Is the extinction of the modern zoo inevitable?

Greetings everybody,

I hope you have had a lovely week and I bet you are all extremely happy that it is finally Friday! On Monday BBC Horizon  showed a controversial and thought provoking documentary on 'Should we close our zoos?'. As expected of BBC it included a range of different viewpoints, but, what was perhaps the most interesting were the views held by myself and you guys. In todays post, I am going to delve a little bit deeper into some of the themes shown in the documentary. Enjoy.

Is animal welfare a priority for zoos? 

It is one of the biggest ethical questions surrounding these institutions, are zoos providing all captive animals the relevant care to satisfy their biological needs? Easier said than done. As more studies are carried out the requirements of each animal become more comprehensive and complex for the zoos to incorporate. Surely, captive populations of animals still benefit regardless on whether all welfare issues are met? Not in the case of captive elephants. Amazingly the longevity of captive elephants is half that of their wild counterparts. Clearly there is a mismatch between what the wild offers and what the zoo can provide, so should zoos continue to keep them?

Detroit Zoo was featured in the documentary as they had to answer that exact question in regards to their two Indian elephants. Captive elephants often suffer from stress and obesity, the excess weight places extra pressure on their sensitive feet causing the onset of chronic arthritis, the Detroit elephants were no exception. Unable to continue on knowing that their elephants were experiencing severe discomfort they relocated both elephants to a sanctuary! 

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Phenomena such as stereotypical behaviour is widespread among captive populations but is commonly seen in the carnivores. 80% of captive carnivores display such behaviour including head swaying, head banging and pacing all of which are thought to originate from stress and boredom. Pacing is the most common, the manifestations of such behaviour are used as indicators for poor animal welfare. Zoos have incorporated enrichment programmes in order to reduce such behaviours and for the animals to carry out behaviours they would do in the wild, these range such as a climbing pole, or tying meat onto a zip wire to initiate chasing behaviour. 

What zoos do when they have to many animals and limited space? 

Surplus animals. It was an inevitability, after all animals are driven by two things: survival and sex. Needless to say captive animals do not need to invest too much energy in survival, so they turn to  breeding if these animals have no contraceptive measures in place then a problem is bound to happen. 

For this part of the documentary, we were invited to look at how Copenhagen zoo dealt with its surplus animals, and the methods were very, very surprising. Copenhagen received heavy criticism when a video was posted on youtube. The video shows a dead two year old giraffe with a single bullet hole to the head- shot by one of the zookeepers. This same giraffe was then dissected publicly for education purposes and the carcass was used to feed the lions. My first reaction was shock, a  reaction that would have been mirrored by the public, then I began to think about it. They explained their reasoning. They can only sustain a certain number of giraffes, sadly they surpassed that number. This individual was chosen based on its genes that were already well represented in captive giraffe populations. Genetic diversity is crucial in deciding what animal is culled, this is because the levels of genetic diversity within a species positively correlates with species survival rates. 

Sad as it may be, this choice comes down to the principles of economics. We have limited resources and too many individuals therefore, you select the individuals that would better benefit the continuation of the species. Using the carcass for the feeding of the lions may seem barbaric, but is it? Giraffes are a natural prey source for lions. Is this an extreme source of recycling? We have a carcass and mouths to feed so, why not give it to the carnivores. There were rumours claiming that another zoo was willing to pay a large sum of money to re-home the giraffe?? 

Can zoos rise to the next greatest challenge, the sixth mass extinction? 

For those who read my blog ‘On the origin of The Walking Dead’ you will know we are fast approaching the next mass extinction event. Every zoo shares the common goal of  education and conservation. Zoos aim to conserve species by maintaining captive populations, in case they need to establish wild populations in the future. But do they work? Captive animals being released into the wild have had very mixed outcomes. Failures of such operations come down to the individual being unable to adapt to its ‘new environment’ such as inability to find food or water. However, when these programmes go right, it is a real celebration such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park! Successful reintroductions are far and few between. It begs the question that if a majority of the animals in captivity are unable to thrive in their natural environments, are zoos as actively engaged in conservation as they let on to be? 

Reintroduction is the end result of a successful captive breeding programme. In many cases, the stage of reintroduction to establish wild populations have failed. There is no better example of this than the White Horn Rhino. In a story that began in 1975, hopes were high for bringing this iconic species back from the brink of their extinction. The project saw one disaster after another. Many female rhinos became infertile and this resulted in just 5 white rhinos in captivity. Zoo keepers involved in this project expressed the lessons learned, but as I watched Liz Bronnin petting and walking alongside one of the last white rhinos, it was clear how much is on the line. 

Have we peer pressured zoos? 

A key theme presented on ‘Should We Close Our Zoos?’ was who are the zoos prioritising? the animals or the public?  What really surprised me was when Liz told us that 90% of the species that we see in our zoos are not actually endangered! It begs the question, how are zoos helping to conserve endangered species, when the species benefitting from their continued round the clock care are not themselves endangered? 

Think about it, are we the reason why we see certain species in zoos, regardless of  whether they are endangered? When you think of the zoo, your mind instantly goes to the most charismatic species such as the ambassadors for Africa: the Lions, African elephants and so on or perhaps you cast your mind to the forests of India and Bengal Tigers spring to your mind. These species get you to the zoos gates, once there our imagination broadens we suddenly want to see all the other animals on offer: the massive tarantulas, the lesser primates or perhaps the huge Anacondas.  

However, carnivores may be the big money makers, but they are also the ones who suffer the most from captive stereotypic behaviours. Zoos are aware of such things, however they show a reluctance to letting go of their A-list species. Detroit Zoo was heavily scrutinised by other zoos when they sent their elephants away! They said that the elephants brought in a lot of revenue, revenue that can be used for overseas conservation projects and without them they will suffer. They didn’t. Going to the zoo, we do not want to see stressed out animals but are we prepared for zoos to only have species inside of it that they can ensure high standards of animal welfare? Tricky. 

Summing it all up guys...

Like I said before I am Pro- Zoo, because when they are  managed correctly and by people who care about them, they play a vital role. So do I believe that zoos are a dying breed? No! Modern Zoos have had a rocky past, but that does not determine their future. Welfare has never been more in the spotlight. Many zoos now have a dedicated and educated team of: zookeepers, veterinarians and field conservationists. It is all about the next generation, and what better way to inspire these to care even if it is for a day or a week about the conservation of these amazing animals? I do believe that seeing animals in real life and not through a digital medium has the ability to awaken a hidden passion in individuals. Whether it be just how tall a giraffe is or how colourful those tropical frogs are or how amazing a male lion actually is. It may not inspire every child, but for those it does Zoos are needed.  

Zoos are changing, they are incorporating a species habitat more and more into their enclosure design, and dedicated zookeepers continue to strive for the welfare of their animals. At the moment only 3% of a Zoos annual revenues goes onto overseas conservation projects perhaps that will increase as time goes on. 
In the meantime, have a look at Tiger enrichment at ZSL: 

Alright guys, that raps it up please if you can watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer and tell me what you thought!

Have an amazing weekend guys, looking forward to next weeks post already. 
Over and out

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