By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A toddler stretches his arms out over his head and puts both hands on the front glass of an aquarium. Behind the glass, a dozen or so baby chicks are bathed in the warm orange and yellow glow of a heat lamp. The chicks scurry toward the glass, delighting the child. On a stool next to the aquarium a teenage girl sits, cupping one of the baby chicks in her hands and stroking the top of its little fuzzy head with her finger. This is the Lacerte Family Children's Zoo, part of the Dallas city zoo, where the baby chicks are always babies.
"What happens to the baby chicks when they grow up?" the girl sitting on the stool is asked.
"We send them back where they came from," replies the official "junior zookeeper."
Metaphysically speaking, she's right. Every week or so, after the chicks start losing some of their babyish charm, the zoo herds the little critters into a microwave-sized gas chamber and kills them. It's not a painful way to die apparently, but the zoo doesn't talk much about the gassings and is sensitive about how its little-known "CO2 unit" is perceived by the public. The unit is never supposed to be referred to with "inflammatory language" like "gas chamber," and a baby-chick killing is never supposed to be referred to as an "execution," says an in-house draft zoo memo obtained by the Dallas Observer. After they meet their fate in the chamber, the dead chicks are supposed to be fed whole to other animals such as the lions and big African birds. But some of the babies are frozen and then sometimes thrown into a trash bin, says one zoo worker who asked to remain anonymous and employed.
The worker says it's not always possible to get a straight answer about the final destination for the chick corpses, but even if they are used for food, the practice of treating the babies like pets is infuriating to some zoo workers and animal-rights activists. That's because the program is essentially using the chicks for the pleasure of children who have no idea what's going to happen at week's end, and they aren't told.
"If it's part of the food chain, then fine, but why do we have to pet them first?" the worker asks. "How are those children supposed to know the difference between that pet and a pet at home? There is a big difference between a chick that comes in and is immediately gassed and one that we pet for a week."
Kathy Rogers, who operates Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Inc., a bird sanctuary in Hutchins, has offered to pick up the baby chicks each week and then allow them to grow up protected at the sanctuary until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
"They can run loose out here. We put them up at night, and they do stand the chance of being owl food. Naturally, the owls can get them, but it's a fighting chance," Rogers says. "Some of them last two weeks, and some of them last 10 years. It depends on how smart they are."
Without explanation, the city has refused her offer, she says.
"If there was no other way to dispose of these animals once they served their purpose, that would be one thing," she says. "I personally have made a legitimate offer, and I'm sure that there would be other offers if the case needed to be made for that.
"If there were health issues, if there was nothing else that could be done with these animals, that's one thing. But to have a bona fide choice where they can live out their lives in a really nice environment--that's what I find is so reprehensible. There is a choice."
Rogers, a former zoo employee, says the weekly gassings were "very upsetting" to zoo workers and that the zoo should be worried about the potential for human diseases to be transmitted to the animals through the baby chicks after the chicks are handled by dozens, maybe hundreds, of children.
"I would think that the transmission of bacteria viruses on the hands would be a great concern," she says.
Rogers says when she worked at the zoo, it was her understanding that human contamination was not a worry because chicks were not being fed to the animals, they were being thrown into a garbage can.
If the chick gassings rub you the wrong way, get ready for this: Zoo administrators are quietly talking about expanding the baby-petting program to include guinea pigs, mice, rats, rabbits, and quail, says the draft memo distributed last month to certain zoo employees.
The January memo, titled "Food Animals Used Temporarily for Educational Purposes" and bearing the warning "DRAFT!!!, DRAFT!!!, DRAFT!!!, DRAFT!!!" across its top, is from Rich Buickerood, zoo director. It includes a chart that shows how long the baby animals will be allowed to be playthings before they are gassed and sent to the commissary freezer. Guinea pigs would be allowed to age no more than 45 days, rabbits no more than 180 days, and rats no more than 90 days.