Essex County News

Turtle Back Zoo Sets the Record Straight on PETA Allegations

Buderigars at Turtle Back Zoo. Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Brint Spencer, Acting Director. Credits: Cynthia Cumming

WEST ORANGE, NJ – Brint Spencer, Acting Director of Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, wants to set the record straight.  Turtle Back Zoo has been part of the American Zoo Association since 2006, and is not a ‘roadside zoo’ as characterized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

PETA implicated Turtle Back Zoo in a lawsuit they filed against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and in a press release dated June 27, 2013, stated that “birds at Turtle Back Zoo covered by the Animal Welfare Act since 2002 have been neglected and found suffering from injuries and illness, filthy enclosures, and contaminated water, among other violations. In the case of the Turtle Back Zoo.  PETA investigated and, on July 1, 2010, wrote to the USDA regarding the more than 500 budgerigars (parakeets) who had died in the span of approximately two years from starvation or parasites and a penguin who died after being featherless for two years, among other incidents."

The USDA's July 20 and 21, 2010, responses to each bird-related allegation mentioned in PETA's complaint stated, "Not under our jurisdiction. (Non Regulated Species)."

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The charges reflect an ongoing battle between the USDA and PETA, who have been demanding that the USDA inspect bird/poultry facilities on a yearly basis as they do with mammals. Turtle Back Zoo receives a surprise inspection each year from the USDA for its mammals, but not its birds.  However, Spencer noted that Turtle Back Zoo has the coveted Association of Zoos accreditation, and that “we adhere to the same standards as the San Diego Zoo."

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo was irate in his response to the implications, stating “While we respect PETA’s mission to protect animals, we are outraged that they would characterize Turtle Back Zoo as a ‘roadside’ attraction and frivolously tarnish our reputation with their inaccurate accusations. We are committed to providing the best quality of care and most modern living conditions for our animals--they are fed nutritious and appropriate diets, their exhibits and eating areas are cleaned meticulously, and we work with a veterinarian to monitor our animals’ health and provide medical care when needed.”

To be clear, Turtle Back Zoo is not being sued.  Rather, PETA is using them as an example of ‘negligence’ to reinforce their demands to the USDA.

Allegations stemmed from an incident in 2009 when Acting Director Brint Spencer was the General Curator.  Several of the Australian grassland parakeets, called budgerigars, began exhibiting unusual neurological behaviors, such as flying into the walls and acting lethargically. After a few short weeks, many of the parakeets died and zookeepers were at a loss as to why. 

While the zoo has a hospital onsite, it functions to treat animals that are sick and to quarantine new animals to ensure that they are healthy.  It was necessary that samples be sent out for research to determine the cause of death.

The answer came in the form of a protozoan parasite called “sarcocystis” which is especially toxic to African, Asian, and Australian parrots and parakeets.  The parakeets in the aviary are Australian grassland parakeets. (By law, only domestic animals can be allowed in contact with visitors to the zoo).  As with most parasites, they are introduced via a host and recipient life cycle.  In this case, it was determined that the birds consumed the parasite in egg or oocyst form from the feces of infected raccoons or possums walking up the sides and on the roof of the aviary. Droppings had landed onto the soil, on the trees and posts the parakeets nibbled on, and in their water sources.

Devastated, the zoo team set about taking proactive measures to prevent sarcocystic infections in the future.  The aviary and roof were hot wired and an electric fence installed around its roof perimeter to prevent raccoons, possums, and even pigeons from going near it. The feeders for the kangaroos, emus, llamas, and capyberas, located near the aviary, were magnetized to prevent other animals from getting into their food sources. 

Spencer went on to note that the PETA figures were exaggerated.  Approximately 400 birds died during a two year period, either from the sarcocystis parasite, old age, or other unrelated medical conditions. 

The aviary is currently thriving, and 400 buderigars enjoy flying around and being fed seedsticks by children and adults.  Entrance into the aviary is free and seedsticks are $2. The birds are also fed indoors once a day.  An additional 98 birds await entrance into the aviary after their quarantine period is completed.

As for the allegations regarding the ‘featherless penguin,” Spencer explained that the penguin suffered from an adrenal condition that prevented it from “molting properly.” Despite several medical and hormonal therapies, the penguin could not be helped, and eventually died due to issues unrelated to its adrenal condition.

Spencer said that Turtle Back Zoo is on trend to exceed last year’s attendance (600,000 visitors), even though the Treetop Adventure was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. It is set to re-open in August. The Paddle Boat area on the Orange Reservoir will open on July 19 at Cherry Lane, and on July 26, the Investors Bank Dinosaur Playground will open inside the zoo.

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