Zoos and Wildlife Parks

Zoos and wildlife parks pose some awkward and sometimes unsolvable questions for responsible society. Should we keep animals in captivity, simply to amuse ourselves and our children? Shall we be proud, when future generations look back on and judge this practice?

The situation is clouded by the conservation issue. Zoos are purported to be able to serve a conservation and rehabilitation function, for threatened species. This concept does not always bear scrutiny. Recent long-term research by Oxford University shows that elephants in captivity in zoos kill their own young, do not live as long, breed less effectively and, therefore decline in numbers faster than their wild counterparts. It may be surprising to note that even those elephants in logging camps in the Far East score better on these same parameters. The young elephant in the picture was observed to pace the perimeter of the enclosure for the whole time it was observed (more than 30 minutes), displaying the stress of captivity.

Lovely zoo exhibits though the elephants make, the conservation idea does not seem to hold good in their case. Maybe this is on account of their natural longevity, their naturally tight family bonds, their great emotional sensitivity, the sheer expanse of their natural range and their vast body size. Each species will have its own considerations, of course, so what applies in the case of elephants may not apply to some other species, who may find captivity less harrowing.

Another argument for keeping zoos is an educational one. Zoos may be the only chance for urban children to see and to begin to take an interest in, admire, respect and understand the diversity of the world's wildlife. Does this justify the existence of such establishments and the confinement of wild animals in this way?

Think very carefully and do some basic research, before visiting (and therefore funding) a zoo.

Each zoo must be judged on its own merits:

  • Are the animals housed well and compatibly with the needs of the individual species?
  • Do they have sufficient space?
  • Are herbivores given sufficient acreage?
  • Do the animals exhibit ‘stereotypical' behaviour?
  • Are they well nourished?
  • Is the food suitable?
  • Are they clean and in good condition, in health, body and coat?
  • Are they allowed privacy or are they open to merciless scrutiny?
  • Are they able to perform to the behavioural norm for the species?
  • Is the environment rich and varied and is the climate suitable?
  • What is the contribution made by the zoo, to environment, conservation and rehabilitation?
  • How much of the zoo’s income (i.e. your money) is spent on projects in the animals’ home lands?
  • What is the educational contribution made by the zoo, both here and in the home lands?
  • What message comes across to visitors, especially children?
  • Is the zoo more about people and for people, rather than about animals and for animals?

If you visit a zoo, look out for animals exhibiting stereotypic behaviour, betraying the stress of confinement.

The money that you pay goes to perpetuating the enterprise, whether it is good or bad. The short-term gain of whiling away some happy hours and amusing or educating children must be seen in the longer-term context of its consequences. It must not desensitise our children to the mistreatment and demeaning of animals. It must not give them the wrong message, which may, in turn, pass down generations, as it has for so long in the past. Animals are not our playthings. Zoos should, on balance, be net contributors to animals and to the responsible education of our future generations, if they are to merit survival.

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