I recently read an article published on the ‘One green planet’ website, called:
‘The Cost of Captivity: Similarities in How Farm and Zoo Animals Suffer’.
This article summaries 5 signs of mental and physical distress that are commonly seen in BOTH factory farm and zoo animals; high cortisol levels, self-mutilation, aggression, bar biting and pacing. The point being to demonstrate that although the conditions in most zoos are obviously better in terms of space and welfare, keeping wild animals in captivity under any circumstance has negative impacts on their quality of life, and can be argued as ethically unsound.
I do tend to bang on about this film a lot BUT… The ‘Black fish’ effect has evidently had a great impact on public perceptions of keeping animals in captivity; with many protesting outside Sea World, numbers of marine park visitors falling and some aquariums stopping shows and even planning on releasing captive cetaceans. My point here is that now people are awakened to the negative aspects of zoos and aquariums, how come this attitude has not trickled down to other cases, such as tigers, elephants and penguins? My best guess is that it is because these cases are seen as less severe as other animals are not forced to ‘perform’ for large crowds, but that is only half the real problem, as shown by the mental and physical stress shown by the orcas at Sea World.
Zoos obviously have some really important positive attributes, which should not be overlooked. Zoos provide a space to protect endangered species from threats such as poaching and habitat destruction, which if uncontrolled can cause extinction in some cases. Captive breeding programmes provide a safe and closely monitored environment where the number of breeding individuals can rebuild for species to eventually be returned into the wild. Modern zoos have also broadened their role not only for recreation but they have also become an accessible and enjoyable way to educate both adults and children about animals, their behaviours and habitats, and the environmental and/or conservation issues they may face. A lot of zoos are able provide a substantial inlet for donations to conservation charities from this education process.
The argument remains as to whether these pros outweigh the cons…
Zoo animals are often kept in confined areas, in an unchanging environment, with boringly unvaried daily activities.In the UK, the standards set for modern zoo practise do not state any specific area requirements for animal enclosures, and so therefore it is assumed that enclosure size is decided by each individual zoological park. This means that an elephant enclosure in one zoo could be 5 times larger than that in another, as long as said area fits all other requirements such as temperature regulation, shelter, cleanliness etc.
Elephant enclosure in Bukittinggi zoo, west Sumatra
Elephant enclosure in Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island
People may say that zoo animals are better looked after than those in the wild, as they receive regular health checks, and immediate action is undertaken if they are unwell. However, I sometimes wonder if the animals were not cooped up in enclosures, removed from their natural habitats, would they require so much medical attention? On a recent visit to Whipsnade Zoo I was lucky enough to observe tigers taking part in some ‘enrichment’ activities. The keeper explained to me that they hid food in the trees and within pieces of bark to create a challenge for the tigers, to encourage them to maintain their natural hunting abilities and to keep them busy in the day. Again, I thought to myself that the zoo would not need to do this, if the tigers were left in their natural habitats in the first place. What would happen if enrichment did not occur; would the animals become tame, or simply go mad?
In terms of lifespan, studies have shown that wild African elephants live longer than their zoo counterparts, and many other species show the same results. This is due to various social, environmental and health stresses that come along with captivity.
It must be noted that the number of animals in captivity globally, is extremely small compared to those in the wild, but this is a very disconnected way to approach this topic. I believe that the welfare of each individual is just as important as the welfare and health of the whole species. Although SOME of the individuals kept in captivity are endangered and/or part of captive breeding programmes, many of them are not being prepared for release into natural habitats. In fact re-releases can prove to be very difficult to complete and are conducted by less than 20% of zoos globally.
I have gradually changed my opinion on zoos, as I have actively become more aware of the issues surrounding animal captivity. As upsetting as it is to imagine that in the future my great grandchildren may not be able to go on a day out to the zoo, some of my fondest childhood memories, I would feel better in the knowledge that they would be living in a society where animal welfare is of high priority.
If anyone is keen to read further into this issue, I would highly recommend reading ‘Ethics on the Ark’. A thought provoking book with a very unbiased view on zoos, animal welfare and wildlife conservation.