ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Life in Animal Kingdom, Disney’s newest theme park, has been a real jungle for its inhabitants.
Still two weeks away from the April 22 opening, the tally of dead animals includes four cheetah cubs, two rhinoceroses, two hippopotamuses, three herd animals and two West African crown cranes that were run over by park tour buses.
“What we’re talking about and experiencing is what you really can’t plan for in many cases and that is the unknowns in dealing with exotic animals,” Disney spokesman Bill Warren said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewed most of the deaths and found no violations of federal animal welfare regulations. “Upon inspection of the records all the animals were receiving proper care under the animal welfare act, which means they had access to vets and treatment for any problems that occurred,” USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said.
The park, Disney’s largest at 500 acres, is being touted to become one of the nation’s pre-eminent zoos with a collection that includes endangered rhinos, elephants and a troop of gorillas.
Animal experts Disney recruited from around the country constitute a who’s who in zoology and conservation.
“They have the best managers, the best animal people up there, but they may be suffering a little from `get it ready, get it open, because we’ve got to meet this date,'” said Ron Magill, communications director of Miami’s Metrozoo. “That’s no fault of the animal people. It’s just the pressure of the business.”
In the case of the cheetah deaths, which were blamed on a chemical commonly found in antifreeze, Disney officials found no evidence of sabotage or that any antifreeze was involved.
Officials learned of similar cheetah deaths at other animal parks and are working with other institutes to research whether the cubs had a physiological reaction to their food.
Richard Farinato, director of captive wildlife protection programs for the Humane Society of the United States, said the deaths were worrisome considering that Disney hired some of the best zoo talent in the nation.
“They are basically the top end of the profession,” Farinato said. “If I were these people I’d be looking at these things and shaking my head and saying, `What the hell’s going on here?'”