Wednesday, 12 December 2012

This month animal activists in India had huge cause to celebrate, while Western zoos remain the same, India condemns captivity as causing unacceptable trauma to Elephants and bans them from all Indian zoos. So we take a look at the ongoing debate surrounding zoos in England and consider their role today.

Zoos have a long history, which dates back to Victorian times, and even as far as the Egyptians. They used to be little more than a “stamp collection” of animals and if one were to die they would simply catch another in the wild as its replacement. They have clearly moved forward from that simple model, and even in the Victorian age the Zoological Society was set up with a strong interest in the study of ecology and science. But the question can still be posed: are they outdated, old fashioned and unethical in our society today – which believes animals should be treated with respect?Most major zoos belong to the European Association for zoos and Aquaria, which sets out minimum standards for a number of species, that zoos should follow. Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks located in Kent are EAZA members, and the two parks together spread across six hundred and ninety acres of land. Both parks are managed by the Aspinall Foundation and on top of running the parks they run rescue and rehabilitation projects in Africa. Spokesperson Lucy Brisley says that they are fortunate because they have a lot of space to build large enclosures for the animals. “Comfort for an animal is difficult to asses but our aim is to provide an appropriate area for the species to perform its natural behaviours, with the exception of killing each other or prey.” Lucy admits that it is complicated for them to judge if the animals are comfortable, and this is interesting because if it is that challenging to comprehend if the animals are at ease, then should they really be there?
Chris Draper is a zoo check researcher at Bornfree and would argue no, he believes that the very concept of zoos is wrong. The 1966 film ‘Born Free’ which told the true story of George and Joy Adamson’s fight to return Elsa the lioness into the wild inspired the creation of Bornfree. The stars of the film, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna were so touched by the story they pledged a lifelong commitment to wildlife, as it made them realise that animals should be in the wild and not in captivity. Chris knows that zoos won’t close overnight or even in his lifetime, so they are dedicated to trying to phase out their existence slowly. “The basic requirements of zoos is so shallow, it really is a joke. There have not been enough studies into what they need and there is no way they can know the full requirements and basic biology of what they’re keeping. Take elephants for example, that one species has such a diverse range of backgrounds. There are differences in the conditions they’re exposed to, and this can lead to behavioural and physical problems. We can’t even start viewing uniformly across one species let alone animals in general.”

Zoos appear to have serious aims and when you visit them they usually have their achievements proudly plastered all over the walls for all to see. These achievements normally consist of thought through breeding and conservation programmes. But what does conservation mean? Phil Knowling says that a major aspect of their mission statement at Paignton zoo is conservation. “The Whitley Wildlife Conservation trust owns Paignton zoo, living coats and Newquay zoo and they are education, scientific and conservation charities that are dedicated to protecting our global wildlife heritage and inspiring in people a respect for animals, plants and the environment.” So, inherently it’s about preserving and protecting wildlife, but is it working? Mark Jones is a conservation biologist and the Programmes and Fundraising Director at Care for the Wild International. CWI is an animal welfare and conservation charity, that protects wildlife from cruelty and exploitation, by making areas safe in the wild, rehabilitating sick or injured animals and providing sanctuary for those who are unable return into the wild.
Mark Jones says zoos have to be viewed in the context of their original purpose and that was for the public’s curiosity and entertainment. “No real efforts were made to provide the trapped animals with habitats and many lived very miserable and short lives. Modern zoos in the Western world have tried to justify their continued existence by claiming to be centres of education. Some zoological societies do use their income to fund very valuable conservation related research, however in many cases they are still conducting demeaning ‘shows’, and many contain animals such as big cats that cannot be held in captivity without severely compromising their welfare.”
But Phil Knowling says that top zoos have never been more important “Animals in the wild can be subject to both natural and man-made perils- starvation, predation, disease, hunting, loss of habitat and food resources, so being in a zoo definitely has its benefits! We all like to see wild animals happy in the wild, but you have to be realistic- humans threaten the future of species almost everywhere you look- so do we wait for extinction or do we use zoos as refuges?”Chris Draper says that unfortunately the very idea of conservation is dressed up and appears to be emphasised when not much is actually being done to contribute to conservation at all. “There are limitations of what is actually being done. Unfortunately looking at the conservation rate from zoos, it’s usually in the region of about five per cent of their overall income. Conservation is a buzz word particularly in the zoo community, they’re very keen for people to go away with the impression they’re undertaking conservation work, it’s a selling point. But where is the proof? There are no facts to justify their claims. If you look at animals that are kept in zoos the majority are not threatened in the wild anyway.”

Another key role zoos often boast about is their assistance in the education of animals, but how do people really learn? Exmoor zoo prides itself on being a more personal friendly and contact orientated zoo. Stephen Eddy the education officer says Exmoor zoo has a strong education team and they conduct outreach session to schools, colleges and nursing homes. “We have a series of daily talks and this gives visitors a chance to see and learn about animals and conservation issues up close the talks are interactive and visitors get the chance to touch and feed the animals.” Chris Draper understands that people find zoos interesting and may view them as a learning tool but he says the average length of time spent at each enclosure is around five seconds. “Thirteen per cent of visitors look at the information about the animals. I don’t understand how it can educate them about the animals when only a limited number of people actually read the signs. On top of that many animals show signs of artificial abnormal behaviour, so that can’t be ‘real’ educational about the animals either.” Stephen Eddy says they have signs that detail the animals origin and feeding. “It’s up to the visitors whether they read them or not.”For those who believe zoos are utterly immoral – at least there are organisations that exist to overlook their activities and make sure they are concentrating on animal welfare. As well as the EAZA there’s also the British and Irish Association of zoos and aquariums. Georgina Groves a BIAZA zoo biologist believes that their member zoos strive to have some of the best standards of care within the UK and Europe. “When a collection becomes a member it must fulfill our research, education, conservation and welfare requirements. If it does not do this, it will become a provisional member and be monitored by current members of BIAZA to help them reach the recommend requirements. If the public makes a complaint about one of our zoos we will investigate and take further action if and when appropriate.” Georgina says she hopes organisations like Bornfree recognise all the conservation, research and conservational work that BIAZA zoos currently do. “Everybody has a right to their own opinion and animal rights organisations are allowed to challenge zoos and their activities.”

Exmoor zoo is a member of Biaza and Stephen Eddy says that they have regular inspections, which look at all aspects of the zoo and the welfare of the animals they home. “If you think zoos are unethical don’t visit them, my earliest childhood memories are of zoos.” Unfortunately that advice is not much of a comfort to those who think they are fundamentally wrong, as turning a blind eye will not change life for the animals. But are they happy in zoos? Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is an animal psychologist and says some zoos can contribute to education and conservation but believed they would be happier in the wild. “Wild animals should be allowed to live out their lives in their natural environment. It’s sad to see any wild creature behind bars or in a tank, whether this is ostensibly for education or entertainment.” Many animals act out strange behaviour in zoos, for example wild cats will often pace up and down for hours, zoos often just dismiss this behaviour because it is almost feeding time, but Lisa believes it is a sign of them being uncomfortable in their surroundings. “The behaviour and demeanour of many animals in zoos are clear indicators of high stress levels.”
Chris Draper believes that the concept of zoos is a huge problem that is simply ignored, because they are the norm in society. “People love zoos, but they don’t get the full picture. Zoos are not something we should be encouraging, they are not forms of abject cruelty but you have to look beyond what you see. Being in a zoo is not how the animals have evolved to live, they’re not given the opportunity to do things they need to do, for example they can’t hunt and are on a regime and may get frustrated until their food is delivered.” Chris however does recognise that there are a handful of animals that might become extinct and if they can be housed temporarily in a habitat country that could work. “Sanctuary’s where the animals are not on display are far better for both the animals and conservation.”Zoos still have a place in society today, but more people seem to be recognising that keeping animals in captivity is degenerate and antiquated, unless there are high standards, prosperity and an ambitious convalescent attitude. On a purely common sense level having polar bears in London on a hot day and lions in the British winter must be detrimental to their well being, and far from what they would experience in the wild. So next time you’re thinking of planning a trip to a zoo that was originally born out of human curiosity, think about the controversy, and the entirety of the subject. BIAZA and EAZA list all of their member zoos on their websites, so at least visit one with a seal of approval.
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