Animal escapes and deaths highlight need for zoo regulations in Ontario


Published May 14, 2024 at 3:06 pm

A trip to the zoo has long been a traditional outing for families, particularly during the summer in Ontario.

While zoos can be educational, recent events have some questioning the rules and the need to keep exotic animals in captivity.

Just in the last year alone, a kangaroo escape endangered the public and the animal in Oshawa, a loose baboon attacked an Ontario woman, and an African serval cat escaped its enclosure.

There have also been incidents in larger facilities, including the deaths of 17 whales in Marineland in Niagara Falls since 2019. In 2019, an elephant attack left a handler injured at African Lion Safari in Cambridge.

Currently, Ontario is the only province that does not have any regulations related to the keeping of exotic wild animals in captivity, according to World Animal Protection. A provincial licence is only required when keeping native wildlife in captivity.

Municipalities are responsible for bylaws regarding exotic animals.

“People don’t need a license to keep non-native wildlife or exotic wildlife,” Michèle Hamers, Wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection told “So that means if you are in a municipality that doesn’t have any bylaws in place, you can buy a bunch of animals and call yourself a zoo.”

The provincial government argues the Provincial Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) Act, passed in 2019, protects animals. This act sets out rules for a chief animal welfare inspector and provincial animal welfare inspectors to carry out inspections, respond to concerns, and provide outreach and education on animal care best practices.

Those found guilty of causing or permitting distress to an animal or arranging animal fighting events could face up to two years in jail or fines of up to $130,000 against an individual on a first offence, or up to $500,000 against a corporation on a first offence.

“Our government has made Ontario a leader in the protection of animals, with the strongest penalties and the first enforcement system of its kind in the entire country,” Hunter Kell, press secretary for the Office of the Solicitor General told

Kell adds that in Ontario, municipalities can create by-laws related to owning exotic animals in their jurisdictions.

So while the act protects animals from abuse, it doesn’t regulate the operations of zoos, Hamers said. There may be enforcement officers but rules are not always followed.

“Animal escapes and attacks are not that uncommon, unfortunately, because of the lack of regulation,” Hamers said.

Animals kept in poorly-designed zoos are unsafe for the animals and humans. The animals often don’t have enough space or are kept in isolation impacting their mental and physical health.

World Animal Protection has a campaign to urge the Ontario government to enact a mandatory provincial zoo licensing system but thus far there has been no move toward change. Hamers said they only need to look to provinces such as Quebec and Alberta for legislation.

While the provincial government hasn’t made a move toward change, the Government of Canada is introducing legislation, Bill S-15, that would prohibit the new captivity of elephants and great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in Canada for private, entertainment or public display purposes.

“Although the captivity of elephants and great apes can be justified in certain circumstances, including in the best interests of their welfare or for conservation, scientific data shows that these animals ought not to be kept in captivity because of the cruelty it represents,” Samantha Bayard, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, told in an emailed statement.

A limited number of zoos that make valuable contributions to the study and conservation of the species will be allowed to continue their work, Bayard said.

And for most zoos and businesses, the existing captivity of elephants and great apes in Canada will be allowed to continue, but new unauthorized captivity, breeding, import, or export will stop.

There are several reasons why Bill S-15 focuses on elephants and great apes. Both are large, long-lived, highly intelligent with a wide range of behaviours and emotions, intrinsically social with complex communication systems and elaborate parental care and have complex habitats suggesting they should be phased out from captivity, Bayard said.

elephants zoo

Photo: Fabian Kessler

Elephants and great apes also come from warm climates and creating an environment that allows those species to engage in natural behaviours is very challenging in Canada.

The new regulations could impact facilities in Ontario such as the African Lion Safari, a 40-year member of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums.

Currently, African Lion Safari, located in Cambridge, near Hamilton, has a herd of 19 Asian elephants, a spokesperson told 

These elephants “live in a very natural social structure with a large, cohesive, multi-generational family, just as elephants do in the wild but without the threats posed by poachers and habitat loss,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

“Our elephants enjoy a rich and diverse environment, with the ability to roam over 200 acres of woodlands, fields, streams and ponds year-round.”

The private facility doesn’t welcome Bill S15.

“While we appreciate the government’s efforts to enhance animal welfare, we believe the intent of Bill S-15 runs contrary to our priority of providing the best care for our elephants,” the statement continues.

They feel keeping elephants is part of an insurance population, essential in the global effort to prevent the extinction of the species.

But other Canadian zoos, such as the Toronto Zoo, have phased out keeping elephants.

“Canadian winters are just brutal, elephants have not evolved to be out and about in winter and snow and such. So that’s an added issue in Canada,” said Hamers.

World Animal Protection worked with the government on Bill S-15 but they would like to see it go further and include non-native cats such as lions and tigers.

“We still see a lot of these animals here in captivity, especially in Ontario,” said Hamers.

zoos ontario rules

Photo: George Desipris

Other large animals, such as the whales in Marineland, fall under the 2019 federal Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act. This act will phase out the keeping of whales in captivity but Hamers hopes Marineland may decide to send their current population to a sanctuary.

Marineland is gearing up for significant changes under new ownership this year but it’s not clear if they will continue to keep aquatic life or transition to an amusement park without animals. Marineland did not respond to several requests for more information from

Marineland in Niagara Falls opening in June under new ownership

World Animal Protection doesn’t suggest all zoos close in Canada but they do advocate for facilities that focus on education rather than entertainment.

“There are some zoos that operate at higher animal welfare standards that realize that animals shouldn’t be in captivity purely for our entertainment,” said Hamers.

Animals suffer and their natural behaviours are limited in captivity. Well-managed zoos, however, can offer an opportunity for education and promote conservation efforts.

“Captivity should not be to entertain people, it should be more meaningful than that,” said Hamers.

Lead photo: Jamshed Ahmad

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