I’ve been meaning to get my views on zoos condensed into a blog post for a while now, but each time I approached the subject in my mind, it got complicated, lacked clarity and seemed destined to result in an incoherent ramble. Then I read Chris Packham’s engaging column in this month’s copy of BBC Wildlife Magazine and it gave me the nudge I needed to try and clearly assemble my stance on what is often a morally murky issue. It’s not often that I agree completely with someone’s opinion piece, however, this was one exception.
Even as a child, I was torn between wanting to see the animals, but melancholic about the fact they were not living with the freedom to roam in the wild. This mindset developed to a point in my late teens where I could have been labelled as being anti-zoo; believing that zoos should only exist for the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘extinct in the wild’ creatures. Now, at the age of thirty-two, I take a more balanced view, although it’s by no means set in stone. Zoos have their place for informing and educating the masses, and crucially, for stimulating an interest in wildlife, nature and the environment in children. That said, I believe these institutions need to be far more selective when it comes to choosing which animals to ‘display’.
To echo Mr Packham’s sentiment: there are many species that are wholly unsuitable for life in captivity- a view solidified a few years ago during a trip to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie, where I observed an adult polar bear pacing backwards and forwards in its enclosure in apparent distress. After all, this is a creature that would have ranges extending hundreds and even thousands of miles in the wild; yet it’s confined to an area of 10 acres- and by wildlife attraction standards, that’s excellent. Furthermore, in the interests of balance and fairness, the Highland Wildlife Park gives their polar bears more room to live in than any other organisation I know and their enclosure is regarded as the best of its kind.
This gets to the crux of my argument against our current blueprint for zoos: can it be morally and ethically right to effectively imprison a wild animal in claustrophobic, unnatural surroundings for let’s face it, the entertainment of the public? I think the answer to that has to be no. But then that poses a further question in my mind: can it be justified if their mere presence in these enclosures is enough to generate sufficient public interest that it leads to more conservation donations and the nurturing of a new generation of conservationists that ensures their future survival in the wild?
Then there is the more pragmatic role that zoos play in conservation. Without their assistance, some species may already be extinct. Animals such as the Scimitar Oryx, Amur Leopard and Addax spring to mind. Yet this has to be tempered by the fact that captive breeding programmes are rarely successful and so it begs the question: shouldn’t more time, money and resources be spent improving their chances of survival in the wild, instead of creating an artificial haven that often institutionalises them to an extent where they can neither breed successfully, or survive if reintroduced to the wild.
I think more thought has to be put into creating more naturalistic surroundings in enclosures, to the extent that a mini replica ecosystem is created in which the animal in question can truly integrate into it. Some zoos are addressing this, but there’s still a long way to go.
Zoos are undoubtedly a valuable mechanism for allowing people to connect with wildlife, but when compared to the feeling you get when you encounter a wild animal, it doesn’t compare. It’s listening to the radio versus going to a live gig. I think the antidote to this comes in the form of the rewilding movement. But zoos do provide us with the low-fat, synthetic substitute and wildlife in general would probably be worse off without them.
So before this descends into a ramble, I’ll wrap it up and probably revisit the issue sometime soon. As you can probably tell, I’ve still to arrive at a conclusion, however, there is one certainty to come out of this. It’s been many years since I visited a zoo- I think it’s time I changed that. More to follow….