One day we’ll look back on zoos as an abomination

Published by The Times (31st May, 2017)

Tigers are among the most magnificent animals on earth. They are largely solitary predators of immense strength and beauty that can range over hundreds of miles in the wild, mostly at night. Yet thousands are held in captivity for human enjoyment: there are more in the United States alone than remain in the wild, despite a recent growth in numbers.

An Oxford University study found that a tiger’s zoo enclosure was typically 18,000 times smaller than its natural roaming range. These are giant cats with powerful jaws that can kill prey twice their size, so is it any surprise that there has been a series of tragedies around the world involving incarcerated tigers turning on keepers?

The latest came on Monday at Hamerton Zoo Park, where tigers, wolves, cheetahs, meerkats, monkeys and reptiles are among the creatures stuffed into a 25-acre patch of Cambridgeshire. The victim, Rosa King, was devoted to animals, like many keepers. Yet her terrible death should prompt fresh questions over wild animals being kept imprisoned for our entertainment.

Scientists are finding that animals are much smarter and more sensitive, their social structures more complex, than previously assumed. Yet we see the likes of lions, gorillas and elephants routinely packed into pens for human pleasure. Even those funny meerkats should have roaming ranges 330,000 times bigger than are usually found in zoos. No wonder many caged creatures display depression, stress and repetitive behaviour, despite often heartfelt efforts to stimulate them.

Britain has more than 500 places exhibiting wild animals to the public. Many boast of being educational centres or places of conservation. Yet David Attenborough offers more insight into wildlife on television than most zoos. And it makes far better financial and biological sense to concentrate conservation efforts in native habitats rather than spend millions on a few captives being driven bonkers with boredom.

The tide is turning against performing animals. Ringling Brothers, the best-known circus in the United States, famed for its lions, leopards and tigers, closed this month after 146 years. Scottish MPs are looking at banning such shows. But zoos are barely any better. I spent many happy hours visiting them as both a child and a father, but they appear increasingly immoral institutions. Future generations will look back with disbelief at such animal abuse, much as we view bear-baiting and cock-fighting with profound distaste today.

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