We’re going to the Zoo, Zoo, Zoo but should you come too, too, too? I’ve noticed that zoos and aquariums are coming under a lot of pressure now and many people are questioning the ethics of animals “on display”. Stories of elephant ride gone wrong and big companies like TripAdvisor cracking down on animal tourism, make it very easy to write off the Zoo. Personally though, “The Zoo” has always been one of my favorite places and it still is. It was at the Zoo that I first met a giraffe as a child, sparking my curiosity in these majestic creatures and today, any city or country that I visit, the local Zoo and Aquarium is still a must-see!
We need to realize that zoos have changed significantly in the past 100 years. Zoos used to be purely for commercial and entertainment purposes. “Step right up and see the Graceful Gazelles of the Saharan Plains!” or “Hear the terrifying roar of The Mighty Lion!” Times have changed though. Now, there are fewer profiteers and more animal activists working in Zoos. They are under increased pressure from the public. Zoos of today, want to be and need to be better than once they were.
I would like to clarify though that from experience, the animals kept in zoos are now among some of the best-cared-for animals in the world. There are zookeepers dedicated to each species or group, who study and work extensively to ensure that all the animals in their care have all their needs met. Extensive research goes into their diets but also into how it is delivered. Zookeepers encourage foraging behaviors in some animals and hunting instincts in other animals. “Toys” are provided that provide mental stimulation. Many larger zoos even have dedicated veterinary teams, responsible for their overall health.
So what is the purpose of Zoos? I often liken them to the modern day Noah’s Ark. There are estimated 34 species of animal extinct in the wild (www.iucnredlist.org), and many times that which are endangered to varying degrees. Unlike Noah’s Ark though, two of every kind is not enough to maintain sufficient genetic diversity. The survival of many species is dependent on the variety of genetics that is safeguarded in zoos. The Lord Howe Stick Insect, for example, was thought to be extinct in the wild after a boat crashed on the island, introducing rats that decimated the local population. Fortunately, a small group of approximately twenty were found on a small island off the main island and four were taken to Melbourne zoo where there is now a thriving population from anywhere between 400-600 at any given moment. There is now a plan to reintroduce the insect to the main island. This story is not unique to Melbourne Zoo though. Other reintroduction programs have been hugely successful, such as the reintroduction of the Sea Otter into the North Pacific Ocean or the Siberian Tiger into Northern Asia. The success of these reintroduction programs is thanks to good zoos, which are involved in international breeding programs, to ensure the health of wild and captive animals
Zoos also keep animals and animal welfare on the social agenda. I have often heard people say “if you want to see lions, go to Africa.” In reality, though, a family trip for a fortnight to Africa is not financially or practically possible. However, a day at the zoo is possible. So the zoo becomes a place to feed the curiosity of would-be animal advocates and workers (raising my hand very high right now!). Many good zoos have also become more socially conscientious. As a child, I loved to watch the seal shows because of the fantastic displays of acrobatics and tricks. My trip to Melbourne zoo though, the narrative had changed. Now, the seals are putting on a different show, with all the same tricks but now they are telling a story. A story about cleaning our oceans and using bubbles, not balloons, at your next party.
With all this talk of “good” zoos though, it is important to remember that there are “bad” zoos. There are zoos where the animals are not well cared for and they are just a replaceable, disposable commodity for making money. I remember one time, I went to a “bad” zoo, and there was a juvenile tiger, two Labradors and a pig all kept in the same enclosure to demonstrate how “they could all live in harmony together.” They were not living in harmony. The juvenile tiger just wanted to play, which resulted in the pig getting covered in cuts and scratches. The dogs were no better off as the tiger kept jumping on the dogs, who were teeth bared, snarling at him. I left that zoo, sick to my stomach.
So what can you do? In simple terms, support “good” zoos and avoid “bad” zoos. Good zoos often have many of the things I have mentioned in common, like breeding programs, conservation work, and education programs. Check out their website and see if they partake in any of those things. There is also an international accreditation for zoos so check if your zoo is on the list (www.waza.org). It is rigorous though and not every good zoo has managed to get it yet, especially if it is relatively new or small zoo. Online sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp will have customer reviews, which may not always be the most informed or accurate but will give you a sense of the zoo. I also try support companies and charities in support of wild animals such as animal sightings or safari type trips. At the end of the day though, the zoo can be such a spectacular place of wonder for kids of all ages, including 30+.