Protecting Wild Lives
Julie Woodyer has been working as the Campaigns Director for Zoocheck since 1999. Her role involves in-depth work protecting wild animals in captivity and species that are threatened in the wild. Julie has led a variety of campaigns that have successfully improved laws that affect animals in captivity, including being instrumental in getting the elephants at the Toronto Zoo moved to a sanctuary.
Julie Woodyer has been vegan for decades. From a young age, she’s wanted to do what she can to protect animals, so once she understood how animals are exploited and abused, taking them off her plate was the start of her commitment to do so. She points out, however, that it’s difficult for most of us to be completely vegan. For example, if we drive vehicles, do we know that animals weren’t used for testing by that car manufacturer?
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“There are many products that go into automobiles that have been tested on animals. And I take up a little piece of habitat. I try to take as little as possible, so there are things that I'm doing that I certainly don't consider vegan. I try to make my footprint as light as possible. I rarely talk about being vegan because I'm aware of the impacts I continue to have on the natural world and animals. Hopefully, some of that is compensated for by the other work that I do for a living, which helps relieve the suffering of certain animals.”
Julie once volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary that rehabilitates injured or sick wildlife and releases them back to their natural habitat. But she saw how ludicrous it was to serve meat at fundraisers. “To me, that's pretty backwards because essentially you're raising the money off the suffering of one animal to try to relieve the suffering of another who had lived wild lives to start with, so they had a decent life, and they were going to go on to that wild life again and make their way in the world. Whereas the animals that were being cooked on the barbecue at those events had never had any of that luxury. Not even for a moment did they have their own life. You can't possibly compare animals that have lived free and will continue to live free again against animals that have been enslaved their entire lives and suffered in that enslavement in some of the worst conditions that any of us can imagine, only to go to slaughter and die in terrifying ways.”
This is all too common. For example, SPCA fundraising events often include barbeques or lobster boils and, as Julie points out, they cater to those who are still unaware of the abuse animals for food are subjected to. As she points out, these organizers mean well but they have yet to make the connection. How do we do that in a productive way?
“It's a very touchy subject. It has to be addressed, in my view, in a respectful and empathetic way without judgment against what they're doing, which is difficult. If I voice my real thought, ‘I don't like that you're boiling lobsters to raise money for cats and dogs’ they'll just say, ‘Oh, you're just one of the vegan police.’ It's better to say, ‘Would you let me help you figure out a way that we can do this a little bit differently that will help you, your event and those animals at the same time?’ The way I put it to them is that some people might be concerned about the lobster's welfare.”
Over the years of doing this work, Julie has learned to be cautious about the language she uses. She says that the term ‘animal rights’ has also come to have a bad reputation in recent years, despite most people worldwide agreeing that animals have some rights. For example, she says that here in Canada, most people think the animals we commonly have in our homes as companion animals have the “right not to be tortured.” But vegans go beyond this and think that all animals should have the right to a life free from abuse, exploitation, imprisonment or to be slaughtered for human consumption.
Zoocheck is a non-profit advocating for wild animals in captivity, exotic pets, and wild animals that are abused or killed under the guise of wildlife management. Julie arrived at her position as Campaigns Director by volunteering her skills as an accountant to animal groups. Her work as an auditor for a chartered accountant firm was not fulfilling, so about 30 years ago she began volunteering her time with Animal Alliance, Zoocheck, Vancouver Humane Society when she lived there, and Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, something she did for a decade of her life. She also helped humane societies and even launched her own cat and dog adoption program when she initially became involved with helping animals in need. If anyone questions her background and assumes all she knows is ‘numbers’, she has years of lived experience to point to, along with having worked as an Ontario SPCA inspector for many years. There’s no doubt she knows what she’s talking about. Now with 30+ years of speaking up for wild animals, she’s an expert on the subject of animal neglect, abuse, and exploitation.
When it comes to more specific expertise, Zoocheck hires niche experts. “If we're looking at a particular species, say we want to resolve an issue for tigers, we find the best tiger biologist we can in the world, no matter what country they're in, and we engage them to assist. It's the best way to have the biggest impact on the people that are decision-makers, that are going to make changes.”
One project Julie is proud of is getting the elephants at the Toronto Zoo, including Tina, moved to a sanctuary in California. Julie took on all the lobbying needed to get the elephants to a better environment, and she was instrumental in developing the transportation plan to ensure their safe arrival. This high-profile campaign that saw Bob Barker get involved, meant Julie had to do some “political maneuvering” and become “media savvy” to deal with all the moving parts.
“The zoo kept engaging the media in these big press conferences, and that gave us a greater profile to talk about the issues in captivity, not just for elephants. It changed the narrative. Prior to doing that campaign, a common question I would get in almost every interview is ‘Are you trying to close down zoos?’ We were able to say, we're talking about the impact on these animals. We're talking about taking an animal that lives in a warm climate, a highly social, highly intelligent animal that is evolved to travel over long distances and has a complex life and sequestering them in Canada in very small spaces, and in the winter, even smaller spaces, standing on hard substrates that create severe infections in their feet that causes their early mortality. By the time that campaign was done and those animals were moved, people were thinking, If it's that bad for elephants, I wonder about the gorillas or the giraffes.”
Most Canadians know the plight of Lucy, the lonely elephant at the Edmonton Zoo, but despite efforts to get her relocated, including a visit with Bob Barker several years ago, the Edmonton Zoo will not release Lucy to live out her remaining days in a more appropriate environment. Because she’s made to suffer through Edmonton winters, her remaining days may be few, but Zoocheck continues to fight for this lonely elephant.
In addition to Lucy, there are two zoos in Quebec that house elephants. Again, Quebec is hardly the right environment for elephants; their lives are typically shortened by a few decades due to Canadian winters. In March of 2022, one of the zoos said they will relocate their two female and one male African elephants sometime “in the next few years.” It’s a small step forward for these elephants, and it can’t come soon enough.
Then there’s African Lion Safari located in Cambridge, Ontario. “They have at least 16 elephants, and the reason I say at least is because Canada has no reporting [requirement] for privately owned zoos. There's no way to access the information on how many births there may have been at African Lion Safari because their animals are not all on display. They keep them in a back area. Some could have been born, some could have died. A couple of years ago, African Lion Safari tried to sell a couple of elephants for $1,000,000 each and more if one of them was pregnant. But that got shut down pretty quick because Zoocheck and some groups in the US made it very public about how this was essentially commercializing elephants and creating a market for the sale of elephants, even between zoos.”
When I spoke with Julie in September of 2022, Zoocheck was working on the Jane Goodall Act that required many experts in the specific species it would impact. The act, reintroduced in March 2022, was revised to include more than 800 species. This law would make it illegal to import, confine, and breed wild animals in facilities across Canada, and it would rework a law already on the books about importing ivory and other ‘trophies’ of wild and often endangered species. Additionally, the Jane Goodall Act would give legal status to great apes—one of the reasons Jane Goodall’s name is attached—elephants, whales and dolphins. This is a piece of legislation that’s been a long time coming, and Ontario is the worst offender when it comes to lax laws and wild animals suffering as a result.
“We essentially have no laws for captive wildlife unless there's a municipal bylaw that prohibits or restricts certain species from being kept or regulates it. So essentially Ontario has become like the wild west of wild animal keeping.”
This is why Zoocheck is pushing for the Jane Goodall Act. “Although it certainly won’t protect all species of animals, it protects many species that are problematic in captivity.” As of this writing, six months since I spoke with Julie, there has been no forward movement with the act; Senator Plett is slowing down the process.
Part Two will be published on April 23rd where I share about our visit to the Elmvale Jungle Zoo.
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