Dead animals living with live ones, deformed guinea pigs, rabbits without food, water or shelter -- this is the dark side of pettings zoos.
It’s a side the RSPCA has been battling to deal with since petting zoos started popping up as kids' entertainment around 15 years ago.
NSW petting zoo owner Julio Pintos-Hartwick has been sentenced in Burwood Court to 150 hours of community service after the RSPCA discovered many of his animals were starved and living in appalling condition.
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Pintos-Hartwick faced more than 20 charges after the RSPCA found many of his animals were found to be sick, crippled, emaciated, covered in lice and living in darkness.
He’s also been ordered to repay costs to the RSPCA (over $2,700) and banned from owning any animals for five years.
Metropolitan Inspector Natalie Will said petting zoos are very stressful for the animals.
“Most petting zoos use baby animals who are not used to being handled. There are often baby chicks one or two days old, very young calves, baby goats, rabbits, guinea pigs and so on," she said.
"They’re being transported around and then left in an intense situation with up to 30 children who might not know how to be gentle with animals. Petting zoos are usually staffed by just one or two people. That in itself is an issue.
“But the worst issue is animals are being used a commodity, so what happens is that they are often not provided with adequate vet care and many die as a result of the stress they’re put under. Also, when the animals get bigger, when they’re no longer cute and fluffy and cuddly, they are replaced and we have no tracking process.
"They're only little for a couple of weeks. Then we have no way to determine what happens to them afterwards.”
The RSPCA can enforce legislation on certain animal trades but petting zoos are classified as ‘exhibited animals,’ so they can only place charges under ‘the prevention of cruelty to animals’.
“We get called out to complaints in relation to animal welfare, regardless of whether they’re a trade or just the average person who has two dogs in the backyard. We prosecute and investigate all offences in the prevention of cruelty to animals act. So whether it’s a trade or not, if it’s under our act, we will enforce that,” Will said.
The RSPCA is pleased with the recent sentencing because it sends a strong message to the petting zoo industry.
“Considering the owner had no previous convictions, the court has taken it very seriously. We're hoping other petting zoo owners see this case and start to take great care of their animals."
"We’d like to encourage people who take their kids to petting zoos to please call the RSPCA if they see any signs of animal cruelty or neglect, or if animals look underweight or sick.
"That’s the only way the message is going to get through to petting zoo owners. If they contact us, we can go and investigate. Some are run better than others but it’s not across the board -- complaints about petting zoos are becoming all too common.”