What Are Zoos For?

Some zoos try to imitate the animal's natural habitat...but however large an enclosure, it can tell nothing of the scale of the captive animal's natural environment or how they behave in the wild.
Dusica Paripovic via Getty Images

For the media zoos make good copy: 'Twin Panda Birth Surprises Atlanta Zoo Staff'; 'Rare White Lion Cubs Born at Georgia Zoo'; 'Bristol to Welcome Pair of Andean Bears'. The implication is that the public are delighted and that this news is good news.

Doubtless, visitors, and particularly children, get immense pleasure from a day out at the zoo. And often much entertainment. A few days ago, at Tiger World in Rockwell, North Carolina "hilarious footage captured the moment an angry monkey took his temper out on a family by throwing his poo at them" (Mirror, 15 August). There may even be some drama. In June this year, at Cincinnati Zoo, Harambe, a 450 pound silverback gorilla (who would have had the strength of eight men) grabbed a three year old boy who had climbed into his enclosure. In order to save the child the gorilla was shot dead.

Social media went viral. Some claimed the gorilla was protecting the boy and should not have been shot. Others condoned the shooting. Some blamed the boy's parents for neglecting to keep an eye on their child. Some blamed the zoo: one commenter tweeted "So in the Zoo how many children is it acceptable to allow to be harmed or put in harm's way?" Yet others argued that zoos were no place for wild animals.

These latter would not see the monkey's faeces-throwing as hilarious. To those who campaign against keeping wild animals in captivity, this incident was a sign that this caged animal was most likely to have been feeling threatened, angry or bored.

Yet zoos claim that their raison d'être is to practise good animal welfare; promote conservation - in particular the safekeeping of animal species; and to educate the public - typically by raising awareness about the animals and their natural environment.

Some zoos try to imitate the animal's natural habitat - though the days of sterile cages live on: you only have to look at the amount of concrete that has been poured into zoo enclosures to see that. But however large an enclosure, it can tell nothing of the scale of the captive animal's natural environment or how they behave in the wild.

Take orangutans, for instance, Asia's only great apes. Their numbers have fallen hugely - halved in the last ten years alone. Once they ranged between southern China, in the north, and Java, in the south. But now, thanks to loss of habitat - due to logging, mining, the pet trade and agriculture - particularly palm oil plantations - there are just 60,000 left. Now they are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In the islands' rainforests, the remaining orangutans spend nearly all their time in the tree canopy (they are rarely seen on the ground) where they travel by swinging from branch to branch. Here, in their natural surroundings, they are continually alert, their minds occupied. They are free to go where they choose, decide who they socialize with, who they mate with, what they eat and where to make their sleeping nests (which they renew most nights).

Dublin Zoo has opened an 'Orangutan Forest'. It has eleven trees - one is twelve metres high - to "encourage natural climbing behaviour". This 'Forest' also has a new island, 20 by 80 metres. In all, the enclosure measures 1,300 square metres. This is probably as good as it gets in a zoo but is so far removed from the animals' natural environment that surely, after a visit to a zoo, if you learn anything at all, it would be that keeping animals captive in this way can't be right.

So what are zoos for? The large animals are the biggest draw, the ones that people most want to see: from polar bears to condors; from snow leopards to - in Seaworld-type aquaria - dolphins.

But it is these types of animals, the large predators, that suffer the most. What people see when they peer through the bars is the way animals behave in captivity. Many endlessly pace from one side of their enclosure to another; or ceaselessly rock backwards and forwards; or continually bob their heads; or go round and round in circles; or incessantly chew the bars of their cage. These behaviours are all signs of terrible suffering.

So what about conservation of the species? According to the Born Free Foundation no tiger, elephant or chimpanzee has ever successfully been released into the wild from a UK zoo. And, according to the director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, out of the four hundred giant pandas that have been bred in captivity only five have been released to the wild; and two of those died.

Most zoo animals are traded between zoos. Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo's gorilla, was born in a Texas zoo and sold on to Cincinnati Zoo. He was intended to be part of a breeding programme. It seems reasonable to assume that his progeny would have been similarly destined to lives in captivity and for trading among other zoos. Both parents of Atlanta Zoo's giant panda twins were born at the Chengdu Research Base with whom the Zoo has a partnership. Bristol's Andean bears were bought from Frankfurt Zoo by Noah's Ark Zoo Farm. And according to One Green Planet, zoos all over the world sell animals to private breeders, pet owners, circuses, roadside zoos and hunting ranches.

Surely it is better, better by far, when it comes to conservation, to look to the wild animal trusts. The WWF has teamed up with the Chinese Government. Together they have set up sixty-seven giant panda reserves in the cool, wet, bamboo forests in the mountains of central China. There they have developed bamboo corridors (connections that are key to conservation) to link isolated pockets of forest so that animals can move to new areas to find more food and new mates. The most recent survey showed a 16.8% increase in the giant panda population.

White lions are extremely rare: there are just thirteen in their natural habitat and seventy in zoos and circuses around the world. Thanks to the Global White Lion Protection Trust those thirteen wild white lions (white, due to an albino mutation) roam freely in 4,4000 acres of bushveld in South Africa and have integrated with wild golden lions.

The Andean Bear Foundation's mission is to secure the future of the Andean spectacled bear in its natural habitat - a far cry from Noah's Ark Farm Zoo's 'Andean Adventure'.

For all these organizations saving species means saving their natural environment.

If zoos fail on welfare and conservation then what about education? The public are likely to come away from zoos knowing nothing about how they behave in the wild; or that their most pressing need is freedom.

The WWF, the Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals Protection Society are just a few of the organizations that tell of the reality: the full story that zoos don't want their visitors to know.

So what are zoos for? They are profitable businesses. And make sensational headlines for newspapers. But it is the captive animals that pay the highest price.

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