Should we close our zoos? Is a controversial question that has been thrown around for decades now as social consciousness and awareness of animal welfare has evolved and grown. It is also a question that makes people angry; me especially so I was nervous to sit down last night and catch up with Sunday nights Horizon episode: Should We Close Our Zoos?
I hold my hands up; I was fully expecting to spend an hour shouting at my laptop screen as I watched the BBC equivalent of Blackfish. The title of the programme wasn’t giving me much hope nor was the fact that PETA, Born Free and other anti-captivity organisations seemed to be plugging it all over Twitterverse. So actually I was pleasantly surprised by Liz Bonnins attempt to tackle a highly emotive subject.
Five minutes in we were watching a Sable antelope being cut up and fed to carnivores at Copenhagen Zoo as the issue of culling was dealt with. Unless you were living in a Wifi blackhole in 2014 you will probably remember Marius the Giraffe, a healthy, 2 year old male living at Copenhagen Zoo until he was culled and fed to the lions to large public outcry. Basically he was 2014’s Cecil the Lion.
I was genuinely impressed by how well they presented the issue of culling. The unfortunate fact is that culling is a widely used practice to maintain the genetic health of a captive population. It seems perverse to kill an animal in order to preserve it, however breeding populations in zoos are tightly controlled with endangered animals being part of studbooks which determine who is the best potential match for each other. There is no time for romance, it’s basically like being forced to date with your top prospects on a dating website.
Of course what can’t be controlled is the offspring produced. Sometimes if too many of a certain gender are produced it can lead to welfare issues caused by difficulty housing them, if no other zoo is willing to take the individual then euthanasia may be considered the best option for the animal.
Obviously euthanasia opens up a whole host of welfare arguments by itself. However Bonnin presented the case for it concisely with a visit to Copenhagen Zoo reinforcing that is a normal practice amongst zoos who meet high welfare standards. The issue is that many within the zoo community appear they would rather play down this practice to the public, this is a key theme running throughout the documentary which I wholly agree with. Communication is vital in the sustained importance of zoos.
From then on we explored various nuances of zoo life and of course Seaworld came up and wasn’t portrayed in a particularly splendid light. But then again even if they were, the critics would still take every opportunity to undermine them.
The question of Seaworld did however bring us onto which animals should we keep in zoos. A huge proportion of zoo animals are not listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List (which is essentially the Bible of endangered animals), a fact which angered many viewers across Twitter. It should however be pointed out that zoos house species which although are considered Least Concern on the list are still at risk of threats which could swiftly rank them higher on the list.
I think Detroit Zoo summed it up perfectly with their image of future zoos; we must have “quality over quantity” with regards to the species we keep. The first mainstream public zoos were stamp collections of exotic animals and although the conditions we keep them in have changed dramatically the species we keep hasn’t. With enhanced access to digital media, it is no longer necessary to see rare animals in captivity to get up close to them (whether that is as inspiring however is up to you) and future zoos need to capitalise upon this. With further scientific studies we can determine which species are best adapted to captivity and prioritise these for conservation in zoos.
Whilst Bonnin essentially raised the same arguments which anti-captivity activists have long been plugging, she thankfully highlighted some of the lesser displayed work of zoos. What should not be underestimated is the funding, research and impact zoos have on conservation out in the wild. Whilst viewers may have been disappointed by the percentage of money zoos spend on conservation in the wild, it still amounts to a huge sum that would be sorely missed. You only have to look at the impact Seaworlds plummeting profits is having on their conservation projects to remind yourself of this.
Surprisingly I had very little problem with this documentary, yes more time could have been spent on the important role zoos play in education, more examples of their fantastic work could have been given however it was only an hour long! Should zoos be closed is a hugely challenging, emotive question, I mean honestly have you ever tried to have this debate with anyone without it ending in a slightly heated argument? For some reason when it comes to animal welfare and conservation there never seems to be a middle ground or impartial commentators.
Bonnin actually plays the role of impartial commentator fantastically always presenting the two sides of the story. The facts of which either side are happy to dispute now. This is actually the problem I have with this documentary, because it featured negative arguments for zoos (as rightly it should!) that is what people have latched onto.
I quickly Googled the documentary before writing this and found a couple of newspaper reviews, and a whole host of what I would call anti-zoo propaganda which are misinterpreting some of the arguments given, (PETA I’m looking at you here!).
Changing social attitudes means zoos are once again in the firing line for activists; the difference this time is the advent of the internet which brings the fight to virtually anyone and everyone. We live in a day and age where people share news stories without reading them, without critically thinking about them and without fact checking them. Sensationalist stories about culling are doomed to go viral in the 21st Century because of the world we live in, which is why it is time to talk.
As the documentary points out, zoos have been fighting a battle for decades which can’t be won unless human nature changes. Currently human nature appears to be keyboard activist; tweet and share disgust for an issue whilst being part of the problem. Documentaries like Blackfish have encouraged this one-dimensional thinking and have the potential to harm frontline conservation.
Thankfully Horizon did not make a documentary like that, but instead emphasised how maybe the middle ground needs to be found or how maybe we should have a more impartial conversation about where we see the future of zoos going. I personally hope that this documentary has inspired people to be part of that conversation and think about both sides of the argument, instead of focussing on the negative arguments which were portrayed as it would not do justice to the Bonnin or her documentary.
Which is why I will leave you with the question…Should We Close Our Zoos?
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