Attacked by animal rights groups that oppose keeping wildlife in captivity, zoo and aquarium officials meeting in Baltimore yesterday were trying to decide how best to keep their foes at bay.
"I've been beat on, beat up, run over and just about run out of town," said William P. Braker, director of the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The occasion was the regional conference of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums at the Inner Harbor's Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Most zoos and aquariums have so far responded to protests and lawsuits with stepped-up efforts to promote their role in helping conserve and protect wildlife.
But the executive directors of several large institutions, including Brian Rutledge of the Baltimore Zoo, called for more aggressive tactics.
"This isn't an issue where being good guys is going to carry us through," Mr. Rutledge said.
He suggested that the AAZPA keep a file of leaflets the groups hand out during protests, in order to rebut false charges. AAZPA institutions, he said, should warn their employees and contributors about some groups that may appear to be moderate but that actually want to shut down all zoos and aquariums.
And he suggested that zoo and aquarium bookstores stop selling games and books by publishers who also produce animal rights literature.
Several AAZPA members said more of their colleagues should follow the lead of John Prescott, director of the New England Aquarium, who recently filed a $5 million defamation suit against three animal rights groups that have repeatedly sought to block the transfer of bottle nose dolphins.
Similar groups have objected to plans by the National Aquarium in Baltimore to transfer two beluga whales to a marine park in Texas.
Steve Taylor, director of the Cleveland Metropark Zoo, said animal rights groups upset about the transfer of Timmy the gorilla to the Bronx Zoo in New York City made false charges of mistreatment against him.
As evidence of the anger generated by the controversy, he read a postcard he had received from a Cleveland-area resident.
"Dear Scum," it read. "I frequently read in the newspaper of your vicious attempts to ship Timmy to New York. . . . I will vote against zoo levies while you remain a leech on the payroll. I would call you a swine, but they really are decent creatures."
Mr. Taylor ruefully told his audience, "We are not getting the message out. And we've got a great message. We're doing wonderful things."
Some AAZPA members said they prefer to spend their money on public education, not on lawsuits or other counterattacks.
"If we're responsible in what we do, and we communicate that responsibility, we'll be seen in a favorable light," said Ned Smith, director of the North Carolina Aquariums.
AAZPA members did not single out any particular animal rights group. But Steven Simmons of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) acknowledged in a telephone interview that his organization may have been one of the intended targets.
While PETA supports improved conditions at zoos and aquariums, he said, in the long run his group wants them abolished.
"It is our firm belief that animals in captivity suffer psychologically and suffer physical cruelty as well," he said.
Asked about the charge of extremism, Mr. Simmons responded: "We are extreme in the sense that we're calling for a radical shift in society's view of non-humans."
Some zoo and aquarium officials urged journalists to investigate animal rights organizations, charging that some exist mainly to generate publicity and donations.
"Their leadership is out to raise money at someone else's expense and to hinder conservation," charged Mr. Prescott of the New England Aquarium.
Mr. Simmons said that PETA's opponents have charged in the past "that our leadership is motivated by fund-raising." There are no grounds for the allegation, he said, because most PETA officials receive modest salaries. The national chairperson, he said, is paid $20,000 a year.
Even mainstream animal protection groups, which have opposed zoos and aquariums on some issues, are under fire from more militant organizations.
"We have come under an extraordinary amount of criticism from some of our own constituents who think we are far too moderate," said John Grandy of the Humane Society of the United States.