'Well-run zoos are an aid to animals and are not detrimental to their well-being', 'indeed, in many cases, zoos will turn out to be the last refuge of numerous species in a human-being-infested world'. For many, Gerald Durrell's (1976) pioneering vision of zoos as a 'stationary ark' remains the most persuasive for the continuation of zoos. Who can really argue with the primary purpose of protecting critically endangered species, captive breeding programmes to increase declining populations, and the reintroduction of once captive animals to natural habitats. Few, however, appear to put this vision into practice.
With each news report, it becomes abundantly clear that however 'well-run' a zoo may appear to the public, the 'well-being' of the captive animals has become a secondary consideration for some. Within these institutions of nature, zoo animals have become lively commodities, a collection of exotic individuals experienced and consumed by ticket-buying animal-loving day-trippers. Zoos are now largely framed as places of family-friendly education and entertainment; the collection of animals has become the product, rather than the sentient individuals contained within.
Are zoos 'the last refuge of numerous species'? Various examples from twenty-first century zoo culture would suggest not. In February 2014, a young healthy giraffe called Marius at Copenhagen Zoo was regarded as 'unsuitable for breeding'. Despite global protests, Marius was shot, publicly dissected and fed to the lions. In that same month, Longleat Safari killed six lion cubs as there had been a rise in population, citing 'genetic defects' and 'excessive violent bahaviour'. In May 2016, Harambe the Gorilla was shot when a four-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo. In 2017 Gustavito the hippopotamus was attacked and killed at El Salvador's National Zoo, a crocodile was stoned to death at Tunisia Zoo, and poachers shot dead and stole the horn of Vince the Rhino at Paris Zoo. Any illusions of being a 'last refuge' are violently shattered.
Perhaps the most troubling case comes from the UK, specifically the animal welfare catastrophe in Cumbria. South Lakes Safari Zoo is responsible for the death of 486 animals in under four years - Barrow in Furness borough council rightly refused the renewal of their zoo licence. The catalogue of incompetence and cruelty is shocking. A rhino was crushed to death, overweight giraffe, emaciated kangaroos, electrocuted tortoise, partially eaten snow leopards, a jaguar chewed off its own paw and was euthanized, three animals were run over by the miniature railway train, seven healthy lion cubs and five young baboons euthanized as there was not enough space for them. With deficiencies in welfare, accommodation and husbandry, this is very good example of a very badly-run zoo. It also provides an insight into an inadequate and under-resourced zoo licensing and inspection system.
Whether you see zoos as spaces of conservation, education, entertainment or incarceration, South Lakes Safari Zoo failed on every count. 486 animal deaths and one human death (keeper Sarah McClay was tragically mauled to death by a Siberian tiger in 2013) in three years is totally unacceptable. One would hope that prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act (2006) are forthcoming. But where does that leave the thousand or so animals that remain at South Lakes Safari Zoo? If a new licence is not granted and new homes cannot be found, they will be euthanized. That is certainly not conservation.
I am not opposed to all zoos, but very much opposed to badly-run ones, of which there are far too many. The next time you think about a family outing to a zoological garden, or are amazed at the menageries you experience, think carefully: What does the zoo mean to you? Is your money contributing to your vision of a well-run zoo?