Utah Animal Rights Coalition organized a demonstration on March 21 to protest the unethical detainment of exotic animals since Lagoon Amusement Park’s opening in 1967. The Vice President of UARC, Amy Meyer, led the protest where around 20 activists stood on either side of Lagoon Drive at the entrance of the park. Animal rights advocates held posters that read “Send Animals to Sanctuary,” “Boycott Lagoon Cruelty: Animal Train of Shame,” and “Stolen from the Wild” with a picture of a lion laying behind cage bars on a metal table.
Meyer, who has protested with UARC activists at Lagoon before, noted how Lagoon management actively works to keep them away. Although UARC members are legally allowed to demonstrate on the area of land off Lagoon Drive, sprinklers have been turned on when the protestors arrive and for the duration of the two-hour-long protest, despite excessive water use being a Utah water violation in drought conditions. This time, various types of animal feces were placed where protestors typically stand, which forced UARC members to be closer to the street and passing cars. “They try and deter protesters, keep us out and push us into the street,” Meyers says.
The focus of the UARC protest, the Wild Animal Kingdom ride, is over 40 years old, with protests for its removal lasting more than 20 years. The steam train passes Siberian and Bengal tigers, lions, camels, zebras, and a golden eagle. The lions and tigers lay on empty, concrete floors in small metal cages with little to no natural vegetation or stimulation. The elk have been seen to have layers of algae in their water bowls and camels without any enclosure to provide shade in the hot summer months.
Dr. Laura Boehler, DVM, Of the cat enclosures at Lagoon, exotic animal veterinarian Dr. Laura Boehler, DVM, says, "I spent several years caring for big cats in captivity and this is clearly a stressful environment for the lion that is seen housed alone and demonstrating signs of distress. Housing these magnificent cats in such barren and depressing cages while people shout and harass them is an egregious insult to the dignity of animal life.”
UARC has been trying to get in contact with Lagoon’s management to discuss placing the animals into accredited sanctuaries. “If revenue is their priority, you have to consider how expensive it is to feed and care for these animals all year round, especially when the park is only open on weekends,” Meyers says. UARC urges Lagoon to take down the enclosures and use the space to create a new and exciting ride for parkgoers. “If Lagoon confirmed that they would take down the enclosures, we would work like hell to get them out of here,” she says.
Many of the patrons Meyers has spoken with remark how they didn’t know the animals were there, let alone kept in inhumane conditions. “Many people see it for what it is,” she says. When she documented the train ride in 2018, she heard those around her saying, “I thought they got rid of the animals … I signed the petition.” Even the kids were saying, “They look so sad.”
Though denied by Dick Andrew, the vice president for marketing for Lagoon, UARC has found critical violations cited by USDA for various deaths at the zoo. Tippy, a brown bear, endured second-degree burns on his face from the passing train’s scalding steam. In 2018, a baby elk got into an adjacent bison enclosure. “It was gored so badly they had to euthanize it when they found it was still alive,” Meyer says.
Lagoon tried to appeal the USDA’s violation that ruled the baby elk’s cause of death to be recklessness. The information of the event became public in 2018 and UARC gathered flowers and laid them on the sidewalk near where the elk was killed. “They don’t want these things to become public. They know we pay attention,” Meyers says.
The USDA has issued over 20 citations to Lagoon since 1997 for failing to comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act. These citings include repeat animal deaths, employee injury after inadequate training, withholding treatment to animals, husbandry practices that result in death, slaughter or mistreatment, and excessively filthy living conditions.
Groups such as UARC, Direct Action, and many park patrons have made phone calls and signed petitions for the removal of the ride and the release of the animals to sanctuary. In UARC’s most recent petition, 50,000 out of 75,000 people have signed for the removal of the unregulated zoo. UARC is fighting for a boycott of Lagoon because by supporting the park, even if they are not riding the Wild Animal train, patrons are implicit in its funding.
Meyers, UARC members, and Jeremy Beckham, the director of UARC, will continue monitoring Lagoon’s actions and care of the animals they keep. Meyers encourages those who are learning about animal exploitation to check out the UARC Facebook, Instagram, and website to learn more. UARC also hosts SLC VegFest, a free event happening on September 11, 2021, where people can enjoy vegan food, educational resources, and a community of animal advocates.