Wallabies die after trip in Ryder truck
By AMY HERDY, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- The six kangaroos and three wallabies were loaded into cages and put in the back of a Ryder truck for the trip from Ocala to Tampa.
They were to be part of the new Wallaroo Station habitat at Lowry Park Zoo, a $6.2-million Australian-themed exhibit that opened in May.
But the three wallabies would not live long enough to be part of the exhibit.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, the animals' owner, Melinda Morgan, says the zoo caused the wallabies to suffer a "horribly cruel and senseless death" by covering their cages and confining them in the back of an unventilated Ryder truck for two hours.
Morgan also says the zoo's staff stopped at a Dairy Queen outside of Ocala instead of driving straight to Tampa on Feb. 19.
A male Bennett wallaby named Sydney, a female named Matilda and Matilda's baby, named Joey, all died shortly after the two-hour trip.
In a statement, zoo officials said that the marsupials, a smaller version of a kangaroo, were transported according to federal regulations and that they died from stress, which is not uncommon.
"Lowry Park Zoo strives to care for and preserve all animals and is strongly committed to excellence in conservation," the statement said.
The zoo's statement referred to the deaths of the two grown wallabies, but did not mention the death of the baby wallaby.
"We are deeply saddened by the deaths of the two Bennett wallabies. Our No. 1 business is caring for animals here at the zoo and everywhere in the world. Their well-being is a top priority for us."
Zoo spokeswoman Heather Sitton would not comment Monday. She provided the Times with a partial copy of the 1995 standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for transporting animals and said the zoo had followed the USDA's guidelines, which only stated that each animal have "access to sufficient air for normal breathing."
Yet the complete version of USDA standards says that live animals may only be transported in vehicles that provide substantial ventilation openings.
The Ryder truck had no such ventilation, said Morgan's attorney, Andrea Tullo of Tampa.
The lawsuit names the zoo, its veterinarian and Ryder trucks as defendants.
The suit said Ryder knew that the zoo was illegally transporting live animals in its trucks and continued to allow the practice. A spokesman with Ryder declined to comment Monday.
Morgan's lawsuit says zoo officials promised her they would transport the wallabies, accompanied by a half-dozen kangaroos, in a horse trailer.
Instead, the zoo's veterinarian, David Murphy, rented a Ryder cargo truck with a roll-down door. The truck sat in the hot sun for six hours while zoo staff gathered the kangaroos and wallabies, the lawsuit said.
Concerned, Morgan asked Murphy about the horse trailer, the suit says, but was assured that the zoo frequently transported live animals in Ryder trucks and that they would be fine.
Morgan also asked Murphy to give the animals a drug to calm them and prevent capture-related stress, but he did not do so, she says.
Murphy could not be reached for comment.
After the wallabies died, the zoo returned her animal cages. Tullo says they had claw and teeth marks that show the wallabies struggled to live.
The suit also says that Morgan asked to have the animals' bodies sent to the state veterinary lab for the necropsies but that the zoo had its own necropsies performed instead.
The suit is seeking more than $1-million to compensate for the loss of the wallabies, their breeding potential, damages and attorney's fees.
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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