Speaker Spotlight: Rob Laidlaw

Rob Laidlaw is a Chartered Biologist, award-winning author of nine children’s books and Executive Director of the wildlife protection charity Zoocheck. His work throughout the years has taken him around the world and has involved almost every kind of advocacy initiative from lobbying governments to rescuing animals, including many successful initiatives to change laws, policies and practices and to improve conditions for wildlife in captivity. He will be joining us at the 2018 CFHS National Animal Welfare Conference to present  Nature in a Box: A Primer on Wildlife in Captivity as part of our Wildlife Welfare learning track. We reached him at his office in Toronto.

Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS): We’re thrilled to have a whole learning track on wildlife welfare at the National Animal Welfare Conference this year, and we wanted to talk to you about some of the issues at play for captive wildlife in Canada. But, before we get into that, can you talk to us about how you decided to focus your advocacy work on wildlife in captivity?

Rob Laidlaw: Well, I’ve been doing animal advocacy work for 39 years. Back in the early 1980s, after I left a group I helped start that focused on raising public awareness about a variety of animal welfare issues, I was looking for an issue to work on that would allow me to achieve something more tangible and measurable, more than just "educating the public". Around that time, I just happened to come across a zoo in southern Ontario about 2 hours from Toronto. I stopped in and was appalled at the conditions, so I made a complaint to the Ontario SPCA. I found out very quickly that no one was really looking at zoos and that nobody even knew how many zoos were in the province or what animals they kept. Most surprising to me however, was that there were no laws governing zoos in Ontario at all. It was basically the wild west – anybody could go out and start a zoo and do pretty much whatever they wanted. So that led me to conduct my own investigation to determine how many zoos there were in the province, what animals they were keeping and in what conditions. Back then, it took a lot of detective work just to find them as there was no internet. I soon started a program of site visits to six of the zoos I found, which I believed were a representative sampling of what was in the province. I went to each zoo between 6 and 10 times to document conditions and to get a realistic picture of how they operated, instead of just the snapshot glimpse that I’d get with a single visit. That investigation led to a report and, eventually, the more formal creation of Zoocheck in 1988.

CFHS: Amazing that it’s been 30 years since Zoocheck was founded.

RL: When I first started, after making my complaint to the Ontario SPCA, the CEO of the organization told me that no one was going to deal with the zoo issue unless I did. So I said, 'Okay, I’ll deal with it.' Little did I know what I was getting into and that more than three decades later I’d still be at it. I had originally envisioned that the entire zoo project would take 18 months.

CFHS: What’s your organizational focus now?

RL: We deal with all different areas of wildlife in captivity. Not only issues associated with zoos and zoo type exhibits but also aquariums, other kinds of menageries – both private and public – as well as the exotic animal pet trade. We've also expanded beyond Canadian borders and have worked in the United States, Mexico, Japan and, to a certain extent, other parts of Asia and Africa. A lot of people still don’t realize we also work to protect wildlife in the wild, such as elephants, bears, cormorants and wild horses, and that we place some emphasis on trying to change wildlife management practices. So while we've been trying to change the wildlife in captivity paradigm, we've also been trying to shift the wildlife management paradigm away from what it is today, which I believe can be destructive, pseudo-scientific and biased against wildlife at times, to something more science-based, holistic and humane.

CFHS: What keeps you motivated in doing this work?

RL: Stubbornness? It's the sense of injustice. I've always thought animals got a raw deal. And I always seemed to know that when human interests – even the most trivial of interests – competed with animal interests, inevitably the animals lost. From a young age I knew that was wrong, so I decided early on that I was going to try to do what I could to rectify that situation. All these years later, I'm still as committed as ever and I don't think that will change. There's still too much to do. I certainly understand that there has been progress made on many issues, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that the problems animals face are still immense and that for some of them things are getting worse, so none of us can relax. Today I'm very focused on winning. I'm desperate to win and help animals. Thankfully, my colleagues and I have been winning, or at least making progress on, more issues than not these days, which is a sea change from years ago. But even if we weren't winning, I'd continue doing this work.

CFHS: Considering the sheer number of issues at play in the area of captive wildlife and the limited amount of time, how do you plan to address it all in your presentation at the National Animal Welfare Conference?

RL: What I want to do is to provide an idea of the landscape of captive wildlife issues in Canada, what the trends and challenges are, what’s occurred in various jurisdictions and what lessons we can learn from everything that's happened. I'll also be looking at some tools that are available to help enforcement personnel and how we might move forward into the future to address wildlife in captivity issues on a local and regional basis. Hopefully it'll get people's creative juices flowing.

CFHS: Sounds like this is going to dovetail really nicely with another presentation happening at the conference this year. Guelph Humane Society is speaking on how domestic animal shelters can be more helpful to wildlife.

RL: That’s great – some of what I'll be talking about can work very well for domestic animals, as well. I expect a lot of the conference sessions will be complementary to each other.

CFHS: Absolutely. There's a lot of overlap and inter-related concepts. Now, we've been seeing a lot of action in the wildlife in captivity landscape lately – especially for cetaceans, with Bill S-203 and what’s been happening in Vancouver. What do you think about Vancouver Aquarium’s recent announcement about respecting the cetacean ban introduced by the Vancouver Park Board?

RL: I'm pleased the Vancouver Aquarium announced an end to their cetacean keeping program, but I don't think this debate is over just yet. It looks like the Aquarium may be trying to keep the cetacean display door open a crack. I read that they hope to take rescued cetaceans and house them in tanks at the Aquarium, presumably on a short-term basis. That's something I am adamantly opposed to. And I believe the Aquarium vs. Park Board legal action is still in play, with Zoocheck and Animal Justice being intervenors. But I think things have gone too far for the Aquarium to turn back the clock. Soon, Marineland in Ontario will be the only facility in Canada keeping cetaceans in captivity. So, on this issue, things certainly seem to be moving in the right direction.

CFHS: We’re really looking forward to digging into these issues with you at the conference.

RL: I’m looking forward to it, as well. Whether someone is specifically interested in captive wildlife or not, my intention is to pass along information they can use in their daily animal welfare work, regardless of what animals they deal with.

To learn more about Rob Laidlaw’s session on captive wildlife at the 2018 CFHS National Animal Welfare Conference in Calgary on April 22, go here. And to see the full conference program, go here.