Shocking news has emerged this week that a lion was found hanged in an Indonesian zoo. If you think what's happened to this poor creature is bad, the fact is its happening to every zoo animal. Death prowls the shadows of every zoo.
As someone with an interest in safeguarding biodiversity you'd probably think I'd be a supporter of zoos for their highly touted conservation initiatives and all the hype surrounding captive breeding programs. Ever since I learnt as a toddler that the magnificent beasts I was in awe of roving across the Kenyan safari were on the verge of vanishing the imperative to conserve the Earth's most endangered species has urgently impressed itself upon me. But, endangered or not, I find it hard to justify a life time of captivity for wild animals.
Faced with the photos of this beautiful creature gruesomely lynched by its neck I'm assuming most people will feel some sympathy, even those in the 'pro zoo' camp. But you're likely to feel less sympathy for the other spectral figures, those that endlessly pace, neurotically rock and compulsively hair pluck, concealed as best as possible by fake foliage and Styrofoam boulders. But these are signs every bit as redolent of the dying as the suspended corpse and demonstrate the soul destroying effects that captivity has on wild animals making zoos one of the least life affirming experiences there can be.
Sadly, conservation by cage is failing not only its inmates but wild populations of endangered species too. According to an investigation carried out by the Born Free Foundation it found that, so much for conserving precious species, the majority of zoo species are not even classified as endangered species in the first place. The dismally low captive reproduction rates and even lower numbers of young surviving in captivity, let alone put back into the wild, and the rarity of successful reintroduction programs- hushed up by zoos- are further indicators of the lack of real conservation that these custodial centres achieve. While much of the roaring trade in animal commodification is misspent on developing the commercial side of the business, miniscule proportions are invested into the animals' natural habitat to protect individuals and entire ecosystems.
To me, no matter how much zoos market their commitment to 'conservation of wildlife' on signs festooned across reinforced six foot barbed wire fencing and no matter what a fine job of 'educating' our children they prophesize goes on within concrete confines, their token attention to conservation is ineffectual in addressing the real situation endangering species and restoring wild animal populations. In erroneously deluding both themselves and their visitors they are breaking the spirits of these animals and flaunt nothing but mere shadows behind bars. Zoos deny their captives everything that it is to be alive and in possession of a life and all the while their wild counterparts are dwindling away. Yet the cost of this life to the animal, it seems, can be recovered at the turn stile; the going rate seems to be around a tenner.
It is of course the big zoo lie that the money you spend at one of their commercial centres is going to save an endangered black rhino in Namibia, an orphaned organutan in Bornea or a tiger in Sumatra. Be assured, the only livelihood propped up here is that of the multi millionaire proprietor himself. If we're honest with ourselves we know that no species can be saved in a cage; that it isn't animal welfare to crush their will and extinguish their spirit and repression is the antithesis of respect. It's delusional to endorse a cage no bigger than a few square metres as fit for a pack of wolves born to roam hundreds of miles each day; a murky stagnant pool for a sea lion that barely stretches the length of the beast itself; a barren pen to replace the vast open savannah for family units of elephants
and birds with mutilated wings to disable them from doing just what nature intended them to do. Wild animals were born for living not for exhibition.
A zoo is the same thing in every country and every zoo animal is a prisoner denied a life. For what it is worth I think we need to look again at the role that zoos play in conservation. Yes we urgently need to do something to rescue these species from disappearing forever but zoos that are all about the dead and dying are not saving the global crisis of mass species extinction. Whether it's death by hanging, or a slow lingering death from a broken spirit all zoo animals are dead animals and zoos are just one more nail in conservation's coffin.