction of the natural environment. We are devoted to the animals in our care. This means innovating the best health, wellness and enrichment programs for them including: maintaining healthy weights and proper diets, as well as providing exercise and learning opportunities and habitats that allow them to utilize their natural behaviors.