Notorious as one of the world’s worst zoos for 25 years
PHUKET, Thailand––The first good-news animal story of 2022, if all goes according to plan, may be the impending evacuation of 11 tigers and two bears from the defunct Phuket Zoo, a target of animal advocacy protest almost from the day it opened in 1996.
The Bangkok-based Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand “plans to start taking the tigers next week,” Soi Dog Foundation executive director John Dalley relayed to ANIMALS 24-7 for Wildlife Friends Foundation founder Edwin Wiek on December 29, 2021.
“Then all the animals will be gone. I hope that the zoos the other animals went to are at least better than the Phuket Zoo was,” Dalley added, “although I am not aware of a good zoo in Thailand.
“Edwin advises that all of the other Phuket Zoo animals have gone already to other zoos on the mainland, including an orangutang,” Dalley continued. “A couple of deer still there are going to a deer park and two crocodiles will go to the local crocodile farm.”
Soi Dog Foundation helped as it could
Headquartered in Phuket, the Soi Dog Foundation has since 2004 led Thailand in providing spay/neuter service and anti-rabies vaccination to street dogs and cats, sheltering and rehoming dogs and cats confiscated from meat traders, and doing disaster relief for companion animals.
Addressing wildlife issues has been beyond the scope of the Soi Dog Foundation mission and resources, but Dalley has long frustratedly kept a personal eye on the Phuket Zoo.
“I have also raised with the media what is happening with the animals at the various tourist shows in Phuket and elsewhere,” Dalley told ANIMALS 24-7. “With no visitors for approaching two years,” due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, “I have grave fears over what is happening to animals, particularly tigers and elephants, at places such as Phuket Fantasea, Tiger Kingdom, Siam Niramit, and the dolphin show,” at Dolphins Bay, Phuket.
“All could be well,” Dalley allowed, “but they are not responding to questions, from what I can tell, and of course none of these places exist for any reason other than to profit from the animals they keep.”
Save Elephant Foundation took the eles
Word of the Phuket Zoo permanent closure reached ANIMALS 24-7 on December 21, 2021 when Saengdueab Lek Chaillert, 60, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Mae Taeng, Thailand, posted to Facebook that, “I was contacted by the Phuket Zoo owner last week to help manage 11 tigers, as well as some other animals, who were in need of relocation. The Save Elephant Foundation does not have experience in caring for tigers, but we would do anything to help them get out of their cages and into a better place.
“Since receiving this request,” Saengdueab Lek Chaillert said, “I have coordinated contacts with government authorities involved with wildlife, to relocate the tigers to a suitable environment with experience.
“These tigers will be staying at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand,” Saengdueab Lek Chaillert announced, “which is able to care for the tigers at this time. The tigers will be moved to their new accommodations soon. Thanks to the owner of the zoo to let these beautiful lives stay in a better place . Thanks to Wildlife Friends Thailand for accepting this responsibility. More details coming soon.
Wildlife Friends scrambles to raise funds for the move
Elaborated Dalley on December 22, 2021, “I was contacted by Edwin Wiek to advise that he and Saengdueab Lek Chaillert met with the owners of the Phuket Zoo, and that the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand would be taking all the animals [left at the zoo], which of course is great news, having repeatedly requested that action be taken by local authorities about this place and others over the years. I advised the local news of this and to contact Edwin for more info.
“The Phuket News wrote that the elephants had previously been taken by Lek to the Elephant Nature Park.”
By then Wiek had already posted his first of multiple appeals, trying to raise adequate funds on short notice to add the Phuket Zoo animals to the approximately 850 animals already in care of the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, including 26 elephants at a 95-acre refuge near Cha-am, a beach town about halfway from Phuket to Bangkok.
“Here we go! Probably one of the most challenging moments in my life,” Wiek wrote. “Can we make this happen? Eleven tigers and two bears will need a new home at our project, in the worst financial times ever. We will need all the help we can get! Let’s make it a Christmas present to these tigers, a new home where they can run around, play hide and seek, swim, and be tigers again.”
Multi-million-dollar organizations contribute not one Thai baht
Elaborated former Wildlife Friends of Thailand disaster relief volunteer Kym Wilson on Wiek’s Facebook page, “It is a desperate situation for 11 tigers and 2 bears, who require urgent rehoming. Right now, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand simply does not have the funds to take these new animals. And time is truly of the essence.”
Explained Wiek, “We must prepare enclosures, rescue, and commit to the lifelong care of these animals. We can only rescue them when we have the funds to do so. Since March 2020,” when the COVID-19 pandemic all but halted visitor traffic to Thailand, “with few tourists and volunteers, we have struggled to cover the costs to feed and care for the animals already at the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand. We are therefore depending on animal lovers more than ever. We simply cannot do this without you.”
Carole Baskin kicks in twenty grand
Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin on December 23, 2021 wired $10,000 to Wiek to help fund the tiger and bear rescue, “and told him we would send another 10k as soon as half the tigers arrive,” Baskin told ANIMALS 24-7. “He said he needed $22,000 to rescue the tigers and bears, including the cost of finishing their cages. I think we will be able to send more,” Baskin hoped, “because our donors have been helping and we all know tigers are expensive to care for.”
But what was the response from the international animal advocacy community?
None of the organizations that pay their chief executives more than the entire Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand annual budget are known to have committed even one red cent or Thai baht (worth 30¢ U.S.) to the Phuket Zoo evacuation as yet.
PETA declared “victory” in which it had no meaningful part
But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] lost no time in posting a meme to social media worldwide, declaring “VICTORY! Following pressure from PETA, the notorious Phuket Zoo is SHUTTING down. Bears, elephants, and tigers will soon be retired to true sanctuaries, where they’ll get the care they always deserved.”
The PETA meme picked up more than 4,000 Facebook “likes” and “hearts” almost immediately.
Responded Wiek, “Hi PETA. We have worked very hard to make this happen, without any help from your side. No financial support, even for the rescue. It is not appropriate to take credit for it.”
Wiek then explained to supporters that it is “Extremely hurtful to see another nonprofit organization taking credit for the work Saengduean Lek Chailert and ourselves at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand are doing. PETA was not involved till now and is offering ZERO financial support to this cause. They have a very professional marketing team, and they know very well that by giving people the impression they are involved, donors will not donate to our cause, but to PETA instead. The chance of the rescue of all the animals is now in jeopardy.”
PETA noticed the Phuket Zoo once––in 2011
Shrugged Dalley, “My response was simply ‘What’s new?’ We frequently see large organizations jumping on the bandwagon and taking credit, or just using our photos for things like opposing the dog meat trade in countries where the photos were never even taken. It is just something we get used to. Complaints are generally just ignored.”
PETA did in fact once initiate a campaign of sorts against the Phuket Zoo, covered by the Phuket News on October 20, 2011. But the link to the PETA campaign web site provided by the Phuket News is now inactive, and a TripAdvisor web site based on the PETA campaign has not been updated since 2012.
Asian Animal Protection Network
On April 11, 2007, meanwhile, four years before PETA became involved, one Sharmaine Sanders reported to the now defunct Asian Animal Protection Network from her own personal observation, “The Phuket zoo conducts a daily ‘elephant school” performance for the public.
One part of the show consists of a younger elephant appearing to calculate mathematical sums. The elephant is at a guess two, only standing at five and half feet tall with a thick dark fringe indicating immaturity.
“I became interested in the young elephant’s behavior and the irritable reactions of the trainer,” Sanders wrote. “It seemed the elephant was not cooperating on this day, often strolling away from the numbers and being fetched after by the trainer to repeat the exercise. I noticed the anger expressed by the trainer when the elephant became distracted and uncooperative, clenching his teeth and tugging viciously at the base of the young elephant’s ear, clearly wishing to punish and inflict pain. The elephant eventually completed the questions asked and the trainer led the elephant out to a separate enclosure at the rear of the show.
“Called out demanding the trainer to stop”
“From the sidelines and over the loud theme music playing, I could hear repeated cracking of a whip and I hurried along to the back area to see if what I feared was correct. Sure enough, the trainer was viciously whipping the elephant and furiously punching the elephant in the face. The elephant huddled in a corner looking extremely fearful.
“I called out demanding the trainer to stop. Another zoo worker watching on approached him to point me out and he responded by looking very surprised. I can only assume from the fury in this man’s face that the elephant would suffer by his hands on many occasions.”
That was not all.
“Whilst at the zoo,” Sanders continued, “I stumbled across an unmarked enclosure, a small concrete pen no bigger than 8 feet x 5 feet, surrounded by thick wire. It was difficult to view the cage though the thick wire. It was extremely dark due to the limited sunlight exposure. Inside was a cheetah, pacing the pad. No grass, no toys, no company, seemingly wasting away.”
Wiek accused Phuket Zoo of wildlife trafficking
Edwin Wiek and the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand were visible Phuket Zoo critics by February 2009, when Wiek alleged to the Thai National Park, Wildlife & Plant Conservation Department that the Phuket Zoo orangutan population had expanded from two to ten in just three months, and that other Phuket Zoo animals of hazy history included gibbons, langurs, and tigers.
But nothing came of Wiek’s complaints.
International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal became involved in April 2013, amplifying a report from a correspondent that “the ghastly Phuket Zoo monkeys are in jail-like cages,” with “rotting months’ worth of food,” bought from concession stands and thrown to the monkeys by tourists.
“Some had no water, no shelter, no stimuli. Some seemed mentally disturbed, others bored and depressed,” the International Primate Protection League correspondent reported. “Then they had two baby monkeys whom they put into a small bird-sized cage, and placed that cage into a garage or shed. The Thai zoo workers were playing drums right near it and smoking cigarettes. The monkeys were distressed. Then the workers closed the door.”
Milo the orangutan & Dumbo the elephant
Ensuing years brought “two high profile cases” involving the Phuket Zoo, editorially remembered the Thaiger, an online Thai news magazine published in English, “that of Milo the orangutan and Dumbo the baby elephant––both neglected or abused, and both now dead,” Milo in 2016 and Dumbo in 2019.
In the Milo case, the Thaiger recounted, “we called, actually demanded, that Phuket wildlife officials come to see for themselves the horrible situation that Milo was in. Twenty-four hours later, when the officials and the local media circus arrived at the zoo, there had been a make-over, turning the horror show into a wonderland. Everything had been repainted, the tatty gardens had been cleaned up, paths washed, and all the staff dressed up in spanking-new shirts.
“The local wildlife officials were taken aside, out of the view of the media, and ‘negotiations’ were made to sort out the complaints against the zoo. And everything was good again.”
COVID-19 created online fundraising opportunity
But even bribing officials could not indefinitely protect the Phuket Zoo from the consequences of COVID-19, after the Phuket governor ordered the closure of all tourist attractions on March 28, 2020.
The Phuket Zoo management were suspected of leaving the resident animals to starve.
Wiek warned at the time, though, that all was not as it appeared.
“There are some fundraisers ongoing on the net to help the tigers at the Phuket Zoo,” Wiek explained. “These fundraising campaigns are set up by private people who are not the owners of the tigers, have no legal access to the tigers, and are not involved with the rescue of these tigers. The tigers will not be released by the owners to anyone. The owners have said they will keep the tigers for a newly built zoo on Phuket.”
A week after Wiek spoke, Phuket police reportedly arrested U.S. citizen Joy Marie Somers, Australian citizen Minh Nguyen, and two Thai men, Hussen Armad and Hassen Coltcah, for alleged fraudulent fundraising on behalf of the Phuket Zoo animals.
Four people caught climbing the zoo wall
“A security guard reported seeing four people climb over the outside wall and into the zoo around 6 p.m. on April 14, 2020, and taking videos of some of the animals,” Phuket police chief Rungroj Thakunpunyasiri told Achadtaya Chuenniran of the Bangkok Post.
“Video clips with comments alleging the animals were abandoned and unfed were later posted on Joy Somers’ Facebook page, asking for public donations to buy animal feed,” Achadtaya Chuenniran explained. “The videos were also uploaded on Minh Nguyen’s Instagram page,” also with an appeal for donations,” to be transferred into a bank account held “in the name of another suspect, Hussen Armad, the Phuket police chief said.
Phuket Zoo owner Suriya Tanthaweewong, 40, “filed a complaint with Chalong police,” Achadtaya Chuenniran finished. “He said the zoo was not seeking public donations, and the animals were not abandoned, and not left to starve. They were being adequately cared for and fed, he said.”
But the Phuket News reported that the Phuket Zoo was already seeking to close permanently.