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"During these inspections we write down anything that's not in compliance," says USDA spokesperson Jim Rogers. "But it's not considered a violation, and it doesn't carry any sort of penalty. But it is merit-based -- the worse you are, the more often we're there."
USDA records show that Charlotte Metro Zoo was inspected three times last year. The first visit was on February 26, during which time the zoo was cited for failure to correct a previous violation -- not providing four individually housed primates with proper environment enhancement, namely to be able to see and hear other primates, to promote their psychological well-being. There were also citations for overcrowding, and for not giving animals access to heated or adequate shelter. The zoo was also cited for inadequate feeding. The inspector wrote: "Adult cats are currently being fasted every other day. This is more frequent that normal, professionally accepted fasting schedules."
Owner Steve Macaluso responds, "Some people recommend fasting three or four times a week. Unfortunately, USDA does not allow you to fast more than twice a week. Prior to that, yes, I'll be honest, I used to fast them three times a week. My cats are healthy as can be. A lot of the stuff that I have to do is done because the government makes me do it. If the government didn't make me go to two days a week, I would be fasting every other day."
On June 6, 2002, the zoo was cited once again for failure to provide an individually housed primate -- in this case a chimp named J.R. -- with the proper environment enhancement to meets its social and psychological needs. "Since this chimp is housed alone, it needs even greater amounts of enrichment to occupy his time," the inspector wrote.
The zoo was also cited for failure to provide adequate veterinary care to a lion named Bongo, who died on May 4, 2002. The inspector wrote, "It appears the licensee did not contact the veterinarian and convey the observation of abnormal condition when the lion showed signs of illness. The medical records of this animal were spotty, making it very difficult to determine if adequate care was given"
The zoo's final inspection last year came on October 9. For the third time, it was cited for not providing adequate housing for J.R. the chimp. "Individually housed primates must be able to see and hear primates of their own compatible species," the inspector wrote. "Singly-housed chimp still cannot see other primates."
When I visited the zoo a few weeks ago, J.R. was still housed in solitary. When asked about this, Macaluso explained that he had to get rid of his other chimp, and that the "USDA was not thrilled with that."
"Being that we have other primates, the USDA says that it's got to see another primate," Macaluso says. "Well, I totally disagree with that. To help solve the problem, there's a very good chance we're going to get rid of the one chimp we have right now. I'm going to send it to a friend with a female chimp that's looking to breed. Then when we're ready, we'll bring that chimp back. Not that it will make the chimp any happier; the only reason I'm doing it is because the USDA wrote us up."
Between 1998 and 2001 the zoo was inspected at least nine times, including on October 11, 2001, when the facility was cited for failure to provide a veterinarian-approved diet to the big cats. The inspector wrote, "Lion and tiger cubs do not have adequate space to get away from the presence of the public. Animals must be provided a rest period between performances (picture-taking). . . .Animals currently are on display from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m."
"It's News To Me"
So how is it that Charlotte Metro Zoo is allowed to stay open for business? Aren't over a dozen citations in five years a bit excessive?
"We don't classify or rank," responds Rogers of the USDA. "We don't have a way to quantify that. The Animal Welfare Act, which is the law that we regulate under, is extremely comprehensive. So if we go out and do an inspection and see anything that doesn't meet the regulations, it's going to get noted. Non-compliant items on inspection reports are not uncommon."