The death of 54 stingrays this weekend at Brookfield Zoo begs the question: Is any government agency, at the state or federal level, ever in charge of inspecting this exhibit? NBC5 Investigates has learned that the answer is no.
That said, NBC5 has learned that the stingray exhibit does get inspected every five years by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the industry organization that accredits Brookfield Zoo -- though those inspection reports are not available to the public. The zoo passed its last AZA inspection three years ago.
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 spokespeople at all three agencies confirm that they do not oversee 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.”
Indeed, Andrea McNally of the USDA confirms that although the agency is in charge of inspecting Brookfield, “In terms of zoos … we don’t cover cold-blooded animals,” such as stingrays.
The agency’s most recent inspection report for Brookfield, from April of 2014, says the zoo had no violations. Its “annual inventory” of animals makes no reference to stingrays or other fish. The only water animals listed in the USDA inspection records are “marine mammals,” such as dolphins and seals.
Rob Vernon, Senior Vice President for External Affairs with the AZA, says their last inspection of the stingray exhibit was in September of 2012. He would not give details on any specific findings, but says the exhibit has never had problems before. The AZA inspects the exhibit’s equipment and life-support systems, and a veterinarian on the inspection team looks at the health of the animals.
“Certainly the AZA should step in and make a policy that these ‘touch tanks’ be abolished,” says Peet. In the wild, she says, stingrays are shy, docile animals that prefer to hide at the bottom of the ocean. “But in these touch tanks they live in shallow water, so that people can have the experience of touching these animals – which teaches them nothing.”
Vernon tells NBC5 Investigates that the AZA is now requesting an incident report on the dead stingrays from Brookfield, which should include how the zoo plans to deal with the exhibit in the future. If AZA regulators feel the report is insufficient, Vernon says they can either request more information, or send their own inspection team to assess the exhibit.
Even though this is the second such incident at Brookfield in the past seven years, Vernon says, “we treat the incidents individually,” and he anticipates that the requested report from Brookfield will suffice. “I don’t think an inspection team will be necessary,” he said.
A spokesman with the Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confirms that agency is not in charge of inspections at zoos – it only becomes involved when animals are transported. And Kristi Jones, with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, tells NBC5 Investigates that her department does not inspect animals at Brookfield Zoo because they are licensed with the USDA.