An animal-rights group announced Wednesday it has lodged a federal complaint saying that a recently opened hippopotamus attraction at the Los Angeles Zoo violates federal law by allowing visitors to come into contact with a hippo family.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the Los Angeles Zoo's "Hippo Encounter" tour, saying the attraction violates the Animal Welfare Act and puts the safety of the hippos and the public at risk.
Zoo spokeswoman April Spurlock said the hippo encounter follows the federal law. She said there is a "protective barrier" between the hippos and visitors, staff are always on hand to monitor the exhibit and guests are "briefed by educational staff on proper safety measures and how to behave around animals," she said.
"Most importantly, it is always the animal's choice to participate in the experience and to interact with guests," Spurlock said.
The 20-minute tour, priced at $15 per person, gives zoo patrons the opportunity to observe a 15-month-old hippo and her mother at close range as zoo keepers feed and care for them. It includes an opportunity to feel the hippos' skin and take a photo with them.
Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian with PETA, described the zoo attraction as "reckless and irresponsible," and a violation of federal law.
Hippos are "widely regarded as the most dangerous animals in Africa," with attacks typically resulting in fatalities, Rally said. Videos of the tour show a "barrier of sorts" that uses bars set apart as the sole separation between the animals and zoo-goers, according to Rally.
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"Those bars are so wide, the children could easily squeeze through or be pulled through by an animal if it decided to attack," she said.
Rally said the federal Animal Welfare Act requires there be "sufficient distance and/or barriers between the animal and the general viewing public so as to assure the safety of the animals and the public."
The law also requires that for "potentially dangerous animals" a fence should be erected that "protects the animals in the facility by restricting animals and unauthorized persons from going through it or under it and having contact with the animals in the facility."