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.
The zoo's position on the baby chicks and other "food animals" is that the animals are necessary to be used as feed, and while the topic may be distasteful to some, it's a fact of life. The dozen baby chicks that are in the zoo every week are bought specifically to feed the animals (they arrive in the mail in a cardboard box) and are put to death in a humane way, says Chuck Siegel, deputy director for animal management at the Dallas Zoo and the Dallas Aquarium.
"In my experience, most people are uncomfortable knowing where their food comes from, so this sort of topic can be emotional for people. It can be uncomfortable for people to talk about," he says. "We have a huge number of animals here every week. The vast majority of those come in already frozen. Twelve of those go to the children's zoo, where kids can have a positive experience with them. Then later on, these food animals are used to feed other animals at the zoo."
Siegel says he recently talked to an animal-rights advocate who said it would be better if the zoo raised all of its food animals because they would certainly get better care in the zoo than places such as high-volume chicken farms. Siegel says the petting experience will be changed in the next two to four weeks so that the zookeepers and junior zookeepers will know what to say about the future of the animals that are days away from heading to the lion's mouth.
"No, we don't immediately tell the children you are petting the chicken, and it's going to be food for another animal. When you think about it, how many parents talk to their children about where their sandwiches and daily meals come from?" Siegel asks. "We don't intend to shield the kids from that. If they ask, we are going to be giving them an honest, natural point of view."
Although he is unaware of the offer from Rogers' sanctuary to adopt the chicks, he would not be inclined to take her up on it anyway. The chicks are intended to be food, and that's what they should be used for, he says. The only time the dead chicks end up in the trash is if they outlived their shelf life in the freezer. Siegel says he is unaware of that ever happening.
The practice of using the baby chicks as "educational tools" is not unique to the Dallas Zoo. The San Diego Zoo, for instance, allows children to pet some of the baby chicks that are hatched at the zoo for animal food, a spokesman there said.
"We want to give the children of Dallas an opportunity to connect with the chicken, which is in a form other than say in a sandwich or from a bucket of chicken at a fast-food restaurant," Siegel says.
Rogers says that's baloney. It's obvious, she says, that the zoo is less interested in education than it is in capitalizing on the wide-ranging appeal of baby animals. Baby chicks, particularly, are really cute when they are brand new, she says.
"They're darling. They're like what you see on the calendars and commercials. There's nothing cuter than a baby chick," she says.
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