For a long time I have struggled with my opinions of Zoos - do they do good or bad for Wildlife? Do animals suffer more than they are benefited? Are our reasons for still having and visiting Zoos for the right ones, or is it just like forcing animals to perform in the circus for our entertainment? In all honestly I have visited many-a Zoo over the years, even as recently as last summer. I've enjoyed my visits but tend to come away with a feeling of sadness - why should these animals have limited space and limited lives when they could be wild? Is a lion a lion if it doesn't hunt? What is the life of a penguin if not to strive for survival for that of it's mate and chick? Should that parrot really be riding a small bike and ringing a bell just to make me laugh?
The life of a captive animal is, without doubt, a million miles away from that if their wild counterparts - no matter how much money a Zoo spends to make its enclosure similar to the wild, or the enrichment activities they provide. On average lions and tigers have 18,000 times less space than they do in the wild; Zoo enclosures for elephants are 100 times smaller than the smallest wild territories. In one study of 77 elephants living in 13 UK zoos only 11 individuals were able to walk normally. The life of a wild animal is spent striving for survival, avoiding predation, hunting/foraging for food, fighting for the right of a mate and ensuring their genes are carried on. The life of a Zoo animal is spent lazing around an enclosure, watching visitors pass by and waiting for their next meal to be provided.
Beside the theft of a natural life-style it has also been proved, in some cases, that life of animals in Zoos is significantly shorter than that of wild animals. Back in 2008 a study into the welfare of captive elephants in the UK found those born and raised in zoos live less than half as long as those living wild in Africa and Asia - despite being protected from predators and having medical healthcare. The death rate is linked to obesity (from a lack of space for exercise) and high stress levels caused by transportation between Zoos and young animals being separated from their families. The study even compared Zoo-Captive Asian elephants with elephants used to work in a logging company in Burma: the Zoo-Captive elephants lived on average for 18.9 years whilst those in Burma lived up to 41.7 years.
But Zoo's aren't just there for people to gawk at animals - in 2002 it became a legal obligation of all Zoo's in Europe to have an involvement in the conservation of biodiversity and ex situ conservation (the protection of a species or population by removing it from it's habitat and placing it elsewhere). The ZSL (Zoological Society of London) alone is working on 50 conservation projects across the globe with a distinct focus on highly endangered species. Alongside this many Zoo's are committed to breeding projects; breeding endangered species and creating genetic diversity with the intention of future release back into the wild (if it ever becomes viable). They also commit to education - teaching children about wild animals with the hope that they too will grow up with a love and respect for wildlife. I know that I was certainly en-captured by the animals I saw in my local Zoo, and one of my most distinct childhood memories is a trip to Longleat Safari Park. Many Zoo's also donate a percentage of their proceeds to conservation projects, helping to ensure the protection of those animals that do remain in the wild.
Well, that is what I thought until I began my research for this post.
In July 2007 the Born Free Foundation undertook a series of investigations in an attempt to assess the conservation commitment of the UK's 13 most "progressive" zoos:
ZSL London Zoo, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Chester Zoo, Dudley Zoo, Paignton Zoo, Newquay Zoo, Living Coasts, Marwell Zoo, Twycross Zoo, Edinburgh Zoo, Highland Wildlife Park, Welsh Mountain Zoo, Bristol Zoo.
One of these Zoo's claimed on it's website that: "About three-quarters of the animals housed at (the zoo) are officially classed as endangered species."
In actual fact Born Free discovered that 62% of animals kept in these 13 Zoos are classed as those of "Least Concern" (the lowest Red List Category) compared to the 29% kept that are threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered on the Red List).
91% of threatened mammal species cannot be found in these Zoos.
95% of threatened bird species cannot be found in these Zoos.
99.4% of threatened amphibian species cannot be found in these Zoos.
It is clearly not possible for Zoos to keep and breed all animals that are classed as threatened. But 62% of the animals kept are in no danger. Surely a Zoo committed to conservation could make space for those that really need our help?
Alongside this Born Free discovered that 24% of the threatened species found in these Zoos were housed in groups that are made breeding unlikely. A quarter of animals included in the Zoos breeding programs are listed as "Least Concern".
It appears that a substantial proportion of Zoos conservation activities apply to species NOT significantly at risk in the wild.
As for money donated by Zoos to conservation efforts- it appears that for an average adult entrance fee of £10.30 only 46-70p goes to conservation in the wild (figures from 2007).
In 2007 London Zoo paid a whopping £5.3 million on a Gorilla enclosure to hold 3 Western Lowland Gorillas. Had this money been donated to wild gorilla conservation it could have protected thousands of wild gorillas and their natural habitats.
So overall do I think what Zoos do for conservation makes animals living in unnatural and un-motivating environments worthwhile?
I'll leave it for you to guess.
Please feel free to comment and share your opinions.
Have I changed your mind today?
Here are the links to the websites I used for my research: