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Actress pleads for city to release zoo’s bears; Roswell leaders invite Ali MacGraw to tour Spring River Park & Zoo

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A recent photo of Ali MacGraw. (Photo courtesy of Pinterest.com)

An Academy Award-nominated actress has stepped into the fray over the Spring River Park & Zoo, imploring the city to release its two sister black bears into a wildlife sanctuary.

In a letter to the director of Roswell’s Parks & Recreation Department to be delivered today, Ali MacGraw said the zoo’s bears and mountain lions deserve to retire in a natural setting.
“As a New Mexico resident, I was saddened to learn from my friends at PETA that the city of Roswell is confining bears and mountain lions to cramped concrete pits at the Spring River Park & Zoo,” wrote MacGraw, 78, an actress, model, author and animal rights activist who was voted the top female box office star in the world in 1972.
“I urge you to release the bears Sierra and Ursula into reputable, naturalistic sanctuaries where they can live with rich environmental stimulation, and I hope you’ll consider doing the same for the mountain lions — rather than simply upgrading their enclosure at some point in the future, as you have claimed to be working on. These intelligent animals are far-ranging and need vast spaces in which to roam, climb and engage in other species-specific behavior.”
In a news release to be issued today, PETA said the zoo’s two mountain lions remain obese and the zoo’s two bears are suffering from hair loss. PETA said they “are just some of the animals suffering today at the rundown Spring River Park & Zoo, which is operated by the city of Roswell, and Academy Award nominee Ali MacGraw has run out of patience.”
PETA, whose motto reads in part that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment,” said it has helped to move dozens of captive bears to reputable sanctuaries.
“In the last few years, several small zoos have chosen to release bears from concrete pits into such sanctuaries, and I’d be thrilled to be able to congratulate the city of Roswell on making the same compassionate decision,” MacGraw continued. “Won’t you please retire them to an appropriate facility like The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, where they could live in a far more natural environment? It would mean the world to me and — more importantly —to these animals, who deserve better. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.”

City response

In response to MacGraw’s plea, City Manager Joe Neeb invited MacGraw to visit the zoo and to be part of upcoming master planning discussions for the zoo.
“I did not know that she was a New Mexico resident, so that’s nice to know,” Neeb said Tuesday. “I would invite her to come visit us in Roswell because I believe that she has some concerns. I’m not sure if she has seen these firsthand. It doesn’t sound like it from her letter. But we would invite her to come out, participate in some of the public meetings that we will be having in order to establish a master plan for the zoo, and actually be a partner with us, rather than feeling like this is an adversarial situation. We accept all voices. It would be great, it would be.”
Mayor Dennis Kintigh also said he would welcome a zoo visit by MacGraw.
“I would be happy to give her a tour of the zoo,” Kintigh said. “We’re trying to do the right things. Nothing happens fast in government.”
Kintigh said Neeb has been city manager since April, zoo superintendent Marge Woods has been in charge of the zoo for a few months, and the Parks & Recreation Department also has a new director.
“We’re dealing with a lot of issues here and we want to do this right, we really do,” Kintigh said. “All we’re asking is a chance to take a deep breath, look at this and to get it right. That’s all we’re asking.”

Background

On April 13, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, with whom MacGraw has been a longtime supporter, offered the city $10,000 on behalf of an anonymous benefactor for the city to build a new, naturalistic mountain lion exhibit, in exchange for the city releasing the 4-and-a-half-year-old sister black bears, Sierra and Ursula, into a reputable animal sanctuary.
On April 20, City Attorney Aaron Holloman replied, saying the city needed more time to consider the offer from the world’s largest animal rights organization.
“A reputable sanctuary will have the financial resources and expertise to care for them properly in a naturalistic environment, where they’d finally have the opportunity to engage in normal behavior, such as roaming, foraging and denning,” PETA’s John Di Leonardo wrote in an Aug. 10 letter to Kintigh.
PETA has been critical of the city’s zoo, saying the accommodations, particularly for its large animals, are inadequate and are driving the bears, mountain lions, bobcats and a coyote insane. PETA says some of the zoo’s 136 animals are languishing in barren, sterile environments and continue to display neurotic behavior, repeatedly pacing back and forth in extreme distress and frustration.
“While the zoo infrastructure is aged, it has been subject to ongoing, regular inspections by the USDA and the zoo continues to operate without incident under that supervision,” Holloman wrote PETA on Aug. 2. “Our animals have been provided scheduled checkups without incident under that supervision. Our animals have been provided scheduled checkups by certified veterinarians. All have received a clean bill of health. Roswell understands its responsibilities concerning the care and protection of these animals. It is our goal to improve and enhance their lives with us.”
PETA said city assertions that the zoo is in great shape and that the animals have received a clean bill of health is contradicted by the zoo’s own records, including citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“These include a repeat violation that was assessed this year for ‘failing to have a sufficient number of trained zookeepers with experience in proper animal husbandry,'” Di Leonardo wrote Kintigh. “This serious violation is extremely concerning and is a red flag about basic problems with animals care at Spring River.
“As recently as May, the mountain lions apparently escaped from their enclosure into a waterfall pump area, breaking a lightbulb and chewing on pipe. Zoo records also show that the mountain lions have recently had issues with their weight, that the bears have had issues with their coats, and that environmental enrichment for both the bears and the big cats is critically insufficient. It’s little wonder that the bears continue to display stereotypic or neurotic behavior.”

$10,000 donation

Early this month, the city turned down a $10,000 donation from PETA to build a new mountain lion exhibit at the zoo, saying a wider overhaul of the zoo was needed after a thorough study. PETA offered to pay all costs associated with the transfer of two black bears to a reputable animal sanctuary.
City Attorney Aaron Holloman replied to PETA on Aug. 2, saying the city needed more time to consider PETA’s offer.
“If PETA is unable to wait for a more detailed formal response, the city will have to decline the offer,” Holloman wrote. “While a donation to the tentative cougar exhibit is appreciated, there are no council-approved or definitive plans that the construction of the new exhibit will occur in the near future, since such an expansion has become a key part in a more global planning initiative about the future development of the Spring River Park and Zoo.”
Neeb also said the city needed more time to consider PETA’s offer.
“The only reason we declined it was because we were considering the offer, but we wanted, of course, to go through some of this master planning process as far as what the zoo is to the community and everything,” Neeb said. “We were requested last time that they needed an answer by Aug. 2, so we provided that response.”
Neeb said communications from multiple persons from PETA has made negotiations more difficult.
“We’re not even talking to the same person from PETA,” he said. “We’ve had three different people contact us from PETA, and now we have Ms. MacGraw. They send an email to the mayor and it is one person. Two months later, they send another letter, but it’s another person. And then another month later, they send another letter from another person. So we’re not even certain who we’re trying to work with with PETA in order to have a conversation or a dialogue. I think they’re probably happy that we’re having a dialogue. I think they want to continue having a dialogue, but again, their goal is a little different than what the city’s goal is.
“I believe that whoever these people are from PETA that we’re talking with, again they keep changing faces on us a little bit, they want to have the dialogue. And I think that’s what keeps the movement on this.”

Roadside zoo

PETA has criticized the Spring River Park & Zoo as a roadside zoo, a zoo with collections of animals in cages used to lure passing motorists to stop and see, feed or play with the animals.
The city zoo currently has no visitor fees.
“I am disappointed in the use of the term ‘roadside zoo.’ This is an exaggerated term to further the goals of the organization,” Neeb said. “I think that’s their impression of our community zoo. I don’t agree with that definition. The information being shared by them does not show the full story.”
Neeb said the City Council has expressed an interest in hiring a zoo consultant, and public meetings for a zoo master plan should begin in a couple of months.
“When we discussed it with the City Council, the City Council asked that we go ahead and bring in a professional consultant that has the knowledge of zoos, has the knowledge of what this service is,” Neeb said. “So, I believe we’re going to be establishing before October a request for professional services and see if we can find somebody that can help come in, facilitate the public meetings, help coordinate all of the information we’ll be able to gather through this process, and then to help us establish that long-term plan as to where we want to take the Spring River Park & Zoo. That came from the City Council.
“So, we’re going to get this master plan started. I still believe we’re going to have the process started by mid-October at the latest. Staff is already working on a lot of different pieces that we need to do as well. But the true process will start sometime mid-October.”
Di Leonardo said in the Aug. 10 letter to Kintigh that PETA wants to continue the dialogue and that its $10,000 offer stands.
“We were glad to read that you want to engage in dialogue with us, and we’d like to take you up on that offer and schedule a meeting,” Di Leonardo said. “Will you please let us know your availability? Our offer remains on the table.”
Editor Jeff Tucker may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at editor@rdrnews.com.