Lets Talk About “Should We Close Our Zoos?”

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?

Should We Close Our Zoos? A Question Which Makes Many Nervous! Image by Emily Stewart

Should We Close Our Zoos? A Question Which Makes Many Nervous!
Image by Emily Stewart

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.

Is it ethically right to cull a healthy giraffe?  Image by Emily Stewart

Is it ethically right to cull a healthy giraffe?
Image by Emily Stewart

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.

Which species should we be keeping in captivity?  Image by Emily Stewart

Which species should we be keeping in captivity?
Image by Emily Stewart

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!).

Zoos can be a hugely inspiring environment. Image by Emily Stewart

Zoos can be a hugely inspiring environment.
Image by Emily Stewart

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? 

Should We Close Our Zoos Is Available To Watch on BBC iPlayer Until 17th May 2016

Follow Me On Twitter To Stay Up To Date @Emilystewart991

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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for an interesting debate Emily! I find myself saying again on Wildlife Articles that not all animal welfare advocates are extremist! I haven’t watched the documentary, but I wanted to comment. I am able to see the benefit of zoos, which as you mention include public education, funding wildlife conservation and breeding programs for endangered species. Here in New Zealand, Auckland Zoo and Wellington Zoo are involved in wildlife conservation projects outside the zoos. They also provide enrichment programs for their animals. However, I don’t agree with keeping larger animals in zoos because I think it’s difficult to create an environment that allows them to exhibit their natural behaviour or give them sufficient freedom to roam. I also think it’s more inspiring to watch a wildlife documentary, or perhaps have an immersive virtual zoo experience, than to watch a large animal in an unnatural environment. I don’t see any value in seeing an orca in a tank or an elephant in an enclosure pushing logs. As you also mention, zoos should focus on the quality of the animal experience provided, rather than the quantity of animals. We should boycott zoos in countries with inferior animal welfare standards, and what can I say about China taking young African elephants from the wild or dolphins from drive hunts in Taiji? It’s crazy.

    • Hi Tracy,
      Thanks for the comment, I always think this is such a delicate subject which needs more debate rather than argument.
      With regards to larger animals I think its dependent on the species. Obviously we can’t recreate the large distances some animals travel everyday, but it is not always about space when it comes to zoo enclosures and giving your animals great welfare. There are some really innovative designs out there, just not enough and unfortunately out the price range of many.
      Again with the documentaries, I agree certain things always look better on TV. But I’ve never had goosebumps from watching a documentary. The look of awe and amazement you sometimes see on the faces of children at the zoo is irreplaceable yet of course this doesn’t justify keeping animals somewhere without high welfare standards!

      Zoos must keep self-examining and improving. It’s not been all that long since we had chimp tea parties so who knows what the future may hold!

  2. michael bosley says:

    Always good to have a proper debate. On the one hand, it is surely impossible to argue that zoos provide really good quality environments for many animals – especially vertebrates. Even leaving aside the issues of welfare and morality, zoo populations are genetically limited, and the ecosystems they are required to live in are necessarily artificial and impoverished. On the other hand are arguments that captive animals can be bred to supplement failing wild populations.

    My trouble is that I can’t find much good evidence that zoo breeding programmes contribute to wild population viability or recovery. It’s mostly on the level of, “Well, we are finding out lots about the conditions needed to breed these animals in captivity, and maybe one day, this will help”

    For example, scanning the ZSL ‘conservation breeding’ programmes suggests that only a small minority have led to actual reintroductions to the wild. Those for Amur Leopards and Amur and Sumatran Tigers have resulted in zero reintroductions;. Where wild populations have been supplemented by captive bred animals (such as the hihi) the tend to be in-country, ‘close-to-nature’ conditions that aren’t much like ‘zoos’. Meanwhile, Seaworld has removed hundreds of cetaceans from the wild and successfully (re)introduced none.

    I imagine that your knowledge is greater than my own, Emily; I’d be really grateful if you could provide some evidence of substantial zoo-based reintroduction programmes. Thanks.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for commenting!

      With regards to reintroductions, this is a relatively new discipline as it were. Obviously breeding programmes and reintroduction have been talked about for a long time but as far as the science of it goes it’s all a bit novel. That’s why many species have never been reintroduced.
      Also some species will be harder to put back than others as they have potentially lost vital survival skills through living in captivity. So does this justify keeping them captive? It also comes down to funding, reintroductions are by no means cheap and sometimes it’s not viable just yet as the threats are still there so we’d be throwing money down the drain.

      However you asked for substantial zoo-based reintroductions. There are actually quite a few, just not of big charismatic animals like tigers. The black footed ferret is probably one of the most commonly used examples.
      But you also have the Californian Condor. Their population crashed to 22 individuals in the 1980s. San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo took in those 22 birds and then began intensively breeding them and reintroducing them. As it stands there are 268 condors in the wild and 167 in captivity. Lead poisoning is still a huge problem for this species however.

      European Bison are another example, thanks to zoos they hav e gone from virtual extinction to free-ranging across nine countries. I won’t go into the details but here is a link if you’d like to know more https://news.mongabay.com/2015/05/the-triumph-of-the-bison-europes-biggest-animal-bounces-back-a-century-after-vanishing/

      There’s are just some examples, of course I would love to be able to say that every zoo species is able to be returned one day. But sadly I cannot imagine that happening.

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