Look Zoos Talking

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Look Zoos Talking

  1. Zoos are holdovers from the old, obsolete days of world conquest and empire. When forcing animals in our wars, example: Hannibal, for bloody entertainment, as in the Roman Coliseum, as pets by dictators and the rich, and even the taking and enslaving of human beings was also normal and acceptable.

    I challenge zoo owners, if you really care about these animals, phase these prisons out and instead purchase and conserve vast acreages of land and rewild them. Instead of tearing the lives of animal families apart, fill them with wild rescues and orphans of human abuse, those which would otherwise die.

    Liked by 3 people

      • I should probably clarify that when I mention the taking of animals as pets by dictators and the rich that I mean wild, exotic animals like lions, tigers, bears elephants etc. IMO having pets that have long been domesticated and which we include as normal family members like dogs and cats is fine and even beneficial for the cause of conservation as it promotes the love of species other than just ourselves.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Animals Are Feeling Beings Too and commented:
    This is a great post! I do not support zoos. I also will not attend the Renaissance Festival any longer because they have elephants there to give rides. I’m fairly certain the elephants are not enjoying going around and around over and over in a small circle with people on their back.
    We have to stop using animals for our entertainment, this is not what they are here for. Let them live out their lives!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Glad you decided to follow my blog. Because I blog about the wide variety of topics in which I have a strong interest as well as write poetry which I publish on the blog, I feel confident every week something you like will show up.

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  4. The question is, does the good zoo’s do out way the bad ? In most cases, no, But we must also ask, is there another way that humans can be exposed and become inspired by wild animals ? I’d like to think that finding an alternative to captivity that also promotes the feelings and interest that a Zoo creates for animals would be the best thing to support. I personally love wildlife documentaries (such as ones narrated by David Attenborough) and I think they do a great job not only in entertainment but also in education.

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    • I agree that wild life documentaries do a great job in educating and entertaining and show you the REAL wild. In zoos you get absolutely nothing like the wild, they look like big pets. It is disgusting to see.

      As for children who live in cities and the zoo being their only possibility to know these beautiful creatures, that’s not true, the documentaries do a much better job and no animal has to suffer, let’s not forget the CAPTURE and the TRANSPORT and their ARRIVAL and then…. THE REALISATION THEY WILL NEVER BE FREE AGAIN.

      Even with zoos millions of children don’t ever experience wild animals in person and they are perfectly fine without them. It’s just another excuse for man to prove he thinks his species is better and more important than the rest and of course making money. Thankfully zoo attendance in on the decline and I for one will celebrate the day they are all extinct.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I get a profound sense of sadness thinking about the caged animals. A few years ago we visited Longleat and it felt very much like the animals and their care was the priority and we worked around them. They provided wonderful educational workshops which touched on habitats and adaptations and I was very impressed. London Zoo does not give the same feeling.

    I’m not sure if Longleat have poor practices behind the scenes but it certainly felt like we were guests in the animals’ home.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A student who graduated last year from my school did her senior project on “Blackfish.” Her work generated a lot of awareness. Thank you for your post on this topic.

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  7. Thanks for the persuasive evidence and defining “zoochosis.” This will help when I debate the issue with friends. Having lived in numerous “tourist destinations” I have seen many designs (San Diego’s being the least abusive), but some animals just can’t cope with the captivity. I recall the continual “figure 8” pacing of the big cats… Thanks for your advocacy work.
    Lisa

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  8. This is really hard. Zoos and most museums are largely for kids, may of whom live in cities with no access to wildlife. This ignorance leads to people thinking all animals are pets and that they need to be fed, hence our problems with feral birds in cities etc. It has also been hinted that feeding alligators encourages them to approach humans, so may have played a role in the recent tragedy in Florida.

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  9. It’s difficult to maintain a balance. The Tennessee Aquarium here does some great work in breeding and releasing fish, such as the barrens topminnow, back into the Tennessee River system, as well as studying the Tennessee River ecosystem as a whole.

    We have three problems:
    1. Protecting wildlife in their natural habitats.
    2. Rescuing wildlife when they and their habitats are endangered.
    3. Keeping people interested in wildlife so that we can get the resources needed for their protection.

    Zoos and aquariums are great at keeping people interested, and, properly managed, can do good work in wildlife rescue. They don’t do much for protecting wildlife in their natural habitats. My daughter and I enjoy going to the Tennessee Aquarium and Chattanooga Zoo, but those experiences pale in comparison to seeing a bison up close (too close!) at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, elk at Rocky Mountain National Park, or a raven at Death Valley National Park. But even in those places we have to balance protecting the environment with making the parks accessible enough for people to explore and learn. I am so torn by Disney, because they donate a significant amount of money to wildlife conservation and do an exceptional job (recently) of promoting wildlife through its Disneynature film unit, but was rated the 10th worst zoo for elephants in 2014.

    Like almost everything else, it’s complex.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This really is a difficult one. Having experienced and seen the inspiration and feeling for wildlife that can come to children through visiting zoos, there really is another side to this. And a lot of zoos play a role in conserving species, and at least tell a good story about care of the natural world. So yes, let’s improve the standards and get more towards regenerating natural habitats such as with Trees For Life, but don’t think of getting rid of zoos or tarring the best with the follies of the worst…

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    • Originally I meant to touch upon this but the blog was turning into too much of an essay.

      I think there alternatives to zoos when it comes to education and inspiration for children. Nature park, reserves, sanctuaries, documentaries, formal education.

      In terms of conserving species, they do a very poor job of it. The vast majority of zoos do not rewild, or free the animals they keep. In terms of the true requirements of proper conservation I have already showed how and why zoos are not keen to pursue it.

      I think they do serve an educational purpose but that purpose should not supersede their purposes for conservation and animal well being

      Liked by 5 people

      • I agree whole heartedly except for the last sentence. A zoo is the last place any wild animal should be. They are so completely out of their element that there is nothing educational about it. I personally am more extremist (no animal should serve any of our selfish needs) but pushing my extremist views aside and trying to be objective and delve deep into the realms of my childhood memories and, some adult ones until my eyes were completely opened…. “I don’t ever remember seeing an animal happy or at ease, I don’t ever remember learning anything I hadn’t already read in a book or seen on a wild life documentary, in fact, what I did see in the zoo did not resemble at all what I had learnt. Those animals always look like ghosts of what they used to be. This I saw as a child on school trips. I was born and raised in London so I’ve been to London and Chessington zoos many times then as an adult I’ve been a few times to Barcelona zoo. I can, without a doubt (extremism aside I promise) say that there in no conservation in what I saw, no education, only suffering and total submission. I don’t think that those two words should ever be used to describe a beautiful wild animal. I pledged a long time ago to never ever go back to a zoo or to any circus with animals.

        Liked by 1 person

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