By Ruby Ellis
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that at least 10,000 species are going extinct every year. There are less than 70 Amur leopards left in the Russian forests they call home and the northern white rhinoceros was recently declared functionally extinct when the last remaining male of the species died. If endangered animals aren’t kept in captivity, the possibility of them dying out forever is all too real.
But not everyone agrees that this justifies keeping animals locked up.
“Animals kept in zoos are denied everything that is natural and important to them” says Aliana Turkel, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Every aspect of their lives is controlled and managed. They are housed inside cages that don’t come close to the jungles, deserts, and forests that are their natural homes. So that humans can have a few fleeting moments of distraction, these animals are sentenced to a lifetime of misery.”
She explains that animals in captivity can display distressing behaviours. “The physical and mental frustration of captivity often leads to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behaviour in animals, known as ‘zoochosis’. This mental illness is marked by symptoms such as pacing, neck twisting, head bobbing and bar biting.”
PETA do not believe that zoos are effectively contributing to conservation efforts. “Captive breeding programs do little to protect wild populations and returning captive bred animals to their natural homelands is difficult and costly, so most zoos don’t even attempt it. In fact, no captive breeding of endangered big carnivores, such as tigers, lions, and leopards, has resulted in the release of these animals back to their natural home.
“Zoos tout their participation in species preservation, but the vast majority of animals displayed in them are not endangered.”
Aliana believes that animals can only be preserved by looking after the natural habitat they live in. “Warehousing animals in zoos is not the solution to the problem of trying to save them. If wildlife as we know it is to survive, the primary focus must shift from collections of animals in captivity to habitat preservation. Keeping animals inside cages, in zoos or any animal display, does not foster respect for living beings in the wild.”
Philip Knowling, a spokesperson for Paignton Zoo in Devon argues that reintroduction to the wild is not the focus for many zoos as it is often unsuccessful. He describes zoos as an “ark” for if (or when, he added) species are lost in the wild, and he makes the point that many natural habitats have already been decimated by humans. “The wild is a rare and precious commodity itself, as habitats are razed by humans for money or survival. Where will animals go if we try to put them into a wild that is disappearing? How can we release animals into the wild knowing they will be hunted or their habitat destroyed?”
“If there’s one word that sums up the modern zoo, it’s inspiration”
In order to prevent boredom and stress, animal enrichment is essential for captive animals. It also helps to stimulate their natural instincts and encourages behaviour they would engage in in the wild. “To keep psychological wellbeing at the optimum level we provide the animals with puzzles, unusual scents, novel objects, light, sound and changes in routine” says Philip.
Another important role of the zoo is education. “If there’s one word that sums up the modern zoo, it’s inspiration. We need, desperately, to inspire the next generation of conservationists, zoologists, botanists and activists.”
Paignton Zoo animals are currently the star of the CBBC show The Zoo. The show follows the daily lives of the animals who are given computer generated mouths and human voices and is narrated by Hugh Dennis.
“It’s fun and entertaining, but it’s introducing kids to the idea of zoos, animal care and conservation” Philip praises the mockumentary. He also stresses that when he talks about zoos, he is referring to “top zoos, as represented in the UK and Ireland by BIAZA” which is the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To become a member of BIAZA, zoos are subject to strict regulations. According to their requirements for membership document published this year, not only do they have to adhere to high standards of animal welfare, but zoos must also “demonstrate direct involvement in, and the support of conservation activities, both locally and internationally”. So, is there a place for zoos in modern society?
There is no doubt that many top zoos are contributing to the growth of endangered species, caring for their animals and inspiring a future generation. Or should wild animals be left in the wild, and the focus be on protecting their natural homes? Whatever approach people take to conservation, the statistics on extinction are worrying. According to the UN Environment Programme, the current rate of extinction is “nearly 1000 times the natural rate” and “greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago”.
And when animals are gone, from both the wild and captivity, they are gone.