‘Fleas were eating animals alive:’ California zoo let animals slowly die, PETA says

Animal rights activists are calling for an animal cruelty investigation at a zoo in Bakersfield, California, after three animals died there — one starving skunk this year, and two flea-infested fisher cats last year.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools runs the roadside zoo, which is called the California Living Museum, according to PETA, the animal rights advocacy organization that called for the Sheriff’s Office to launch an investigation into the zoo and its operators on Wednesday.

“Any reasonable animal care facility would notice if an animal were starving to death or if fleas were eating animals alive,” Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement, said in a statement. Peet asked authorities “to hold the California Living Museum responsible for the neglect that led to these animals’ slow, painful deaths.”

Peet wrote in a July 10 letter to Kern County Sheriff Don Youngblood that the zoo “subjected the animals to ‘unnecessary cruelty’ and ‘needless suffering’ ... in violation of California law prohibiting cruelty to animals.”

Representatives for the California Living Museum said in a statement responding to PETA that they “strongly disagree with PETA’s allegations of animal cruelty at CALM. We would like to assure the community that we work tirelessly to provide the best care possible for our animals and consider their health and welfare to be our top priority.”

The zoo’s statement said the facility “has cared for tens of thousands of animals in our community with passion and commitment, and we do a great job,” though “animal deaths do occur.” Over the last year, the zoo said it has worked to improve conditions, including adding a full-time animal keeper, increasing on-site veterinary care and adding trained docents and volunteers.

Kern County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Angela Monroe wrote in an email to McClatchy that “based on the complaint, we will conduct a preliminary investigation, and forward any reports to appropriate authorities.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports at the zoo, which were obtained by PETA and posted online, found that in the 2018 fisher cat deaths “failure to treat health conditions may lead to unnecessary pain and distress in animals, and in this case, their death.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report after the skunk’s February 2019 death said that a “records review revealed an uncharacteristically high mortality rate at this facility since” the beginning of 2018. Records said there were “no food or feces in the intestinal tract” of the skunk and that it showed signs of a viral infection.

“Both the curator and the skunk caretaker on duty at the time of the inspection stated that there was no procedure in place to ensure that all the animals in shared enclosures were eating,” according to the second report, which was completed in April 2019.

The report on the fisher cats’ deaths said the animals died in the spring of 2018 “after staff failed to treat them for a severe flea infestation.” That report found that in a note on April 3, 2018, a caretaker wrote of two fisher cats: “...Also observed a lot of scratching today. May want to consider flea meds, if possible...”

But a curator said “no action was taken” about the scratching and the animals were found dead on April 23 and May 3, according to the report.

The first fisher cat to die didn’t get a necropsy from a veterinarian, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report said, but the second cat did — and the animal’s necropsy report suggested a severe flea infestation: “...OPENED BAG THOUSANDS OF FLEAS - FROZE BODY OVERNIGHT TO KILL … External exam: thousands of fleas...”

PETA said the organization wrote to Kern County schools urging the superintendent to “to transfer the surviving animals (at the California Living Museum) to reputable facilities. PETA offered its assistance in finding appropriate placements for the animals, but that offer was refused on July 9.”

The zoo also said in its statement responding to PETA that the animal rights group’s “stated position is that they are against all animals in captivity and are opposed to zoos. We trust the community will support CALM as we continuously work to enhance our local zoo.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.