Case Study: Tropical Inc.
Warning: contains images some readers may find upsetting
Tropical Inc. advertises itself as “an award winning professional company” which is “dedicated to increasing awareness and fascination for all types of exotic animals”. Animal presenters travel the country offering a “mobile zoo” service where people can get up close and personal with a range of wild animals, including meerkats, porcupines, coatis, skunks and a host of reptiles and invertebrates. The company also claims to offer a “good home” to animals in need and has been described in press as a “sanctuary”. Photographs of healthy animals being handled by beaming children and adults alike adorn the website and Facebook page for Tropical Inc and gushing reviews thank the animal handlers for educational and enjoyable experiences at schools, fetes and events up and down the country.
But this happy charade came to an abrupt end for Tropical Inc’s owner, Steve Rowlands, on Thursday 14th November 2013 as he was convicted in Worcester Magistrates Court of 34 offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and a handful of offences under regulations in place to prevent the illegal trade in endangered species. The conditions that over 70 animals in Rowlands’ care were living in were described by the presiding judge as “unspeakable”.
Many people have serious concerns over the use of animals as living props at events or “educational” talks, arguing that being poked, prodded and handled on a daily basis has the potential to seriously compromise the welfare of the animals involved. Others, including the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), the charity which launched the mobile zoo campaign in early 2014, believe that using animals in this way is not only a serious welfare concern but is also ethically unacceptable. Despite differing views on whether these “mobile zoo” businesses should exist at all, it is fair to assume that those people paying Rowlands for his services were horrified when the living conditions for the animals that were supposed to be cared for by him were revealed.
Behind closed doors, the court heard that the animals used by Tropical Inc. lived in filthy cages, one stacked on top of another, in pitch black, unheated rooms with the windows boarded up. It was alleged that water was not even provided. Some animals, an ex-employee maintains, were in these rooms for up to two years. Fed dead chicks and dried dog food, the cage floors were littered with rotting carcasses and the smell of ammonia from urine was said to be overpowering as the door to the hidden rooms containing the animals were opened.
Acting fast to save the animals
Pictures detailing the horrific plight of the animals were provided to CAPS by a brave whistleblower in the closing days of 2012. Photos showed genets in cramped carriers, meerkats and coatis in tiny cages; all sitting in their own faeces and urine. CAPS staff were told that the meerkats all had ammonia burns and some had already died. Two endangered cotton-topped tamarins stared dolefully out of their bird cage home with a single light hanging above them. Shortly after the photo was taken, rats allegedly chewed the hanging cable, plunging the animals into darkness and leaving live electric wires hanging in reaching distance of the small monkeys. If they had grabbed them, they could have been killed. The court heard that the monkeys required UV light and daily supplements to prevent the onset of painful and debilitating osteoporosis. Neither were provided to them.
The ex-worker told CAPS that the owner did not have official paperwork for the tamarins, which belong to an endangered species, meaning that were not used in public displays and so they never left that dark room. Along with the genets, meerkats and monkeys, parrots, reptiles and birds of prey spent their days in the boarded-up rooms.
At trial, the court heard that at least one bird of prey had been tethered so long without being allowed to fly or move that he had been forced to defecate on himself. The build-up of faeces on his talons required a vet to anaesthetise him to remove the painful lumps that had been preventing him from properly using his feet. An owl, it was alleged, lived for at least three weeks in a tiny wooden box with just three air holes in the top. Two snakes were suffering with “mouth rot” and a turtle had incurable shell rot.
Shockingly, a local authority inspector had visited the site but was reportedly not shown the rooms where the animals were languishing. Indeed, when asked by officials, the court heard that Rowlands and his partner claimed that no animals were kept at the premises. Complaints by the former worker to the council a month previously were said to have come to nothing and she had come to CAPS as a last resort when she could not find anyone to help her or the animals.Said CAPS Director, Liz Tyson:
“On receiving the photos and discussing the detail of the heartbreaking case with the worker, we knew we had to act fast to help get the animals out. Contacting colleagues at the RSPCA and providing them with all the information needed, within just one hour, things were happening. With liaison between the whistleblower, the police and the RSPCA, a joint approach allowed information to be passed on as efficiently as possible and, on the 3rd January, the police and the RSPCA officers raided the premises with a warrant and removed over 70 animals to safety. We have been told that the health of some of the animals was sadly so poor that they had to be euthanised to avoid further suffering”.
Business owner not banned from keeping animals
Worryingly, and despite the seriousness of the offences, Rowlands was not disqualified from owning animals altogether which means he can continue to use animals in his business if he chooses. The court heard that Rowlands still intends to open an education centre on his land in Dunhampton, Droitwich, which would involve live animals. CAPS has contacted the local council to establish more information on the plans, having raised concerns over 18 months ago when Tropical Inc. first announced plans to set up a permanent operation.
Ms Tyson said after the trial:
“We were very pleased to see the seriousness of the offences reflected in the custodial nature of the sentence, albeit suspended, and also that the defendant was ordered to pay significant costs. We were also immensely relieved to hear that the animals that suffered for so long at Rowlands’ hands will not be returned to him. We remain concerned, however, for the other animals that are currently being used by Tropical Inc, and those that will be used in the future. We firmly believe that the defendant should have been disqualified from keeping animals altogether”.
The whistleblower expressed her gratitude for CAPS’ support in ensuring that the Rowlands was brought to justice, saying:
“CAPS were the only ones that listened to me and without them the seizure never would have gone ahead and the animals wouldn’t have been saved. I can’t thank them enough; they are an amazing charity and amazing people”.
The CAPS team paid tribute to the RSPCA and Wildlife Crime Unit for their hard work and investment in ensuring the concerns raised were dealt with and brought to trial. The animals have been housed at the RSPCA’s expense since their seizure.
The campaign to educate parents and teachers, as well as to seek protection for the animals currently used in this industry can only continue with the support of compassionate members of the public. If you are able to make a donation, however small, to help CAPS continue its work for animals, please click HERE. Many thanks.