During my last visit to a zoo, I never really felt at ease. Beyond the collective gasps of awe and screams of excitement, an underlying sense of moral wrong constantly lingered as I went from cage to cage, enclosure to enclosure.
As a biologist, sometimes I feel obliged to be enraptured by the first-hand experience of animals and their behaviour. Seeing wild beasts with your own eyes is inspiring in its own right. In fact, it was in a zoo I decided I wanted to be a biologist. But several textbooks later and five years on, it is the study of natural life that has brought me this unease and hence this question: is keeping animals in captivity anything more than a cruel anthropological form of entertainment?
A study surveying over 4,500 individual elephants revealed that the median life span of elephants who died of natural causes in captivity was merely a third of their ‘free-living’ counterparts residing in Kenya’s Amboseli Park.
It was also shown that Asian elephants living in European zoos had a median life span of less than half of those working in a Myanmar Timber Enterprise.
Before I go any further, let me assure you I am not an animal rights activist with a virtual rucksack full of preachy PETA leaflets. The term zoochosis, an umbrella term for any unusual behaviour exhibited by caged animals in distress, loneliness or boredom, has been bandied around by animal protection activist groups. An online search for the term yields no qualified definitions, immediately making me skeptical that the condition really exists. A real psychological condition or not, it is not unusual to notice an animal behind glass restlessly pacing in circles or overtly aggressive behaviour.
It seems zoos are now having to justify themselves as something more than a money-spinning attraction. Ralph Armond, director general of London Zoo, has been keen to emphasise his zoo’s green agenda.
“If we can get across why paying money to see those animals will help save them in the long term, I believe we have an increasing relevance,” he said to the Independent.
The Zoological Society of London, responsible for London and Whipsnade Zoo, fund 40 field conservation projects beyond their own boundaries; these range from being local to international schemes. Despite being a largely responsible and professional organization, these extracurricular missions of virtue do not distract from that fact zoos must still place animals under limited conditions in the first place.
The hoardes of school children at any zoo would suggest the vast majority of people in society see a visit to a zoo as educational. In countries lacking in ‘exotic’ indigenous wildlife trips to the zoo will be the only chance many people will have to see animals such as zebras, leopards and elephants in their lifetime. This is invaluable in not just inspiring the next generation of zoologists and wildlife enthusiasts, but allowing the casual visitor to take stock of the natural wonders in the world they live in.
Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, argues that as much or even more educational benefit can be achieved from a distance.
“People don’t learn that much; we would contend they learn more from a well-crafted wildlife documentary,” he claimed in 2008.
The elephant study suggests the cause of compromised survivorship was due to factors involving obesity and/or stress. So, are organisations such as the London Zoo simply claiming a few must suffer for the good of the masses? If so, it is far from being the most detestable ethos to be operating under.
Zoos undoubtedly provide a source of scientific discovery and knowledge, which ultimately profits the natural world around us as well as ourselves. It is the immediate cost and ensuing moral dilemma that will probably mean I’ll rather take my children to an African safari park than the local zoo.