Animal cruelty charges stayed against Ontario zoo owner

Man accused of whipping tigers

An Ontario man accused of whipping one of the tigers at his zoo will not face trial after he suffered a stroke last month.

Michael Hackenberger, who owns the now-closed Bowmanville Zoo, had five animal cruelty charges stayed in a Whitby, Ont., court on Thursday because he had a stroke on Feb. 19 and was “medically unfit” to stand trial, according to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“We are disappointed that this matter could not move forward, however we understand the reasons brought forth by the Crown and we respect their decision,” said OSPCA spokesperson Alison Cross.

The animal welfare agency had filed four counts against Hackenberger of causing an animal distress and one of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for an animal, all under the authority of the provincial OSPCA Act. Three of the distress charges in the case relate to the use of a whip.

The OSPCA began investigating after the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released footage that appeared to show Hackenberger allegedly whipping one of his tigers at the Bowmanville Zoo.

Through the zoo’s Facebook page, Hackenberger has said he was not guilty of the charges. His lawyer, David Elmaleh, declined comment when reached.

Cross said Hackenberger is still in hospital.

The Bowmanville Zoo, in Bowmanville, Ont., provided many animals for Hollywood movies. One of the zoo’s tigers, Jonas, for example, is famous for appearing in the movie adaptation of “Life of Pi.”

The zoo opened in 1919 and claimed to be the oldest private zoo in North America.

Last June, the zoo announced it would close in the fall, saying attendance had dropped “catastrophically” and there wasn’t enough money to continue to run the facility.

Zoo spokesman Angus Carroll had blamed PETA for the drop in attendance.

“We feel this is a tragic example of being tried in the public court before being tried in the real court,” an emotional Carroll told reporters at the zoo at the time.

PETA released the video in December 2015, which garnered headlines around the world. The organization previously told The Canadian Press it began looking at Hackenberger after he was seen on live television in Toronto the previous summer allegedly cursing an un-co-operative baboon that refused to ride a miniature horse.

They said they sent in one of their members undercover who began working at the zoo with a hidden camera. The PETA video shows Hackenberger during a training session with a tiger named Uno.

“Cause I like hitting him in the face and the paws … and the beauty of the paws being on the rock, when you hit them it’s like a vice … it stings more,” Hackenberger is seen saying to the undercover PETA member with the hidden camera in the video released by the organization.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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