Petting Zoo Canceled After Student Criticism

A bunny seen at the 2015 petting zoo. Trevor Grimm // AS Review

By Hailey Murphy

Animal Encounters, the company that provides animals for AS Productions’ annual petting zoo, told AS Productions they won’t be coming to Western for the event.

The announcement came after students expressed concerns regarding the ethics of the petting zoo on Facebook.

According to the ASP Facebook page, Animal Encounters thought controversy around the event would affect their ability to do their jobs.

“They’re just concerned about there being protests, and that taking their attention away from caring for the animals,” Ethan Donovan, ASP special event coordinator, said at an ASP forum on Friday. “There’s still consideration of keeping it going [in the future] but limiting it to a smaller amount of animals. And they want to know how we’re going to deal with counter protests…it’s all up in the air right now.”

The discourse around the petting zoo began with students interacting on the Facebook event page, expressing concerns that the petting zoo is exploitive of animals. Specifically, they were worried about the stressful environment of the enclosure.

Rosa Rice-Pelepko, a senior in environmental and social justice, started the conversation on the post. She said she’s against the petting zoo because she’s against exploitation of animals for human use, such as for food, clothing or entertainment.

While appreciative that the event was canceled, Rice-Pelepko said she has a problem with Animal Encounters’ explanation of concern over protest.

“I think that’s really honorable, if that was their intention, but I also would believe that they were worried about publicity and worried about people calling them out for animal exploitation, and they just don’t want that kind of bad press,” Rice-Pelepko said.  

In response to initial student concerns, ASP posted that they’d still be holding the event. However, they were going to provide information on organizations such as the Pig Peace Sanctuary and how to donate to them.

Their reply also included a statement from Animal Encounters.

“We care deeply about all our animals and consider them to be family members and co-workers,” the statement read. “They are also working animals. Their job of helping to educate the public can sometimes be stressful as any job a human would have. Our carefully crafted protocols help mitigate this stress to provide a rewarding working environment for our animals and a memorable experience for our guests.”

Also according to their statement, Animal Encounters are members of the Humane Educators Association of America, and are licensed with both the USDA and the Animal Protection and Health Inspection Service.

ASP held a public forum last Friday to discuss student concerns, where they first announced that the petting zoo was canceled.

There, sophomore Max Boock spoke on behalf of herself and other students regarding their wishes for the petting zoo’s future on campus. Boock asked that ASP consider no longer holding the event.

“Our ask is that [ASP] never host this event again,” Boock said at the forum. “We want a written statement saying you won’t host this event in light of the overwhelming student concerns that have been brought to the table. The initial post by one of the students has gotten over 30 likes, and that is a big response to an event… Because the AS works for the students– it’s by the students, for the students– it’s really important for AS offices to take into consideration student concerns.”

While present ASP staff couldn’t promise such a statement, they did say they could discuss it when all staff was present.

ASP staff also expressed desire to have conversations on future programming, and assured that they hadn’t chosen Animal Encounters without research.

““There was a lot of research put in into actually picking Animal Encounters over other petting zoos in the first place– not suggesting that they’re the best or even great in general,” said Makenna Schumaker, ASP Director, at the forum. “But there was a lot of research done from the get-go those four years ago that actually led us to bring [Animal Encounters] to this campus, and consensus from, I think six other colleges in the state that use them.”

Prior to the event cancellation, according to Donovan, ASP was planning to survey students– both those exiting the petting zoo and those choosing not to participate– regarding their experience.

The goal of the survey was to get the opinion of the student body as a whole, as well as to address the concerns of those who disapproved

“There was a pretty large interest in the event. So there’s a lot of different views of the petting zoo, and we really want to hear everyone’s opinion on it,” Donovan said.

ASP staff said they heard only positive feedback in the previous years and were unaware of these concerns.

Updated 5/23 to correct Rice-Pelepko’s name.

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