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Are zoos really bad, or do we make them bad?

While many zoos are terrible places for animals, there are other that do necessary educational and conservational work

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
February 7, 2021 6:00:11 am
The other end of the leash: A still from Bert Haanstra’s BAFTA-nominated 1962 short film Zoo, shot at Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo

Most wildlife lovers absolutely abhor zoos. The main grouse is, of course, that animals in a zoo are not free. They are not free to hunt their own food, choose their own mates, fight their own battles, have their own territories to fiercely protect from rivals, basically, live their own lives. In zoos, they are locked down, fed, medicated; mates are chosen for them — whether they like them or not, they have relatively small “territories”, enclosed at best and caged at worst, and, in some cases, they are expected to “perform” for the gross viewing public, who may harass and tease them. No place for a proud tiger, exuberant gibbon or free birds.

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In the economically weaker countries, zoos can be absolutely horrific. The animals are housed behind bars, in tiny, filthy, stinking spaces, sometimes so small they can hardly turn around comfortably. Stereotypy sets in quickly — a form of madness. Bears, wolves or big cats pace up and down the confines of their cages metronomically, bobbing their heads seemingly unaware of what they’re doing. Recently, I watched a blogger’s film on the African elephant in Delhi’s National Zoological Park. Seeing the magnificent beast like that in his enclosure makes you sad. S/he should be roaming in the African savanna, leading a herd (if female) to food and water. In addition, in many such “impoverished” zoos, hungry keepers swipe the animals’ rations for themselves.

The viewing “public” in many of these zoos turn up simply to harass/tease the animals or have rambunctious picnics. There are few keepers around to check them. Young men in front of the monkeys’ cages usually behave far worse than the poor inmates.
Should zoos be shut down? It’s not so much the zoo per se that is good, bad or evil, as it’s the people running them and the intention behind it. Of course, zoo animals are not “free”. But zoos can be marvellous places to ignite an interest in the lay public about the spectacular biodiversity that exists on our planet in a very inexpensive manner. They get to see animals — in flesh and blood — such as penguins, gorillas and orcas, that most could never dream of seeing in the wild.
Many renowned zookeepers, like the late Gerald Durrell, have reiterated that “freedom” is really not all that it is cut out to be. Animals in the wild are perpetually fighting for their territories and for survival — hunted down by other animals and, worse, by us. If they fall sick or are injured, they often die, slowly and painfully. Their habitat is often hacked and fragmented adding to the trauma.

The raison-d’etre of zoos should be conservation and education. Durrell’s Jersey Zoo specialises in the captive breeding of exotic — and often unglamorous — species such as the aye-aye from Madagascar. Other captive-breeding programmes to save animals from extinction include Assam’s pygmy hog, Mauritian kestrel and pink pigeon hailing from the same benighted island. It certainly is not easy and a huge amount of dedication, cooperation and money are required. The idea is that once a suitable population size is achieved in captivity, the animals will be released back into the wild — as have been the case with the kestrel and pink pigeon. But, first, there needs to be a wild left for these animals to be released in (habitat destruction is one of the main reasons why their population plummeted in the first place), and those hand-reared and tamed — such as the pygmy hog — have to be taught to be wild again. This is the biggest challenge, and if the animal is a big cat, like a snow leopard, it is worth taking up, since it means saving a species.

In most zoos, the enclosures are imaginatively designed to help the animal stave off boredom — and they are also made to “hunt” for their food, cleverly hidden away by their keepers. I would draw the line at teaching animals and birds “tricks”, involving behaviour they would never indulge in in the wild — like macaws riding bicycles!

Many dedicated zoos also run educative programmes for the viewing public and train aspiring zookeepers. Take a look at the docu series The Secret Life of the Zoo (on the UK’s Chester Zoo) on YouTube and you’ll see the dedication and affection the keepers (mainly young women) have for their charges. Their resident Indian lioness Kumari — who they wanted to mate — was simply bored by the royal male, who lolled around all day. So, they hung his rations high up, so he had to climb, jump and “hunt” to get to it. Now, he was a proper male, “hunting” for his food! Love blossomed!

Zoos are only as good, bad or evil as we make them out to be.

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