Last week was a tough one for zoos. A Sumatran tiger cub, the first to be born at the London Zoo in 17 years, was found dead at the edge of the pool in its den, just two weeks after it was born and before keepers could determine its sex. In the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, a senior zookeeper, John Bradford, was killed after being crushed by Patience, a 41-year-old Asian elephant. Tian Tian, the Edinburgh Zoo’s giant panda, appears to have suffered a miscarriage six months after she was artificially inseminated.
These and other incidents have led some to ask if we need a completely different model for zoos. Would endangered wild animals be better off in nature preserves in their native habitats, though they could be subject to killing by poachers? Should there only be zoos with small and preferably local animals, as Patrick Burnham recently wrote in The Guardian?
For animals who are injured and in need of rehabilitation, and who wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild, zoos can provide much needed care.
In recent years, many zoos around the world have seemed to be throwing most of their attention, and resources, in acquiring, caring for and promoting endangered animals such as tigers, elephants and pandas. The London Zoo had just unveiled its £3.6m Tiger Territory, specifically designed to foster breeding in a critically endangered species, in March 2013. Tian Tian and a male panda, Yang Guang, were flown from China to Edinburgh and cost around £600,000 a year to rent. Keeping the pandas is costing the Edinburgh Zoo plenty: pandas are picky eaters and their staple food, fresh bamboo, must be imported in vast quantities as it isn’t exactly native to Scotland.
After the two pandas arrived, the Edinburgh Zoo indeed saw the numbers of visitors go up by 50 percent following “several difficult years.” Visitor numbers also rose in August after the zoo announced that Tian Tian had likely conceived. But then, as it turned out, Tian Tian miscarried and is now “in such a bad way that her exhibit has been temporarily closed to the public,” writes Burnham.
Henry Nicholls, author of a study of captive pandas, Way of the Panda, suggests that the Edinburgh Zoo, too eager to be the site of the first panda birth in the U.K., ”issued little detailed information [about Tian Tian's possible pregnancy] but stoked the story by drip-feeding the media and raising expectations among zoo visitors and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s members.”
Whether or not the zoo “hyped up the pregnancy for commercial and prestige reasons,” Burnham argues that “there is no place in a modern zoo for large mammals, or birds, who naturally live in large territories.” Captive breeding programs, he points out, work best with animals in the countries that are “close to where the species naturally live” as do (for reasons that are all too obvious) wild release programs.
That is, zoos can say they are keeping pandas and other endangered animals to help breed them for conservation purposes and to serve as “ambassadors,” but the reality is that they “are in the entertainment business, these beasts are box office gold, and they guarantee a flow of visitors into their cafes and gift shops.” Burnham contends that zoos would be best off not offering up the equivalent of yesterday’s dancing bears and instead
“…devoted their talents and energy to enabling young people to directly encounter small creatures, and made the most of the smaller mammals, reptiles, insects and birds that exist more happily in a confined space.”
Such places already exist in the form of wildlife centers, where visitors, and children in particular, can have “up close and personal” interactions with animals.
I do remember that, on visits years ago to the Oakland Zoo, my strongest, and fondest, memories are of the baby goats in the petting zoo, my sister and I marveling at how high they could stand on two legs to get at the goat food we had bought. In contrast, the monkey house (a huge cage around a tree-like structure and a concrete floor) at the zoo’s front entrance was sinister and unnerving.
In our age, in which modern transportation and science have made it possible to transport animals anywhere, it seems unlikely that zoos will cease to import exotic and rare animals. Are all the billions spent on creating naturalistic “territories,” “enclosures,” etc. — fancier cages for captive animals — really worth it?
As for the business of zoos, would you go to a zoo to see an animal that visits your backyard?
Photo from Thinkstock
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