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The misconception and flaws of the zoos and wild animal parks

Number 4 January 1996 Over the last half of this century there has been a large scale change in the perceptions we have about the importance of conservation and the need to preserve natural habitats. With the growth of these concepts came the idea of using zoos as arks to preserve endangered species and to release them back into the wild at some later date.

The misconception and flaws of the zoos and wild animal parks

However as the century draws to a close we are confronted with overwhelming evidence that this concept was flawed from the beginning and that zoos today are continuing to function not because they are conservation centres but on the strength of their own myths.

Zoos have two myths with which they ward off criticism: Zoo Conservation This myth runs along these lines: In order to achieve this goal zoos need to provide conditions exactly mirroring natural habitats, enough space to maintain a continual breeding pool without excessive inbreeding and an adequate flow of animals between zoos to maintain genetic diversity. This just simply does not occur.

With limited space and high transport costs for large animals it is impossible to maintain species in zoos for the extended periods of time needed to establish safe areas and to regenerate habitats in the wild before release can occur. Even if zoos were able to maintain sufficiently large groups in captivity, over time the animals themselves would be altered as zoos are unable to reproduce appropriate natural conditions for the animals. Captive zoo animals are confined within unnatural conditions and are often fed unnatural foods.

In 1987 researchers found that commercial diets may be one of the major factors in declining fertility of captive Cheetah populations in US zoos. While animals in the wild receive stimulus by interacting with their environment as well as by seeking and consuming food, avoiding predators and finding mates, zoo animals in their controlled artificial environments lack these stimuli.

They are subject to enforced idleness, which results in them developing abnormal behaviour patterns such as zoochotic behaviours, apathy or self-mutilation. They also lose the skills needed to survive in the wild.

One of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund and of Operation Tiger states the case for captive tigers: Not having been taught from birth to maturity the skills of hunting, such tigers would either die of starvation, be killed by the first wild tiger they met, or be obliged to take very easy prey such as domestic animals and humans and would therefore be quickly shot.

  1. These glamorous species, however, represent only the glittering tip of a huge mass of life forms sinking into the abyss of extinction. Elephants live in complex matriarchal societies, and the consequences of removing individuals from the herd could very well be irreversible.
  2. Captive zoo animals are confined within unnatural conditions and are often fed unnatural foods.
  3. One or two sentence signs are the most you will find, usually telling you the animal's country of origin and habitat - more often than not there is a sharp contrast between the stated habitat and the actual conditions the animal is kept in.

Moreover; although zoo-bred tigers are usually well cared for, they are deprived of everything they need and enjoy in the wild except plentiful food. They may be healthy and contented in captivity, but inbreeding and the lack of mental and physical stimulus result in progressive cerebral degeneration which would make it almost impossible for them to adapt to the hazards of life in the jungle.

Despite these problems, zoos continue to breed animals without regard to the possible difficulties associated with their reintroduction. Zoo managements seem to have the attitude that at some unspecified time in the future someone will take the animals the zoos are breeding and solve these problems.

This amounts to little more than wishful thinking. Unless wildlife in captivity are from the beginning wholly managed with definite reintroduction in mind, then every generation kept under current conditions compounds the problem.

Zoos seem unable and unwilling to address these issues. Even if a fundamental change was to occur in zoo thinking - are zoos the place to conduct captive breeding?

In 1990 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature: IUCN identified survival action plans for 1370 species 418 were endangered. These are very different from traditional zoos.

  • Captive zoo animals are confined within unnatural conditions and are often fed unnatural foods;
  • This amounts to little more than wishful thinking;
  • They can get virtually as close as possible to these massive wild animals without worrying about getting hurt;
  • They may be healthy and contented in captivity, but inbreeding and the lack of mental and physical stimulus result in progressive cerebral degeneration which would make it almost impossible for them to adapt to the hazards of life in the jungle;
  • In fact, nothing could be further from the truth;
  • As Green Monsters, are you ready for that?

While zoos claim success in reintroduction programmes such as the Golden Lion Tamarin and Arabian Oryx, in fact the few cases continually referred to are the only examples of zoo bred reintroductions. Zoos argue that the individual animal pays the price of captivity for the good of the species as a whole.

  • With limited space and high transport costs for large animals it is impossible to maintain species in zoos for the extended periods of time needed to establish safe areas and to regenerate habitats in the wild before release can occur;
  • When we take a step back and deconstruct how zoos operate, the true cost of captivity becomes readily evident;
  • Perhaps, this is because displaying wild animals inside cages and behind bars in habitats that only remotely resemble their native habitat, in reality, does little to foster respect for wild animals;
  • This amounts to little more than wishful thinking;
  • Efforts to improve the environment for captive animals increased from there and slowly evolved into the modern zoo habitats many of us are familiar with today;
  • Even if zoos were able to maintain sufficiently large groups in captivity, over time the animals themselves would be altered as zoos are unable to reproduce appropriate natural conditions for the animals.

But is this conservation message actually transmitted and received, and is the cost worth paying? Visit almost any zoo and you will find that educational effort is a token gesture at best and is, in many cases, non-existent.

One or two sentence signs are the most you will find, usually telling you the animal's country of origin and habitat - more often than not there is a sharp contrast between the stated habitat and the actual conditions the animal is kept in.

Zoo exhibits rarely explain how and why species are on the brink of extinction. What do we learn about Orang-utans, a solitary primate living in dense rainforest while watching a group of Orang-utans living in a grass field with a few poles and chains to climb on?

Keeping abnormally behaving animals in artificial conditions is not conservation education, in fact it is the opposite. By presenting themselves with their increasing "public relations" budgets as successful conservation centres zoos lull people into a false sense of security.

  1. My fear is that the claim so loudly made by zoos that they are the modern arks, and their frantic publicity surrounding their breeding success with a handful of well known species, is creating a sense of public false security; as if we didn't have to worry about extinction of wild animals because zoos are going to save them.
  2. One of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund and of Operation Tiger states the case for captive tigers.
  3. Zoo Conservation This myth runs along these lines. It's the monotony which crushes their spirit, the endless hours which numb their brains.

These glamorous species, however, represent only the glittering tip of a huge mass of life forms sinking into the abyss of extinction. My fear is that the claim so loudly made by zoos that they are the modern arks, and their frantic publicity surrounding their breeding success with a handful of well known species, is creating a sense of public false security; as if we didn't have to worry about extinction of wild animals because zoos are going to save them.

And what of the cost to the animals themselves? We have all seen examples in zoos of wildlife suffering the effects of their captivity. Animals sitting lifeless and apathetic for hours on end or continually pacing and swaying over the same patch of ground, overcrowded conditions leading to increased levels of aggression with no place to hide. After recent investigation into New Zealand's largest zoo freelance journalist Selwyn Manning wrote: When the public visits a zoo they see the animals pace or sway behind their walls for three, maybe four, hours.

But for these animals every day is the same and during visiting time they stare at the stream of faces in the crowds.

How Zoos are Distorting Our View of the Natural World

Everyone is the same. Everyone just stares back. Meal time is always the same food, every night. They sit captive, thousands of miles from the climate for which evolution has adapted them. It's the monotony which crushes their spirit, the endless hours which numb their brains.

It is an accepted practice in zoos to kill healthy animals for reasons of being "surplus to requirements", for showing "behavioural problems" or to "control overcrowding". What can be done? With the weight of evidence turning against zoos, how can they still continue to function and in some cases expand? Zoos have become institutions and status symbols for the cities and states that own them.

Universities, animal regulatory authorities and even some animal welfare groups use zoo facilities for their own benefit. Driven by self interest, and with years of tacit approval behind them, these groups - who should be leading the way towards much needed improvements - are forced to support the zoo myths or risk looking hypocritical or incompetent for their lack of action.

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Changes in zoos will only be effected by individuals or groups deciding to take some action themselves. Really look at your local zoo; think about the conditions under which the wildlife you see there lives; ask questions; write complaints and follow them up - don't be satisfied with glib " it's really not that bad" responses. But most of all get behind your local animal welfare organization and work with them. Just reading about the issue and expecting someone else to solve the problem is not enough.

It doesn't matter which organization you support but, for the sake of the zoo animals, positive action is needed.