Dr. Mark Pokras is a wildlife veterinarian at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Pokras says he finds the breathing of the male ostrich "concerning": "It has a sort of open mouth, very deep breathing most of the time, and his trachea is wide open." Pokras also says he is surprised that the bird continues to sit on its sternum even as the reporter moved closer to the animal. Pokras stresses he doesn't know the animal's medical history and he is unsure if the ostrich's bare back is due to molting (Farinato maintains the animal is not molting and his bare back is due to injury).
The Dodo asked the Lupa Zoo to comment and answer questions about the conditions of its animals, but a response was not received at the time of publication.
Inspecting roadside zoos - and then what?
The Lupa Zoo - like all licensed roadside zoos in the U.S. - is regulated by the USDA. The USDA is tasked with enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act.
According to Lyndsay Cole, assistant director of public affairs at USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), there are 2,577 USDA-licensed exhibitors in the country. That number includes circuses, educational displays, animal acts, petting farms, wildlife parks and zoos.
The USDA is not mandated to inspect these zoos annually.
Instead, Cole explains, APHIS uses a risk-based system to determine minimum inspection requirements, and these inspections are often fueled by public complaint: "In addition to conducting unannounced compliance inspections of licensed and registered facilities, AC [animal care] personnel also perform inspections in response to legitimate concerns and complaints received from the public," reads the USDA website.
Lupa was inspected on May 12 - four days after The Dodo's visit, in response to concerns filed by the reporter. The USDA inspection report is not available to the public until 21 days after it is finalized.
Lupa has been inspected, in some cases, more than once per year since 2005 - which doesn't mean it's transformed itself into an appropriate home for wild animals. It has also never been fined by the USDA for any of its violations.
As long as roadside zoos provide the very minimum needs for animals required by the AWA, they can continue operating, says Wathne: "The Lupa Zoo has been cited many years for many violations of the AWA but unfortunately nothing comes of that. Instead, it is a matter of the USDA inspecting the zoo, noting violations, telling a place they need to fix it and walking away. And if it isn't fixed, they just write it down again."
Wathne says this cycle takes place year after year at facilities: Animals continue to suffer as repeated violations result in no meaningful action.
And even if the USDA shuts down a zoo, explains Wathne, it doesn't necessarily translate into a "new" life for the animal in captivity. "In the few cases where the USDA has actually gone through the process of shutting down a zoo - which can take years - they don't confiscate the animals," she explains. Instead, the animals languish as the owner's private pets or are given away to other roadside zoos. To review the history of license revocation at roadside zoos by the USDA, go here.
Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist at the USDA-APHIS, explains the protocol further: "If a license is revoked, that doesn't mean that the animals are confiscated; the animals still belong to the owner. It means that the owner cannot conduct regulated activity. The owner may continue to keep the animals as private pets if their state allows them, or they may sell/transfer them to another location under a special authority." Espinosa points out that the USDA cannot decide what an owner does with animals he is no longer allowed to exhibit.
Farinato believes that because there isn't an established facility for animals to be sent to if a zoo is shut down, the USDA rarely closes facilities: "If they walked in and said, 'We are closing you down,' there are few options. And euthanasia isn't an option because the public would lose their minds, even if it is the best for these poor creatures."
In fact, the animals, says Farinato, almost never get out of the roadside zoo cycle: "There's simply no good ending for these animals."
The MSPCA's inspection of Lupa
Photos of Lupa Zoo taken by The Dodo were also sent to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) for review. In response, Christine Allenberg, law enforcement officer for MSPCA, conducted an investigation on May 12 in tandem with the inspectors from the USDA.
Allenberg told The Dodo she has visited the Lupa Zoo in an enforcement capacity on numerous occasions over many years. The role of the MSPCA, she explains, differs from that of the USDA: "Our only role with respect to zoos is to investigate cruelty complaints, when we receive them, pertaining to the state's animal cruelty statute, "which with respect to zoos only permit us to address violations related to insufficient shelter or the withholding of necessary medical care--which is limited to the treatment of physical injuries but does not include stress or emotional behaviors. "
"We do not set," says Allenberg, "nor can we enforce, any guidelines related to emotional enrichment or ongoing wellness checkups of animals in zoos." This, she says, is the exclusive domain of the USDA.
Allenberg said she did not find any cruelty statute violations with the Lupa Zoo on her recent visit.
"We didn't find any blatant violation of the law. We try to educate people [owners]. We tell them 'You can do this or make this better,' or 'I would change this or I suggest you add that,' says Allenberg. "The Lupa Zoo has always been receptive to that."
Photographs examined by the MSPCA included some of the photos also sent to Farinato and Wathne, including the bear enclosure as well as the zoo's otter enclosure: