Animal advocate and award winning author Rob Laidlaw has devoted his life to helping animals. While not everyone can commit as much time and effort as he does to helping animals, Rob believes all of us can make a difference. “Anyone can help.”
I learned about Rob and his charitable organization Zoocheck many years ago. So, when author and friend Sylvia McNicoll shared her story about Rob and how kind he was to her, I took a chance and emailed him, asking if he would be willing to share his story for my blog. Not only did he agree, he offered to speak with me!
While he spoke, I scrambled to make notes. Everything he said hit a chord with me. I didn’t want to miss any of it. I hope you enjoy reading this story as much I did writing it.
Rob Laidlaw was born in Toronto, Ontario. As far back as he can remember, he was always interested in animals and the environment.
As a kid, Rob read every book about animals and the environment in both his school and public library. He laughs that, back then, there weren’t very many such books.
The more he read, the more he learned, and the more his appetite for knowledge grew. He wrote away to groups such as Compassion in World Farming, Beauty Without Cruelty and the Animal Protection Institute, hoping to learn more about animal protections issues. This was pre-internet, pre-email, but eventually a long-awaited reply would arrive in the mail. With his growing knowledge of animals and how they were treated, Rob decided he wanted to do something to help them.
In 1981, he attended an early incarnation of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). He saw a film called The Animal’s Film, a disturbing documentary that provided a comprehensive look at the exploitation of animals in modern society. Rob described the film like this, “Imagine the worst things humans could do to animals, and what the film showed was 100, maybe 1000, times worse.” It detailed explicit and systemic animal cruelty and neglect, such as what animals endure on factory farms. Fortunately, it was not just an endless account of human cruelty. The film ended with a call to action. It featured groups trying to help animals in various ways.
Rob left the film with one thought, “I can’t know all of this and not try to help.”
Thus, began his search for groups to work with. But back then, there weren’t many animal advocacy groups in Canada. Groups like PETA didn’t exist.
With no animal advocacy groups operating in Toronto, he began his own investigations of animals in laboratories, factory farms and slaughterhouses.
In 1984, Rob was driving around the south shore of Georgian Bay in Ontario when he came upon the now defunct Wasaga Beach Game Farm. Rob was horrified by what he saw. Bears, primates, big cats and other animals trapped in grossly inadequate makeshift cages, some standing on deep beds of concrete-like excrement and being fed cheap, garbage food, including what looked like restaurant waste. There was also a bear cub, chained by the neck in a travel crate. She was crying. Rob asked about what was to happen to the cub, and was told she was going to another zoo, not too far away. Rob stopped at the other place. It was even worse.
Unable to simply walk away from what he witnessed, Rob followed up with complaints to the humane society and whatever government agencies provided oversight to places like this. He soon discovered there were no rules and that anyone could start a zoo. No license was required, no expertise or experience was needed, and there were no animal housing, management, care, welfare or safety standards— animal owners could do what they wanted. To make matters worse, there was no agency to receive complaints about the terrible conditions these animals were forced to live in, and no record of how many such zoos even existed.
Rob’s response to this blatant lack of accountability was to start the Zoocheck project in 1984. He traveled the province finding zoos, visiting them multiple times and documenting what he saw.
While the goal of Zoocheck was initially focused only on helping captive wild animals in Ontario’s zoos, it has expanded throughout the years to the goal of promoting and protecting the interests and well-being of wild animals, both in captivity and in the wild, across Canada and around the world. Today, Zoocheck uses investigative campaigns, legislative initiatives, legal actions, animal rescues and capacity building activities to achieve its goals.
Zoocheck’s efforts have played a significant role in ending the era of the roadside zoo to the east and west of Ontario. Unfortunately, Ontario has been particularly challenging and is still the only province that lacks dedicated laws, regulations or policies governing the keeping of exotic wildlife in captivity, but Rob is confident that will soon change.
Throughout the years, Zoocheck has also worked on hundreds of local bylaw campaigns aimed at stopping the use of wild animals in circuses, traveling zoos and the keeping of exotic pets. As well, at the provincial and federal level, Zoocheck has pushed for new or improved laws and regulations to protect wildlife in captivity and to end the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity in Canada. The group also has international campaigns, conducted collaboratively with other organizations, to improve the lives of captive animals.
Rob and his colleagues also fight to end the systemic abuse and exploitation of wildlife in the wild particularly by government agencies. Zoocheck has successfully pushed to establish bear rehabilitation and release across the country, to challenge the outdated wildlife management practices that threaten the existence of wild horses in the Canadian west and to combat the systemic persecution of double-crested cormorants in the Great Lakes Basin. Wildlife elsewhere are on the agenda too, as Zoocheck has expended considerable funds on anti-poaching efforts to protect elephants and rhinos in Africa’s wilderness.
Here are some of Rob’s memorable campaigns that Zoocheck has been involved with.
Several years ago, Rob was contacted by a US organization trying to help an elderly sixty-nine year old elephant named Hanako. She had spent nearly all of her life alone at the Inokashira Zoo in Japan, living on a concrete slab. Elephants in the wild live in familial groups for their entire lives, and are extremely active and wide-ranging.
Unfortunately, Hanako died as the campaign was building speed, but the US group wanted to capitalize on it to help other elephants. Zoocheck arranged for a world-renowned elephant biologist to examine Japan’s other solitary elephants and to produce a technical report about their plight and then to cooperatively do the follow-up work in Japan. A comprehensive report was released and attracted a great deal of attention, leading to a new policy statement by Japan’s national zoo association and changes to the way elephants are kept. But changing the value system and perspectives of humans takes time, so in the case of Japan, Rob estimates it could take another five to ten years of effort to substantially change the paradigm for Japanese elephants.
Another memorable elephant campaign was waging a fierce multi-year political battle against the Toronto Zoo and then relocating their three surviving elephants to a massive, world-renowned elephant sanctuary in California. Their lives were vastly improved and videos of them roaming the hills populate YouTube.
Another meaningful animal rescue for Rob involved Eugene the macaque monkey who had spent 26 years living alone in a room in a Quebec pet store. “He never saw the light of day or another monkey until we got him out of there,” Rob said. Eugene spent his final years at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary near Montreal. (An amazing place—my daughter & I visited a couple of years ago). He had lots of room, stimulation and he enjoyed simple things, like rolling his blankets up into a bed and then lying in the sun. “I’m so glad Eugene got to do those things before he passed.”
Wild Horses in Alberta
An issue that has always been close to Rob’s heart involves Canada’s wild horses. He led a difficult campaign against the Department of National Defence in the mid-90s over the fate of 1,200 wild horses on a military base in Alberta, the largest herd of wild horses in the Canadian west. Unfortunately, those horses were rounded up and the majority were sent to slaughter.
Fast forward to today and the fight is on to save another wild horse population, the last remaining herds in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Rob says these beautiful animals, that should be correctly considered as reintroduced native wildlife, are being ‘managed’ into extinction. The main issue is with the ranching industry as they perceive wild horses as competing with their cattle for forage on public lands, so they don’t want them there. And the ranching industry has a heavy influence on government. Despite this, efforts to stop the wild horse roundups have been successful for a number of years, but the risk to their survival is still ever-present.
There are all kinds of other memories, some negative, but many that are positive. Such as achieving legislation that reduced the number of zoos, stopping new zoos from opening and closing facilities like the outdated Storybook Gardens zoo, a 1950s children’s zoo in London, Ontario and the Springwater Provincial Park zoo that had existed for more than 80 years.
While Rob’s name is often associated with these campaigns, he wants to stress that campaigns are nearly always a collective effort with co-workers, colleagues, other organizations, law firms, bureaucrats and elected officials. No one can do it alone.
When asked what is the most difficult part of running an organization that campaigns for change, Rob’s answer is, “Losing a campaign.”
When asked what is the best part, his answer is “Winning a campaign.”
He expanded by saying he is focused on winning campaigns for the animals. For animals who are being exploited, winning is all that matters. Winning can mean that an animal’s life is improved or an abusive practice, business or institution changes or is closed. At the end of the day, Rob wants to know that his efforts have at least raised the bar in how animals are treated and that he has pushed the issues forward.
I think everyone would agree that animals are much better off with Rob Laidlaw being involved and working tirelessly to improve their lives.
In addition to being the founder of Zoocheck and an animal advocate, Rob is also an award-winning author of children’s books. He writes about topics he’s familiar with, so his books are about helping animals and the environment. He hopes children who read his books are inspired to get involved in making the world a better place for animals, the environment and for people too.
I asked Rob if he had a magic wand and could change one thing in the world, what would it be —his answer, “I wish every person would get engaged in the things that affect their own lives, for themselves, their children, and the animals and environment. Many people have no idea how laws and policies are made, they’ve never spoken to their elected officials and many people don’t even bother to vote. For the world to improve, people have to get active and engaged in the processes that govern their lives.”
Rob strongly believes there is truth in the famous Edmund Burke quote, (which I have rephrased to make gender neutral) ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’
To learn more about the wonderful work Zoocheck is involved with, please check out their website: https://www.zoocheck.com/
To learn more about Rob Laidlaw and the wonderful books he writes, please go to his website: https://roblaidlawbooks.com/