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By Dave Neale, via AnimalsAsia.org
To answer the question as to whether or not zoos serve a purpose is very difficult. Every zoo is different. For instance, in many cases visiting a zoo in countries such as China and Vietnam can be a very negative educational experience, where the conditions in which the animals are being kept are unacceptable. I know that the majority of the visitors do not understand that those conditions cause animals to suffer, but all they learn from their visit is that it is acceptable to keep animals in such deplorable conditions.
Some of the more advanced zoos have more natural enclosures and encourage the demonstration of natural behaviours in their animals. Does this approach make it right? Fundamentally, for me, there can never be a good zoo. Unless a captive animal facility operates as a rescue centre for animals in need of a home and stops any breeding to ensure that they maintain available capacity for additional unwanted or abused animals, then it is not of benefit to the animals.
Most zoos, even those that are singled out as the better zoos, are breeding animals and in many cases transferring animals to other institutions. Often these institutions have lower welfare standards than their own.
Due to the number of animals being bred in zoos, many are euthanised as the zoo does not have the capacity to care for them and there is no demand for them from other zoos.
You will remember that there was public outcry at Copenhagen Zoo over the situation with Marius the giraffe. Deemed surplus to the requirements of the zoo and the captive breeding programme for his species, Marius was killed and a public autopsy carried out on his corpse. This demonstrates that zoos generally manage animals as part of a population rather than as individuals. While zoos continue to adopt this approach, the interests of individual animals will always be compromised and animals’ lives will continue to be needlessly lost.
From a moral perspective, the chance for Marius to continue his life has been taken away from him. Unfortunately zoos generally do not exist to meet the interests of individual animals. Captive wild animal managers are regularly making similar decisions on the future of animals across the world. This is a fundamental problem of the modern zoo and one in which we would like to see zoos change. They should consider each and every animal and their moral interests – as well as their welfare.
Some statistics appear to show that zoos have an educational value but, as we know, the results of statistics are easy to manipulate for our own benefit. We’ve just had the results of a survey published by Hong Kong Ocean Park saying that visitors leaving the park expressed increased empathy with dolphins. But that study was done as people were leaving the park, with no follow-up. For people to change their behaviour – which is what we’re after – you have to follow people one or even five years later. Did that visit to the ocean park actually have an influence on their behaviour? Did they join a dolphin protection group or a tiger or an elephant protection group? Did they do something to help save those animals in the wild? It’s difficult to say whether the data that comes from such point studies are actually worthwhile unless we follow them up and see behavioural change matching the initial responses.
Animals Asia maintains that the keeping of wildlife in captivity for entertainment is not ethically justifiable. However, where wildlife holding facilities exist, we are committed to working with them for the benefit of the animals they keep.
To put it more simply, it would be wrong to turn our backs on animals that need us just because we don’t agree with how they’re cared for.
Collaborations allow us to directly improve the lives of the animals in these facilities by providing training for animal managers and veterinary staff. We believe training is essential to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to provide for the physical, behavioural and psychological needs of animals. By working collaboratively and in partnership with zoos, wildlife experts and animal protection and conservation organisations, we hope to see an end to the appalling living conditions and abusive practices which are all too prevalent.
The information exchange works both ways. As an organisation managing animals, Animals Asia has often sought the knowledge and expertise of members of the international zoo community to ensure we best meet the needs of rescued bears.
Our collaborative approach does not mean that Animals Asia supports the overarching concept of keeping wild animals in captivity. We recognise that for some animals, captivity is the only option due to their inability to survive in the wild, or due to their natural home being destroyed or under threat.
However, we are also deeply concerned about the welfare of many thousands of captive wild animals in zoos, safari parks and marine parks, living in the most appalling conditions, and suffering both physically and psychologically.
We recognise it is not possible for any captive facility to provide for all the physical, behavioural and psychological needs of the animals they house. The level at which a captive wild animal facility can provide for these needs depends on a variety of factors, including, knowledge and expertise of behaviour management and enclosure design.
Then there’s the required veterinary skills and facilities available, the level of staff training, the complexities of the species exhibited and the willingness of the management team to prioritise the needs of the animals over money or public demand. All of these factors will differ widely within captive wild animal facilities. Some animals will enjoy a good quality of life, while others suffer each day, without even their most basic needs being adequately met.
Despite our often close working relationship, Animals Asia sanctuaries and zoos generally maintain a fundamental difference. While Animals Asia is about meeting the needs of the animals as individuals, in general, zoos manage animals as part of a population. Therefore the welfare of the individual cannot always be guaranteed throughout their lifetime. While zoos continue to adopt this approach, the interests of individual animals are likely to be compromised. This is a fundamental problem of the modern zoo.
Part of the solution, or part of the problem?
There is, of course, the argument that zoos fulfil a preservation and an education role. But by displaying animals in unnatural environments and, in some cases, training them to perform demeaning and humiliating tricks for public entertainment, can they really claim to be promoting empathy and respect for animals?
Our children need to learn about the natural environment and our responsibilities to protect it. An alternative approach would be to foster empathy and respect for the rich array of wild animals with whom our children share their immediate environment. They could use this empathy and respect as a springboard to learn about other species which are not native to their own countries or regions.
We need to ensure our children are animal aware – aware of the threats animals face and aware of the choices they can make to help to protect and conserve species within their natural environment.
For the foreseeable future, zoos will continue to have the support of the general public and we will continue to work with them to improve the welfare of captive wild animals. We will also work to end the abusive practices which all too often take place in the name of entertainment.
In the meantime we will also support a fundamental shift within this general philosophy to one where the keeping of wild animals in captivity is no longer seen as solution to a global man-made crisis.
About the Author
As Animals Asia’s Animal Welfare Director, David Neale works to improve the plight of animals in zoos and safari parks and increase overall veterinary and welfare standards in countries in Asia. His prolific career has taken him all over the world, rescuing animals in Bolivia, working as an ecologist in England and promoting animal welfare education in schools and universities. Since joining Animals Asia in 2002, David has traveled extensively across the continent helping to rescue moon bears in Vietnam and carrying out zoo investigations in China.