BOWMANVILLE, Ont. — An Ontario zoo that recently came under fire after animal cruelty charges were laid against its owner says it will close its doors this fall.
The Bowmanville Zoo — famous for providing animals for Hollywood movies — says attendance is down "catastrophically" and that there simply isn't enough money to run the facility east of Toronto.
Zoo spokesman Angus Carroll blamed the drop in attendance on allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that led to the charges against owner Michael Hackenberger after video surfaced that appeared to show him hitting a tiger named Uno with a whip during a training session.
"We feel this is a tragic example of being tried in the public court before being tried in the real court," an emotional Carroll told reporters at the zoo on Thursday.
Bengal Siberian tiger cross, Robbie, stares at the camera inside of his pen at the Bowmanville Zoo. (Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
PETA released the footage in December after sending a member undercover to work at the zoo. The organization released the footage publicly, and the story made headlines worldwide.
"The untrue allegations made by PETA in regards to a tiger incident have created a climate in which the zoo can no longer operate,'' Carroll wrote in a statement. "People are staying away because they believe PETA's allegations."
In April, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charged Hackenberger with four counts of causing an animal distress and one of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of animal care, all under the authority of the provincial OSPCA Act.
"It's closing around a hundred years too late for the hundreds of animals that suffered there."
Hackenberger has denied the allegations and is expected to fight the charges. Carroll said the zoo, which was established in 1919 and claims to be the oldest private zoo in North America, supports Hackenberger and believes he is innocent.
Meanwhile, PETA is "celebrating" news of the zoo's demise.
"It's closing around a hundred years too late for the hundreds of animals that suffered there," said PETA spokeswoman Brittany Peet.
"Any time a zoo closes its doors is time for celebration. None of these people should be in the animal business. It's time for them all to find other jobs and find better homes for these animals."
PETA previously told The Canadian Press the organization began looking into Hackenberger after he was seen on live television in Toronto last summer angrily cursing an unco-operative baboon that resisted riding a miniature horse.
The zoo said it is hopeful it can place all of the animals elsewhere, but expects the process to take up to a year.
Dozens of layoffs
It isn't a one-day affair to close down a zoo and dozens of employees will lose their jobs, Carroll said.
Many of the Bowmanville Zoo's animals appeared in a variety of Hollywood movies. One of the zoo's tigers, Jonas, is famous for his part in the movie adaptation of "Life of Pi." And many of its animals, including tigers, can be rented out for events or private encounters, according to the zoo's website.
Hackenberger is to make his next court appearance later this summer.
He faces a maximum fine of $60,000, two years in jail and a lifetime ban from owning animals if convicted.