Orphan Trade

How zoos play a part in Native Alaskan 'subsistence' hunts

In Alaska, indigenous groups permitted by the government to hunt the federally protected walrus for their own subsistence have attracted a surprising scavenger: zoos -- which go on the hunts in order to "save" orphaned animals. But critics worry that the zoos end up actually choreographing the hunts.

A publication of the Cincinnati Zoo once recounted how "three little orphaned walrus pups were rescued." What it didn't explain was how the zoo paid Native Alaskans $25,000 for expenses and to go along with them on a May 1996 "rescue" expedition. The hunters killed four female walruses with pups. Three pups were retrieved for the zoo and a fourth was killed after zoo employees said it was the wrong sex.

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This made the Cincinnati Zoo one of four U.S. organizations, with the Indianapolis Zoo, Marine World, and the New York Aquarium, to collect orphaned walrus pups under permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS allows only incidentally orphaned pups to be captured during the hunts.

But the Native Alaskan who led the zoo's excursion, Clarence Waghiyi, said in March that he knew the zoo wanted a male and two females, that he and other hunters deliberately targeted female walruses with pups (under its permit, the zoo could collect up to three females but only one male, so a second captured male pup was killed for food), and that it was not a normal subsistence hunt, but an expedition paid for by the zoo. He then recanted these points in a faxed memo, after a zoo manager learned he had spoken with a reporter. Meanwhile, the zoo insists that female walruses with pups were not targeted, and that the zoo had not directed the Native Alaskans' activities.

But Caleb Pungowiyi of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents Native hunting villages and which has worked with the Cincinnati Zoo, says Natives focus on getting what the organizations want -- and most often that means intentionally killing female walruses with pups. "Waiting for a legitimate orphan, I think, would be time-consuming," he says. FWS officials say its regulators have not seen any evidence to suggest that their permits are being violated. But at press time, the Humane Society of the United States was preparing a letter of protest to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and a request to the FWS that it ban zoos from collecting orphans from subsistence hunts. "I would argue that if you weren't offering any monetary compensation, [the hunters] wouldn't do it for you," says Naomi Rose, a Humane Society scientist. "The minute money's involved, who's kidding who?"

Nancy Firor is an assistant editor at Cincinnati CityBeat, which published her original investigation of the Cincinnati Zoo's walrus "rescue."