A love and compassion for animals is the cornerstone of everything we do. And the people who visit zoos do so because they love animals and are eager to see them up close. However, as last night’s Horizon documentary illuminated, there’s no guarantee that zoos are meeting the needs of the animals they keep, which is problematic for the animal lover. There are some big questions that need answering. Are zoos really conserving wild animals? What effect does captivity have on wild-roaming animals like elephants, polar bears and gorillas? TV naturalist Liz Bonnin investigates why and how animals are kept in zoos, and explores the ethical issues that zoos are facing today.

A Spotlight on Elephants

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Photo: Safari Partners

The programme shone a light on elephant welfare in particular, as creating an environment for elephants to thrive in is very, very tricky. In 2003, game-changing research found that living in captivity halved the lifespan of elephants. Scientists found that captive-born female Asian elephants, who make up the majority of the zoo population, live to 19 years old on average, whereas even elephants being exploited in timber camps live to 40 on average. Dr Ros Clubb, who worked on this study, said, “It really raised a massive red flag that something is not right in the way that zoos are keeping elephants”.

So what is being done about these jaw-dropping findings? Detroit Zoological Park took the initiative to move their elephants to a sanctuary in 2004, which is certainly a step in the right direction. To have broken with a historic tradition of keeping elephants, held his hands up and admitted to not being able to provide high enough standards of welfare for these animals is a fantastic first step. Meanwhile, here in the UK, the government has told British zoos that they must improve welfare by 2021, or they risk phasing out elephants in zoos, so there is hope for future generations of captive elephants.

Strange Behaviour

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Photo: Ben Saunders

We learned that many animals in captivity exhibit odd repetitive behaviour, called stereotypy. As many as 80% of carnivores performed stereotypic behaviour in captivity, which is rarely seen in the wild. Professor Georgia Mason took a magnifying glass to the causes of this behaviour, and found that species who were most likely to be stereotypic were those with large home ranges who travelled a long way every day in the wild. Wild orcas range 100 miles a day, while polar bears have a home range of up to 250,000 square miles, which sure sounds like a pricey patch of land for a zoo to even dream of owning.

If the animals are already in captivity, the size of enclosures would need to be tailored to the needs of each species as much as possible, the programme pointed out. Also, Professor Mason found that if the animals are given more choices in their day to day life, such as whether to stay close to the other animals in the enclosure or whether to spend the day alone in an entirely different part of the enclosure, they show less stereotypic behaviour. Perhaps there are more ways the lives of these animals could be improved in the meantime.

Are Zoos Conserving Wild Animals?

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Photo: Highland Adventures

The programme found that many zoos have reframed themselves as conservation centres, but this has been strongly challenged. In fact, the programme highlighted that 90% of all species kept in zoos are not endangered in the wild. We found that according to a report by the Born Free Foundation, English zoos appear to be making an insignificant contribution to the conservation of threatened and endangered species. For serious want of another phrase, the elephant in the room is the fact that zoos are primarily a display of wild animal collections designed to entertain the public, not to conserve endangered species. However, if these stats were all to change and a majority of their efforts were devoted to conservation, that would certainly be applaudable progress.

Wildlife Belongs in the Wild

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Photo: narenda44mail

As the phenomenon of abnormal stereotypic behaviour shows, wildlife belongs in the wild. Luckily, there are also organisations committed to protecting species in the wild, such as the Born Free Foundation. Although they didn’t appear in the documentary, we think it is important to include their research and actions in this debate. They work with local communities, finding compassionate solutions so people and wildlife can live alongside one another. Born Free explicitly opposes all zoos, and has conducted some heavy duty research into the performance of UK zoos, finding that there is no guarantee that the zoos are being compliant with legislation on how to care for wild animals.

Do Zoos Have a Future?

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Photo: Paul Davies

In the programme, Ron Kagan of Detroit Zoological Society says that in the future, zoos will have fewer animals, fewer species, and species in an appropriate climate, with a greater emphasis on welfare. However, as it stands, there are big changes that need to be made. Luckily, as the successful campaign against SeaWorld has shown, the changing attitude of the public can have a big positive effect on the practices of these organisations. Plus, the very existence of this programme shows, this issue is in the spotlight and will have to be addressed. Hopefully more people will come onboard with the idea that animals should not be used for entertainment, but should be left alone to do their thang in the wild.

The programme will be available for another 29 days on BBC iPlayer, and is well worth a watch to see all the sides of the debate. We recommend checking out the Born Free Foundation and their wonderful work, and the work of World Animal Protection on the issues of animal welfare in zoos too.

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