Brookfield Zoo Stingray Incident Isn't First of Its Kind, Reports Show

The deaths of dozens of stingrays at Brookfield Zoo this weekend isn’t the first such incident involving stingrays in captivity.

NBC5 has found news reports of seven other such incidents over the past eight years, including another incident at Brookfield Zoo seven years ago, when 16 stingrays were lost:

April 2015, Minneapolis: The “Meet the Rays” exhibit at the Mall of America was temporarily shut down, because – according to a spokesman – the rays were not accustomed to the tank or the environment, and needed more time to acclimate.

May 2009, Washington, D.C.: Eleven out of 18 stingrays died at Washington’s National Zoological Park. Water-testing revealed low levels of dissolved oxygen in the exhibit’s water, according to news reports.

March 2009, Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Two stingrays died at the Calgary Zoo. Officials claimed the cause was shipping-damage, according to news accounts. This came less than a year after a far more extensive incident at the zoo in May of 2008.

July 2008, Brookfield, Ill.: The Brookfield Zoo lost 16 stingrays from the same “Sharks at Stingray Bay” exhibit, when water temperatures apparently rose by 10 degrees. Kim Smith, the zoo’s vice president for animal programs, was quoted at the time as saying there was a “malfunction with the water heater and air cooler equipment.” At the time of this incident, the exhibit was operated by a San Diego company called Living Exhibits. The exhibit is currently operated by SeaWorld.

• June 2008, Dallas: Nineteen stingrays died in a two-week span at the Dallas Zoo. According to news reports, during a routine check, the city’s water department added an amount of chlorine which was fatal to the stingrays.

• May 2008, Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Forty-one cownose stingrays died in the Calgary Zoo exhibit, apparently due to low oxygen levels. News reports said that one of the four pumps malfunctioned on a warm day, leading to the decreased levels of oxygen.

• March 2007, Fresno, Calif.: Twenty-one stingrays died at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo after the exhibit experienced a power failure. According to news reports, this exhibit was also operated by Living Exhibits – the same company that was in charge of the Brookfield exhibit when during its 2008 incident.

In the most recent event, the entire stingray population at the Brookfield Zoo's Stingray Bay habitat died due to a drop in the oxygen level inside the exhibit Friday.

The incident at Brookfield Zoo begs the question: Is anyone, at the state or federal level, ever in charge of inspecting this exhibit? The answer seems to be no.

NBC5 Investigates contacted two federal agencies – the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as the Illinois Department of Agriculture – and spokesmen at all three agencies confirm that they do not do regular inspections of stingrays in zoos such as Brookfield.

“Stingrays are essentially completely unregulated,” says Brittany Peet, an attorney who works as Deputy Director of Captive Law Enforcement with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “The USDA only regulates warm-blooded animals. Cold-blooded animals [such as stingrays] are not considered ‘animals’ under the Animal Welfare Act.”

The most recent inspection report for Brookfield, from April of 2014, says the zoo had no violations.

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