PETA asks feds to probe bison deaths at ZooAmerica

UPDATE - Hershey Entertainment spokeswoman Mindy Bianca issued the following statement following word of the PETA letter:

We welcome any review of ZooAmerica's emergency response procedures, and we'd cooperate with any agency that wished to conduct such a review. Our Zoo team members care deeply for the animals in their care, and we are proud of the professionalism and courage they exhibited during the extreme conditions caused by the recent flooding.

A national animal rights group wants a federal probe into the flood-related deaths of two bison at the Hersheypark zoo earlier this month.

In its letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said the zoo failed to evacuate the animals despite receiving warnings that flash flooding associated with Tropical Storm Irene was imminent.

"If this facility had had a proper emergency evacuation plan in case of fire, flood, or other disaster and had properly executed that plan, these deaths and the suffering involved would have been prevented," PETA wrote. "We urge you to hold ZooAmerica responsible for the lack of oversight that resulted in delayed activation of the emergency response plan, allowing these bison to languish in flood water and resulting in their gruesome deaths."

A USDA spokesman said the agency will dispatch an inspector to the zoo in "the near future" but would not say when because inspections are unannounced.

"We just received PETA’s complaint. With all formal complaints, we will certainly look into the matter," said USDA spokesman David Sacks in an email. "Ensuring the welfare of the animals that we regulate is our primary responsibility, so we welcome outside input when there are concerns about USDA-licensed facilities."

A 15-year-old female bison named Esther drowned in the record floodwaters of Spring Creek on Sept. 7 as ZooAmerica workers tried to evacuate several hundred animals from the low-lying area next to the famed amusement park.

A zoo keeper shot the other bison, 13-year-old Ryan, when it became apparent he could not be evacuated amidst the fast-rising floodwaters and would have drowned. A gunshot to the head is considered a humane form of euthanasia.

The zoo has said that it had an evacuation plan but given the depth and speed of the floodwaters was unable to remove the bison in time.

A Hershey resident posted a photo purportedly showing the bison huddled together during the flooding on a CNN website.

The bisons’ deaths are under investigation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits ZooAmerica.