Debate: do Lagoon animals receive adequate care?

Lagoon houses several big cats in their Wild Animal Train attraction. Over 200,000 people have signed a petition protesting, claiming Lagoon’s animals are not given proper shelters or care. (Amy Meyer)

Editor’s note: This story pairs with “Lagoon has long history of animal protests”

Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition protesting Lagoon theme park’s caged animals. Lagoon says its animals are well-treated and that they take the care of their animals “very, very seriously.”

Lagoon’s Wild Kingdom Train attraction, which takes visitors along a track passing cages of exotic animals, contains over 40 animals, many of which are hoofstock. They also have a  collection of big cats, including two white tigers.

Amy Meyer, a director of Utah Animal Rights Coalition, said the protests she has attended are made up of a diverse community.

“People who don’t know each other are doing this,” Meyer said. “It’s not just our animal rights community anymore — it’s people from all walks of life who are against this.”

Despite the protests, Lagoon continues to meet or surpass USDA regulations for its Wild Kingdom Train attraction. Lagoon’s media representative, Adam Leishman, said, “I honestly could not say the animals are well-treated if it wasn’t true.”

For a full-length video of the Wild Kingdom Train, watch the video below created by TheThemeParkPOV.

Protestors’ viewpoint

Meyer said her and other protestors’ ultimate goal is to convince Lagoon to retire its animals to sanctuaries.

“This isn’t about education,” she said. “This isn’t about conservation. It’s not about a fun ride. It’s just about agony for these animals.”

Bernie Garcia feels strongly enough about Lagoon’s animals that he decided to make a documentary on the issue. The title? “Lagloom.”

“I would definitely say ‘Blackfish’ is inspiration,” Garcia said, referring to the documentary protesting against Sea World’s orca program. “I felt like a documentary is the best way we could connect with the general population. A lot of people are getting turned on to animal rights.”

The documentary has been years in the making. Garcia said he and his team are about 80 percent done with shooting, but they ran into a road bump when their documentary website was hacked.

Garcia said their website was “beautiful” and was raising support for their film, but it began getting hacked and was shut down multiple times.

Provo resident Joshua Faulkner has participated in roadside protests against the Wild Kingdom Train.

“I’m a little biased because I’ve dedicated lots of time to making the world a better place for animals,” Faulkner said. “But the mistreatment of Lagoon’s animals is a cause that many people, from all walks of life, can get behind.”

Meyer said Lagoon is not a healthy environment for wild animals.

“There’s all this loud typical amusement park activity, roller coasters and screaming,” Meyer said. “It’s just about the most unnatural environment you can picture for these animals. It’s basically a roadside zoo inside an amusement park.”

Meyer said while she does not support animal captivity as a whole, she sees Lagoon on a different level than other zoos.

Utah Animal Rights Coalition Director Amy Meyer discusses her reasons for opposing Lagoon’s caged animal attraction. (McKenna Park)

Supporters’ viewpoint

Leishman said he has dealt with Lagoon protestors over the years.

“I think people are interested in the welfare of the animals; I can sympathize with that,” he said, adding his belief of a misconception that the animals are abused or mistreated in some way. 

Leishman said when he encounters anyone concerned about Lagoon’s animals, he tries to reassure them the animals are treated well. 

Leishman said Lagoon’s animals have a full-time zookeeper staff who provide regular veterinary care, including lead zookeeper, who formerly worked at Hogle Zoo. 

When asked if the attraction was worth the monetary costs of upkeep, Leishman said the ride “remains one of the most popular attractions of the park. It’s one of the things the guests expect, so it’s worth it to upkeep it.”

Leishman said many of the animals at Lagoon were rescued.

“We feel a lot of responsibility for the animals here,” he said. “They mostly came from abysmal circumstances.”

Amelie Blair, who worked as a ride operator for the Wild Kingdom Train in 1991 and 1992, said she loved the attraction.

“Most rides only require you to press a button,” Blair said. “The train — being a real steam engine train — requires more than that. It takes practice and time to work.”

Blair does not share the same negative views toward the attraction as protesters do.

“I gained a love for all of the animals,” Blair said, not commenting on the protests surrounding the attraction.

When The Daily Universe requested interviews with other current Lagoon employees, Leishman responded, “It is our policy that any company business is to be handled by an authorized spokesperson.” Nathan Lyman, a current operator of the Wild Kingdom Train, responded similarly: “I’m sorry. I’m unauthorized to speak on behalf of Lagoon.”

Social media

Park attenders have taken to social media to share their views on the attraction. While more people post to voice their objection to the ride, some also post to show their support. 

Over 100 supporters follow a Facebook page called Friends of the Lagoon Railroad, while a Facebook page called Stop Imprisoning Animals! Lagoon Amusement Park has over 4,000 followers.

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USDA Citations

Protestors point to USDA citations as one of the reasons they protest Lagoon’s animal attraction.

However, while Lagoon was cited during USDA inspections more often in the 1990s and 2000s, it has not received a citation since 2013.

Lagoon was cited by the USDA several times in the 90s and 00s, but it has not received a citation for five years. (McKenna Park)

Lagoon’s animal attraction currently passes USDA requirements, but it is not considered an official zoo and is therefore not required to meet the same requirements as other zoos.

Hogle Zoo Community Relations Manager Erica Hansen clarified the difference between Lagoon and certified zoos.

“We do not consider ourselves anywhere in the same ballpark as Lagoon — they are an amusement park, not a zoo,” Hansen said. “We are also accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and they’d never pass such stringent guidelines.”

Some notable citations include one on Aug. 18, 2013, when a wildebeest gored the leg of an animal keeper, hospitalizing him in serious condition.

A buffalo lies in the shade at its home in Lagoon. (Amy Meyer)

When asked about USDA citations, Leishman said the park has regular inspections from the USDA and operate within its guidelines.

“If there is an issue or concern, we will immediately address it without fail,” Leishman said.

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