True animal lovers must recognise the danger of zoos

Published by The i paper (20th March, 2017)

A couple of nights ago I was woken by a giraffe. First I heard crashing sounds as it strode through the undergrowth, then loud snuffling and chomping. For 20 minutes I watched entranced as this glorious creature enjoyed a nocturnal feast on plants beside the tent in which I was staying, before it suddenly saw me and sauntered casually off. Then as I set off the next morning I saw a family of elephants, some elegant ibex, vervet monkeys sprinting along roofs and a warthog striding along the road as if late for a meeting.

I should add that I am in Kenya. As so often happens with foreign reporting, I ended up spending a night in an unexpected location so this was an unpredicted delight. A hornbill hopped down beside me at breakfast. As we drove along a dusty road to the airstrip, we stopped to watch a lioness as she sized up a solitary zebra that had ambled near her lair. She crouched as if to pounce, then let it pass. We rushed off to catch the plane.

It is a privilege to observe such majestic animals in the wild. Yet these moments forced me to focus on something I have been mulling for a while: what right do we have as humans to rip such creatures from their natural habitats and imprison them in zoos for our entertainment? I am not an animal rights fanatic and eat meat. Yet as a raft of studies reveal animals to be smarter and more sophisticated than once imagined, it seems strange we still stuff them behind bars. Bear baiting on city streets and dancing bears in circuses are no longer acceptable. So why do we allow this other cruel hangover from history?

Even fish can be fabulous creatures, as explained in an enjoyable new book by ethologist Jonathan Balcombe. In ‘What A Fish Knows’ he shows how their lives and behaviour are much closer to ours than you might imagine. Some hunt co-operatively, others use tools. Mantas recognise their own reflections, indicating some self-awareness. Goldfish can recognise their owners. A goby can memorise the landscape of a pool in one take, then recall it 40 days later. A squid can navigate a maze faster than a dog. ‘The accumulating evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion: Fishes think and feel,’ concludes Balcombe.

Now move higher up the animal order to the biggest beasts, like those I was lucky to see in Samburu. Elephants, the mightiest of them all, are still kept in zoos – although stress means that they live only half as long in captivity as in the wild. They also suffer painful foot conditions, with one British study finding five in six of them unable to walk normally and three-quarters overweight. More than half display behavioural problems – which is perhaps not surprising when a newspaper revealed one of our best-known safari parks using electric shocks to control an Asian bull elephant.

None of these findings are surprising when you consider what we are doing to animals by taking them from the wild and forcing them into cramped enclosures. A barrage of research has strengthened arguments against such actions, from learning that many possess the same brain chemicals that fuel our understanding of ourselves through to studies into animal behaviour, social structures and mental stress. Time and again, scientists discover that captured animals display forms of depression, distress, passivity and stereotypical behaviour, despite best efforts of many keepers and zoo owners to stimulate their charges.

Given such damning findings, the arguments to keep zoos open should be strong. Instead they melt away under examination, despite undeniable efforts by many centres to evolve and improve conditions. Hardly any zoo spending really goes on conservation, while if this was the primary purpose it would be far cheaper and more effective to do such work in their native lands. Besides, for all the bold claims the vast majority of species held in zoos are not endangered. And these places are less educational than a decent television documentary – especially given the paucity of information often on display for visitors.

Zoos send out all the wrong messages about animals: that we can grab them from the wild, that they are there for our enjoyment, that we should focus on charismatic creatures, that species are ‘saved’ when in cages, that these are not sentient life forms. Many are also routinely killed: the European trade group for zoos and aquaria admits up to 5000 animals are ‘management-euthanised’ annually by its 370 members – and hundreds of these are big animals like that giraffe that disturbed me in the night. Meanwhile even in Britain we have gross places such as South Lakes Safari zoo in Cumbria, where 486 animals died of causes such as emaciation and hypothermia in four years.

It gives me no joy to argue for closure of zoos. I grew up beside one, spending many a birthday party delighting in animal antics. I loved the books of Gerald Durrell, with his epic tales of animal collecting expeditions. I spent happy days with my children when younger at London Zoo – the world’s first real zoo, set up for scientists to observe animals in 1828 but then opened to the paying public. Yet two centuries on, we should see that it is simply immoral to incarcerate animals purely for our pleasure. It is time to shut the zoo gates – and it would be good if this nation of self-declared animal lovers led the way again.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , ,