Zoos are prisons too

The glass between: A zoo bear meets a child in a bear suit

Zoos are emotive places. They have their fervent supporters and their ardent critics. I’m in the second of the groups, the critics. Well, I guess not really a critic just someone who finds the whole idea of stepping inside a zoo repugnant. Not so much a principled stand against zoos, but that too, more a deep seated sadness that we can, as a community lock animals up in enclosures away from their habitats, usually a long way away, and seek to be entertained by their very captivity.

Zoo supporters will be indignantly jumping up and down about now, insistent that zoos are not entertainment venues, rather educational ones and more importantly, places of conservation. They will tell you zoos play a pivotal role as temples of the highest scientific, moral and ethical order. Well, they might not use those words but they will say something about zoos leading the fightback for the survival of species, of biodiversity. They’ll also likely talk about standing up for good in the face of an uncaring humankind and the greed of governments the world over, where anything and everything is up for grabs in pursuit of even the cheapest of dollars.

Nature like all things has its price. From the African elephants who have their faces cut away in agonising pain for the coins exchanged for their ivory tusks, an evil trade fuelled by a largely Chinese love of frivolous trinkets, statues and jewellery hewn out of the stuff. To the Thai and Indian elephants removed from their herds and their mothers when very young, only to be completely ‘broken’ over years of torture, starvation and spiked-chained imprisonment, just to carry a gaggle of giggling tourists or to stand beside an all-in-white Australian bride as she poses at great expense on some exotic beach somewhere. For so many elephants a life of such entertaining means decades of abuse. For Raju, the Indian elephant forcibly freed in 1992 it was 50 years of abhorrent, sickening cruelties.

So in light of this, zoos are a good idea, right? No, absolutely not. Zoos don’t stop these practices, not one iota. Zoos are an anachronism looking for a reason to be. And the reasons so often quoted in their favour don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Zoos it is claimed, are places of conservation. Well, lets look at this. Just the other day (and the inspiration for this article.. or rant, however you look at it) I saw a post that describes how captivity for elephants is a guarantee of their early death:

Unfortunately, death and disease is all too common in captive elephant populations. The infant mortality rate is shockingly high among zoo animals and it is estimated that only one in three will survive. Not to mention, captive elephants suffer from a number of conditions that are uncommon in the wild. In addition to EEHV (endotheliotropic herpes, or EEHV, causes internal bleeding in elephants, babies between one and four years old are the most vulnerable to this highly contagious elephant disease), they are known to suffer from crippling arthritis, foot infections, obesity, and infertility. There are also a number of physiological illnesses that affect these animals as well, which are most commonly know as neurotic, repetitive behaviours. While wild elephants have the same life expectancy as a human, 75 years, the average life expectancy among captive animals is only 20–30 years. The bottom line is that elephants do not do well in captivity. They are highly intelligent, social animals who crave open space and stimulation just as much as humans do.

But then why would we expect to be surprised by this? How could we even think being locked up for life, prevented from doing what all elephants should do each and every day, foraging for food to bathing in huge muddy lakes and roaming for hundreds of kilometres in herds of up to 100 animals, how could we ever think that would be good for an active, intelligent, proud, thinking creature?

Take a few moments to consider Chai’s story who died very recently in captivity, aged just 37. Chai is — was — an Asian elephant whose confinement in Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle Washington has been a topic of controversy among just about everybody who has ever been touched by this elephant’s plight. Chai passed away, just one year after she was moved to Oklahoma City Zoo. As I understand it is not yet known what caused her death. But it is widely believed the stresses of lifelong captivity contributed to it immeasurably. In her short lifetime, Chai was artificially inseminated an incredible 112 times (why for goodness sake?). She bore just one daughter, Hansa, who died an infant at six years of age, after suffering from the deadly elephant virus Endotheliotopic Herpesvirus. In her lifetime Chai suffered from ongoing foot problems (an extremely common ailment among zoo elephants), colic, arthritis, and painful skin conditions and was constantly at threat of heart disease and obesity. Simply because of the stress, extreme lack of exercise and the unnatural confinement of her one-acre enclosure.

Chai never got to experience any semblance of a natural life, but was instead seen as an object for visitor enjoyment.

But perhaps Chai’s story is the sorrowful price of species protection? Is it reasonable to sacrifice the well-being of a few animals to protect the species? Well, maybe I guess. I suppose it depends on your morality. But instead of being sidelined by dubious arguments like this, surely we should aim for the ‘gold standard’ in species preservation. To preserve in the wild. Whether in national parks chiselled out of natural habitats or just simply in the wild. Of course, that would mean scaling up efforts against poachers and engaging governments to protect environments. But to argue this is all too hard is missing the point. It only becomes too hard if we believe zoos are a credible alternative. Again I’m not suggesting this argument is watertight or always guaranteed to deliver a great outcome. But surely this is where our conservation efforts and importantly our dollars, should be going. Diverting them to zoos weakens our resolve to tackle the problems of species protection and conservation at their core.

A second reason for being is an educational one. The view that zoos play a unique role in educating the general public about biodiversity. And perhaps more importantly, how everyone has a part to play in protecting animals and habitats. Like refusing to purchase products that use palm oil, where lucrative palm tree plantations are fast displacing Asian rain forests.

Of course if zoos do play a vital educative role, they must be doing it very badly indeed. Surely if they were more successful, even moderately so, the rate of rainforest depletion alongside threats to the longevity of certain species, say of the Sumatran Orang-utans which are especially threatened by the loss of forest, would be diminishing. In other words we’d be winning the battle. But we aren’t, of course. Quite the opposite.

Lets assume for a moment that zoos do educate for a greater good and that they do help develop a positive understanding of the need to protect biodiversity in the general public. Just for a moment. Even if that is the case, this increased understanding doesn’t evidently transfer to changed behaviours. The majority of people and their governments still stand idly by even where they understand an urgent need for action. Put bluntly, education doesn’t lead to change. So accepting or rather assuming, that zoos do educate, even successfully (they don’t of course), doesn’t help resolve the problem: species continue to be threatened and habitat continues to be destroyed.

Then again, why do we need zoos to educate the public about the evils of, say, large scale palm oil farming? Can’t people learn about this stuff without visiting a zoo? I mean you’d expect folk to know that polar bears are threatened by the melting of the sea ice in the polar regions of the north without needing to visit a zoo to discover this climate change fact. Well, here zoos play what they say is a trump card. When zoo visitors, especially children it seems, are confronted by real, living, animals, the connection between visitor and animal is more real, more meaningful and the lessons learned are better learned, better remembered.

Whilst this sentiment seems more than plausible there really is very scant evidence for it, in fact quite the opposite, children often feel more disenfranchised about environmental conservation after visiting a zoo.

But even if there was some truth to this, surely there are ways of educating people, children, about the value of biodiversity, about species protection, about habitat preservation, without needing to lock up animals to do so? Or are we really dressing up entertainment in a great morality? Lets face it, zoos wouldn’t get nearly so many visitors if we didn’t expect to be entertained.

Still think zoos are about education rather than entertainment? Well check this out. In 2010 Zoocheck Canada conducted a study of the time visitors spent watching seven different species of animals, including elephants, at Toronto Zoo. The study revealed that on average visitors spent 117 seconds watching the elephants, whilst the mean time (a more accurate measure than a simple ‘average’) was just 79.5 seconds. A little over one minute. One measly minute. Not just this, but less than 1% of the elephant exhibit visitors read or listened to any of the associated educational content. How can zoos claim they make a real educational difference in the light of such dire numbers?

Sorry, but for me none of the arguments for the keeping or the designing and development of new ‘progressive’ zoos stack up. So why do we still have them? Simply, and I’m in pure top-of-head mode now, because people like to spend time in them. Its a convenient and inexpensive way of transporting a tame ‘wildlife experience’ to the city dweller. Its a ‘thing’ to do on a sunny spring Sunday. A place to take your young family. Maybe it makes us feel closer to nature. Maybe we kid ourselves our entrance fee goes some way to saving the animals we are about to be entertained by, even if it is for just 60 seconds. For me, that is no reason at all.

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