“Yankee Jungle” — an Animal Planet reality show about a family-run zoo in Mount Vernon, Maine — will not be returning for season 3, according to a Mother Jones story published earlier this month. The discontinuation of the show follows multiple public protests against the show, as well as a large online petition telling Animal Planet to “drop the show.”
I visited the Maine zoo in 2014 to write about “Yankee Jungle” for the Bangor Daily News. At the time, it was called DEW Animal Kingdom and Sanctuary, but I see that the family has since changed its name to DEW Haven.
The couple who run the place — Bob and Julie Miner — were genuinely friendly and kind. They made me laugh. Their family seemed tight-knit and hardworking. And it was clear to me that they loved their animals.
Here’s a video BDN photographer Ashley Conti created during the visit:
As I sat at their kitchen table, I tried to pay attention to our conversation, not the baby lemur climbing on Bob and Julie’s shoulders. They were raising the lemur indoors for the winter, and it was a mischievous little devil. Most of the time, it needed to stay in its cage, but they let it out on occasion.
I remember Bob and Julie telling me that they enjoyed working with Lone Wolf Media to film the TV show “Yankee Jungle,” but that they were concerned about the negative comments that people were sending them about the show. They’d received hate mail and angry phone calls from people who didn’t agree with them displaying exotic animals and allowing them to breed in captivity.
Coming into the interview, I didn’t know just how controversial the zoo was. Even before “Yankee Jungle” aired, DEW Haven had gathered a wide following of supporters — and nonsupporters.
On Facebook, DEW Haven has more than 37,000 followers, and most of the comments on their posts are supportive of the zoo.
People who are against DEW Haven have also gathered online.
An online Care2 petition for Animal Planet to drop “Yankee Jungle” was started about six months ago by Kristina Snyder of Concord, New Hampshire, and has since gathered more than 114,000 online signatures.
On Aug. 29, 2015, Snyder organized a small protest in South Portland against the alleged cruelties behind the show.
So when the show’s creator’s, Lone Wolf Media, posted on Facebook on March 7 that “there are currently no plans for any further episodes of Yankee Jungle,” Snyder announced on the petition page that their efforts had been a “success.”
“We did it!” Snyder posted. “Animal Planet listened and did not renew a contract for a third season.”
Now, Animal Planet representatives have not attributed the discontinuation of the show to the petition. But, according to the Mother Jones story, the show’s creators have stated that the discontinuation of the show is due to new focus or “direction” in the channel’s programming.
The movement against DEW Haven hasn’t end with the show. Snyder has started up another online petition, one “demanding action against the backyard breeding zoo – DEW Haven.”
In the petition description, Snyder states that DEW Haven “breeds their animals, takes the babies from their mothers, and exploits them for profit.” She also states that “the conditions at DEW are horrible: rotting carcasses, inadequate fencing, and dismal cages.”
I will insert here, inspired by comments on this post below, that I did not see any rotting carcasses when I visited DEW Haven in February of 2014 — but then, it was absolutely freezing outside. I did see one cow carcass in the tiger pen, and the tiger was doing a number on it. The enclosures seemed large to me, though a number of exotic animals were being kept in smaller enclosures in a warm building for the winter. However, I know nothing about the needs of different exotic animals and what their enclosures should look like.
The Miners themselves lived in a warm but modest home on site, and it was clear to me that they devoted most of their resources to the animals. They talked to me about how important donations and volunteers are to their facility, and even pointed out a “wish list” they post on their website for simple supplies, food and equipment that they need to operate, so that if someone feels uncomfortable donating money, they can always donate items to the animals.
Back to the petition.
Specifically, this petition targets Jim Connolly, Wildlife Director of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. It asks Connolly and the department to “take charge and protect these animals.
The most recent update on the petition site, posted 16 days ago, states that the DIF&W has not responded to the petitioners’ emails.
I attempted to contact Connolly today to ask him about the petition, but he wasn’t in the office.
The petition highlights one controversial event that occurred in July 2014. Three tiger triplets were born at DEW Haven and visitors over the age of 18 were allowed to handle and feed these young wildcats, as long as they remained quiet, after paying a $50 fee.
I wrote about the event for the BDN, then followed it on social media. Many people expressed gratitude and support for DEW Haven for facilitating such an unforgettable experience. (Deep down, who doesn’t want to hold a tiger cub?) But other people, such as Snyder, took issue with the situation, stating that it was “a clear violation of their exhibit permit.”
I’m no expert on captive wildlife regulations, let alone regulations for housing exotic or endangered animals, such as tigers. But I looked up Maine’s Regulations for Wildlife in Captivity, and it states that “handling of animals shall be done as expeditiously and carefully as possible, in such a way as to avoid unnecessary discomfort, behavioral stress, or physical harm to the animal…”
So it’s no surprise that DIF&W asked DEW Haven to stop allowing people to handle the cubs. It disappointed people, I’m sure. But if you really think about it, should visitors be handling wild, exotic, endangered, young, captive animals for no other reason but personal entertainment? I’d love to hold a tiger cub, but isn’t that just me being selfish?
Questions I ask myself
I’ve always been an animal lover. I love pets, and I love wild animals. And I feel extremely fortunate to have a job in which I deal with both on a fairly regular basis. For the BDN Outdoors, I often write about and photograph wildlife, and in doing so, it seems that I’m always trying to navigate important boundaries.
For example, when I visit a field to photograph snowy owls, I ask myself, How close should I get to the birds? How close is too close? And after having the opportunity to hold a puffin while scientists collected important data, I asked myself, Should I post that photo on Facebook? Does it send the wrong message?
Once I visited an wildlife rehabber on Mount Desert Island to write a story, and she wouldn’t allow me to see a baby deer she was bottle feeding in the back room. In fact, she wouldn’t let me see any animal that she was rehabilitating. That was hard for me to accept, but she explained that she didn’t want the animals to become habituated to people. A wild animal with no fear of humans tends to get into more trouble when they’re released back into the wild.
It was a good lesson.
A wild animal is a wild animal. And over the years, I’ve learned the importance of treating them as such. I don’t always make the right decisions, I’m sure, but I try.
This brings me back to February 2014, when I visited DEW Haven, which the Miners define as an animal sanctuary or haven, not a rehabilitation facility. They often take in animals that are no longer wanted by zoos but cannot be released back into the wild. They simply wouldn’t survive, usually because they don’t have the skills to hunt for food and protect themselves, or they’re habituated to humans.
After our conversation in the kitchen, I followed Bob outside and he led me to the enclosure of a full-grown tiger. The tiger came up to the chainlink fence and rubbed its side along it so that its thick orange and black fur stuck through. To me, it looked like the animal loved Bob. He blew in its face, and it licked his hand through the fence.
Then, to my surprise, Bob guided my hand toward the magnificent creature and let me run my fingers through its fur. The whole exchange was marvelous and captivating, it was easy to forget that this was a wild, powerful and severely endangered creature. But something about it didn’t sit well with me afterward.
We also visited two black bears that day. Bob called them out of their shelter, even as his wife, Julie, scolded him to stop because the bears were trying to hibernate. One of the bears walked slowly over to us and licked our hands. Again — it was wonderful, but to me, it felt wrong. This was a wild black bear, not a pet. Nature was telling it to sleep, but we’d woken it up.
I felt uncomfortable, but I didn’t say anything. At the time, I didn’t know what to say.
I had been invited to DEW Haven to write about their show, “Yankee Jungle,” so I returned to the newsroom and that’s what I did. In the story, I didn’t mention the awkwardness I felt while interacting with the animals. I couldn’t really put my finger on what had bothered me about it all.
In hindsight, we were too close to the animals, we weren’t giving them the respect and space that I believe wild animals should have. But it’s complicated, and I still have a hard time putting it into words. In the two years since I visited DEW Haven, I’ve dealt with many wildlife professionals, from biologists to wildlife rehabbers to the folks at Maine Wildlife Refuge in Gray. I’ve seen how they treat animals, and I’ve learned a great deal about the difference between a wild animal and a domestic animal.
My experiences with Maine wildlife have stirred some questions about human-wildlife relations, such as: How often do we unintentionally harm animals due to our ignorance? How should we treat wild animals that are in captivity? Should wild animals even be in captivity? Is it possible to love a wild animal to death?
I don’t have answer for you. But all this online hubbub about “Yankee Jungle” and DEW Haven got me reflecting and questioning my actions (which I think is important if we’re going to question the actions of others).
I hope this blog does the same for you.