Cockroaches & rats named after ex-spouses to be fed to snakes
SAN ANTONIO, Texas––San Antonio Zoo executive director Tim Morrow and staff appear to be going full speed ahead with a Valentine’s Day “Cry Me A Cockroach” event, despite complaints from around the world that it is mean-spirited, sadistic, and misleading, promotes a hostile image of cockroaches, rats, and snakes that many zoos and other conservationists have long labored to dispel, celebrates domestic violence, encourages public bullying, and violates the spirit, if not the letter, of some of the oldest American Zoo Association ethical policies.
Six days after the “Cry Me A Cockroach” event was first announced, in defiance of a barrage of objections, the San Antonio Zoo reminded Facebook users at 5:30 p.m. local time on Sunday, February 9, 2020 that there were “Only a few days left to name a cockroach or a rat after your ex during the first-ever ‘Cry Me A Cockroach’ event!”
“We will be live-streaming our feeding frenzy”
Explained the San Antonio Zoo promotional link, “You can name a live cockroach, and we’ll serve it up as a snack to one of our animals. If your ex was a snake, you could even name a rat, and we’ll feed it to a reptile!
“You will be able to name a cockroach after your ex,” the San Antonio Zoo link reiterated, “for only $5,” while naming rights for a rat to be fed to a reptile costs $25.
“The certificate you will receive can be shared on your own social media pages,” the San Antonio Zoo promotion continued. “On Valentine’s Day, February 14, we will be live-streaming our ‘Cry Me A Cockroach’ feeding frenzy! Birds and reptiles from San Antonio Zoo will join in on this feast. Will your ex be offered to our animals? Tune in this Valentine’s Day to find out!
Concluded the pitch, “All names will be submitted anonymously, and only first names will be displayed during the feeding event.”
Why is CEO Tim Morrow not embarrassed?
One might imagine that Tim Morrow, a family man who was named San Antonio Zoo director in 2014, the zoo’s centennial year, should be embarrassed.
Under Morrow, San Antonio Zoo publicity boasts, it was in 2019 named “Best Zoo In Texas” by Reader’s Digest; in 2016 was named a “Top 10 Zoo for Kids” by Parents magazine; and in 2015 received the American Zoo Association “International Conservation Significant Achievement Award.”
Presumably the AZA does not believe live-streaming feeding live animals to others is an internationally significant conservation achievement, 60 years after the then newly formed AZA took a position against accredited zoos conducting live feeding and hosting other stunts it deemed reminiscent of circuses and traveling freak shows.
What do Reader’s Digest & Parents think?
Presumably Reader’s Digest, after 98 years of upholding mainstream Christian conservative family values, including amicably resolving divorces to minimize stress on children, does not now consider feeding former spouses to animals, even in effigy, to be socially acceptable conduct.
Presumably Parents magazine, after 94 years of advocating a humanitarian approach to child-rearing, does not now advocate encouraging children to watch animals being fed alive to others.
The AZA, despite overlooking and even condoning many ethical lapses on the part of accredited zoos, has never advocated anything smacking of sadism masquerading as “conservation education” and entertainment. Neither has Reader’s Digest or Parents.
Rats will be frozen
But this raises the misleading aspect of “Cry Me a Cockroach.”
After stipulating that paying participants will be naming a “live cockroach,” and at least implying that rats will also be fed to snakes alive, the San Antonio Zoo hedges.
“In case you have questions about the roaches or frozen rodents,” the zoo says, “this information is available on the web page FAQ for ‘Cry Me A Cockroach.’”
Explains the web page, if one is able to find it among many other links, “The rodents we utilize are purchased from a mouse farm and are delivered frozen and stored at our Nutrition Center. Once thawed, rodent feeding is part of the regular feeding schedule of many animals within our herpetology areas. Live roaches are sourced from Dart Frog Connection & Josh’s Frogs. The colony is cared for and maintained by the Reptile Department in the Reptile House.”
Then comes a howler for people familiar with the history of humane organizations.
Says the San Antonio Zoo, “All of our feeder insects were part of an audit by American Humane (the oldest animal welfare organization in the country). During our animal welfare audit by American Humane the treatment of all the animals in our care including feeders such as cockroaches mealworms, crickets and more were inspected. We proudly became Humane Certified by American Humane in 2017.”
The American Humane Association, founded in 1877, is actually 19 years younger than the two oldest U.S. humane societies, 11 years younger than the American SPCA, and also younger than the descendants of the other dozen humane societies who sent delegates to the AHA founding meeting.
Having fallen on hard times, largely through developing overly close relationships with animal use industries that eroded public trust, the American Humane Association ceased inspecting and accrediting local and regional humane societies in 1993.
What does “American Humane Certified” really mean?
The American Humane Association was the initial host of the organization that in May 2003 split away to become Humane Farm Animal Care, managing the “Certified Humane” program for accrediting meat, dairy, eggs, and poultry raised according to a set of third-party-audited standards; but Humane Farm Animal Care left the AHA umbrella because founder Adele Douglass found the AHA too willing to compromise those standards to attract participation fees from producers.
The current “American Humane Certified” program has arguably the lowest standards of any of the major U.S. farmed product certification schemes, though some close observers argue that this dubious distinction should go instead to the Global Animal Partnership.
Either way, there is room to question whether the present incarnation of the AHA, now calling itself just “American Humane,” could adequately monitor the care of even cockroaches, mealworms, and crickets.
Notorious for promoting decompression killing of cats and dogs in animal shelters, from 1950 until the practice was abolished in every state as inhumane in 1985, the AHA has in recent years promoted using decompression to kill chickens.
Under the rug with the roach dust
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Zoo “Cry Me a Cockroach” competition, receiving uncritical national publicity from Fox media as well as questioning scrutiny from sources including Psychology Today columnist Marc Bekoff and Fish Feel founder Mary Finelli, has raised issues and history that much of the zoo community would probably prefer to sweep under the rug with the cockroach dust.
Feeding rodents alive to snakes, and even implying that one is doing it, fell out of vogue decades ago among serious snake caretakers. Wrote Chris Mattison, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on herpetological diets, in The Care of Reptiles & Amphibians in Captivity (Blandsford Ltd. 1987, page 68):
“A responsible attitude would seem to be to feed only dead prey unless a captive is in real danger of starving to death through want of live food. Every live food animal should be removed from a cage immediately if a snake shows no interest in it, and be provided with adequate accommodation, food, water, bedding and warmth until it is to be used.
Live feeding not necessary
“Of hundreds of rodent-eating snakes kept over the years,” Mattison wrote, “I cannot remember one which could not eventually be persuaded to accept dead prey.
“Apart from the moral issue,” Mattison continued, “the feeding of dead prey has several advantages: live rats etc. have been known to injure or kill snakes with which they have been left; dead prey may be purchased in bulk and stored frozen until required (but must be properly thawed before feeding or enteritis may ensue); and the task of maintaining furry (and often smelly) animals is eliminated, leaving more time to enjoy the reptiles and amphibians.”
Feeding captive snakes “feeder” animals acquired dead and frozen, then thawed before the feeding, as the San Antonio Zoo does, has gradually become standard practice.
San Antonio Zoo not promoting best practice
Smaller snakes and lizards are often fed live meal worms.
But while most herpetological fanciers pride themselves on feeding their reptiles a “natural” diet of the animals who would be the animals’ prey in the wild, this is not necessary to maintain the health of the herp. On the contrary, it is possible to provide almost any sort of snake or lizard an adequately balanced diet of commercial pet food, moistened if necessary and warmed to the normal body temperature of the prey.
In short, by so much as hinting that it might feed live rats named after an ex-spouse to snakes, the San Antonio Zoo is not encouraging best practice among reptile keepers, and certainly not setting a good example of respectful treatment of sentient animals.
Reminder of unsavory history
Live feeding some animals to others was, in truth, a standard part of the entertainment at the Tower Menagerie, at the Tower of London, from 1235 to 1832, along with hangings, beheadings, drawing-and-quarterings, and burnings at the stake.
Between live feedings and executions, sometimes by feeding prisoners alive to pit bulls, bears, or lions, there were Punch & Judy shows, which might be seen as thematically ancestral to “Cry Me A Cricket.”
As summarized by Mental Floss magazine research editor Kara Kovalchik, “Traditional, ages-old Punch and Judy puppet shows feature the married couple battling each other with clubs. In the original story line, hunchbacked, hook-nosed Punch eventually beats not only his wife to death, but also his infant child, along with a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer and the Devil. Punch is deliciously self-satisfied with his sadism, constantly uttering his catchphrase: ‘That’s the way to do it!’ Punch’s strutting pride in his awful deeds is what led to the coining of the phrase (in the early 1800s) of being ‘pleased as Punch.’”
Live feeding was also standard practice at many other zoos and menageries until relatively recent times, and is still done at Chinese zoos incorporated as agricultural institutions, though prohibited at zoos incorporated under educational auspices for more than 20 years.
Live feeding scares away family audience
Feeding chickens alive to alligators and crocodiles remained common at U.S. roadside zoos forty years ago, and live rats and mice were routinely fed to snakes before paying visitors even more recently than that.
Beginning in Victorian times, however, the managers of more ambitious zoos began doing marketing research, and almost the first thing they discovered was that live feeding was scaring away the family audience. Women and children who saw live feeding once never wanted to return.
The main enthusiasts of live feeding were rowdy, often drunken young men, whose behavior contributed to alienating family audiences.
Live feeding at most major city zoos in the U.S., Britain, western Europe, and Canada had already been abolished by 1900, though it continued at so-called roadside zoos and as part of the “geek shows” that were side attractions to traveling circuses.
Of note is that “geek shows” were never part of “big tent” circus entertainment, and were almost never open to women and children. They existed specifically to attract young men, also including such semi-pornographic exhibits as the Tattooed Lady, biological hermaphrodites, and strip shows that went as far as local religious authorities and law enforcement would tolerate.
The original meaning of the word “geek” was “a circus performer who eats animals alive as part of the act.” Winning the passage of laws against “geeking” was among the noteworthy accomplishments of the early U.S. humane movement.
The American Zoo Association, formed in 1960, never considered public live feeding of vertebrate animals to other animals acceptable, but off-exhibit live feeding continued at reptile exhibits for several decades.
Florida zoo closed over live feeding
Live feeding as entertainment at non-accredited zoos was last documented in the U.S. in 1996, at the Steel City Petting Zoo in Cottondale, Florida.
Wildlife rehabilitator May Lenzer, appalled at what she saw during a 1995 visit, enlisted the aid of then-American SPCA president Roger Caras and then-World Society for the Protection of Animals wildlife experts John Walsh and John Gripper to bring the Steel City Petting Zoo live feeding, including allegedly tossing puppies to alligators, to the attention of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service.
Within eight days zoo owner Romulus Scalf was jailed, and was fined $10,000. The Steel City Petting Zoo was permanently closed due to multiple Animal Welfare Act violations.
Yesterday, to Morrow
ANIMALS 24-7 forwarded much of the above information to the San Antonio Zoo, anticipating that executive director Tim Morrow might want to rethink the “Cry Me A Cockroach” promotion.
All we heard back, besides crickets, was, “Thank you for contacting San Antonio Zoo. Your Information request has been received and is under review. Please allow up to 2 business days for a response.”
Morrow apparently prefers to be remembered in the same light, if not to nearly the same intensity, as the notoriously sadistic, corrupt, and incompetent Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876).
A lifelong cockfighting enthusiast, Santa Anna made San Antonio enduringly infamous by massacring the 189 defenders of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Three weeks later Santa Anna also massacred 342 unarmed prisoners at Goliad, Texas.
Despite that episode, Santa Anna was, about 20 years later, allowed to return to the U.S. as a salesperson for chicle. After Santa Anna left, broke, his only customer, Thomas Adams (1818-1905), developed the substance into the chewing gum product known ever since as Chiclets, then cofounded the Wrigley’s Chewing Gum empire with William Wrigley Jr.
In Morrow’s favor, it may be said that the San Antonio Zoo concession stands probably sell far more chewing gum than Santa Anna did.
Jamaka Petzak says
History. Always fascinating and so often so different from what is dished out to kids in the “educational” system. Sharing, with gratitude.
Doll Stanley says
Thank you for all of your informative articles. This one particularly affected me as it exposes the connection between the vile fundraiser the zoo has planned and bullying and sadism. I was unaware of the origin of the label “Geek”. The word was already offensive to me and it is now banned from my vocabulary.
Barbara Beierl says
Your work is noteworthy and humane, and I am proud of everyone associated with you. However, I wonder why with all the horrors you report, you don’t sponsor petitions. Just reading about something has no impact on the cruel and barbaric actions you report. I’ve read your effective articles; now what should I do? email@example.com
Merritt Clifton says
Electronic petitions––as ANIMALS 24-7 has pointed out in greater depth & detail on other occasions––are perhaps the most ineffective of all political tactics, since the recipients know very well that most of the people signing them are not among their customers and/or constituents in the first place, and probably never will be. Written petitions to politicians that include a verifiable signature and zip code can be effective, but only if the signees are in fact constituents. What petitions have mainly been used for, during our half century of reporting about activism, is collecting mailing lists––sometimes for specific organizations, but most often for the direct mail and electronic fundraising companies that are actually the thinly disguised originators of most of the petitions that you see online. As to the bottom line question, “Now what should I do?”, the best answer depends on one’s own contacts, background, and initiative. Sometimes the most useful thing one can do is simply help to alert others, which is especially effective when the offending party, such as a zoo, is heavily dependent upon maintaining a positive public image; sometimes it will be to call, write, or email to a public official or the head office of a company, especially if one has a positive prior relationship with the recipient; sometimes it will be to boycott a specific product or event (but be aware that only the narrowest, most specifically targeted boycotts tend to have any measurable effect.) You know what your skills and opportunities are. We can only guess. Very often, incidentally, the most useful thing you can do in response to something that ANIMALS 24-7 reports about is to donate to ANIMALS 24-7––because the subjects of our investigative reporting tend to be heavily dependent upon maintaining a positive public image, and the last thing they want to see is word of their cruelty, corruption, incompetence, etc. getting out to the world. Helping ANIMALS 24-7 keep the spotlight on what others would prefer to keep in the dark is in itself an often effective approach to reducing and preventing animal suffering.
When I heard about this last year from a local news channel’s very abbreviated report (the roaches were dead and I’m not sure if it was the same zoo), I’ll admit that I chuckled with coworkers about the idea of naming a dead roach for someone you don’t like and feeding it to a meerkat. I’m sorry. I didn’t think about it as deeply as you obviously have, the message it sends, or the history of such spectacles.
Your site always teaches me…and that includes new ways of looking at things.
There seems to be an subclass of reptile owners who revel in live feeding. In my childhood I routinely saw live mice running around inside of snake tanks at pet stores. I think this “promise” of seeing a live feeding was marketed as part of the appeal of buying the reptile.