Zoos: The Conservation Myth
Allan Gatland, ZooCheck
NZ : printed in Animals Today vol.3.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. 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:
1. that they aid conservation,
2. that they educate about conservation, using animals as ambassadors.
This myth runs along these lines: zoos hold animals in captivity, breeding up their numbers and in 20 - 50 - 100 + years time will be able to release these animals back into the wild. 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. (Setchell et al. Gastroenterology 1987; vol.93:225-33)
Zoo animals are often keep in socially inappropriate groups - where solitary animals are held in group situations; group animals held singularly or in such confined areas that natural behaviours and interactions are impossible. 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:
"It has become customary, in recent years, for zoos and safari parks to respond to the growing public interest in conservation by claiming that by keeping endangered animals such as tiger in captivity they are ensuring the survival of the species.....such talk shows an astonishing ignorance of the free born tiger.
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. 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." (Guy Mountfort, 1981)
There is also the danger that zoo bred animals will introduce diseases to the wild population (to which the wild population has no immunity) or that the captive bred animals will have lost their immunity to native diseases.
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). However only 1.4% (19 species) were identified as being candidates for reintroduction of captive bred animals with the rider that this was best undertaken at purpose built breeding facilities located near or adjacent to the natural habitats. These are very different from traditional zoos.
In fact according to a joint World Society for the Protection of Animals and Born Free Foundation report (1994) "The Zoo Inquiry" of 5926 endangered species identified by the IUCN only 120 (2%) are involved in zoo breeding programmes world-wide with only 16 successfully returned to the wild, several of which had only minimal involvement with zoos. 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.
When their conservation arguments begin to fall apart under examination zoos often fall back on their second myth: that zoos keep animals in captivity as representatives or ambassadors for their species or habitat, using them to educate the public to respect the animals and to support conservation. Zoos argue that the individual animal pays the price of captivity for the good of the species as a whole. 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. David Hancocks of the Arizona - Sonora Desert Museum writes:
"Most people's knowledge about endangered species is limited to the few (and invariably charismatic) species that have received special attention from zoos, such as Elephants, Tigers and Gorillas. 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." (Hancocks 1994)
Far from providing an understanding through education, zoos have themselves become part of, and in some respects intensified, the problem.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:
"Few people realize the monotony of zoos. 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. 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." (Metro 1994)
Psychological deprivation and physical degeneration or injury are not the only cost to zoo animals- some pay for their captivity with their lives. 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".
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.
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.....now.