Once upon a time, rare and exotic animals were the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy. Royal menageries served as displays of wealth and sophistication. In the 19th century, however, public zoos emerged as great democratising institutions, giving ordinary Europeans the chance to see these animals up close. Their mission was to entertain and educate the masses, opening up opportunities to everyone that previously were only available to the very rich.
Today, however, technology has made it possible for ordinary people to observe animals in their natural environment. Wildlife documentaries shot in ultra-high definition with innovations such as underwater cameras, drones, and night-vision offer a view of animals that zoos might struggle to match. Given that alternatives now exist, is it unethical to keep and display animals in captivity? What should be the place of zoos in the 21st century?
Today is World Animal Day. Marked internationally on 4 October (the feast day of the patron saint of animals, Francis of Assisi), World Animal Day is a chance to reflect on our relationship with the animal world. In defence of zoos, seeing wildlife up-close and in-person can have a huge impact on young people and children, potentially fostering a life-long love of animals and the environment. In addition, zoos across the world are keeping many endangered animal species safe from extinction, and they can collaborate with research institutions in the name of science and understanding. On the other hand, we hear stories of inbreeding, routine killing of surplus animals and abuse of animals in European zoos, which begs the question: are zoos really the best way to protect animals?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from António suggesting that visiting animals in a zoo can encourage a love of the environment and a desire to protect it. Is he right?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Doug Cress, Chief Executive Officer at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). How would he respond to António’s comment?
Yes, seeing animals in the right zoo or captive setting can have a profound effect and can lead to a love of the environment, and zoos and aquariums continue to have that impact on visitors every day. But zoos and aquariums must give the public the full story, and explain not only the threats to the environment and the animals’ natural habitat – illegal hunting, deforestation, human encroachment, disease – but also the ways in which the public can help ensure the long-term survival of wildlife and wild spaces. It is not enough to hope that visiting a zoo and gazing at animals is enough. But we need to be clear – in today’s world, a visit to the zoo is the only connection with nature than many people will have, and animals in zoo and aquariums are the only wildlife they will ever encounter.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Pierre Sultana, Director of the EU Policy Office of Vier Pfoten (Four Paws), an international animal charity. How would he respond to António?
It depends on the zoos. If the animals are kept behind bars in a small enclosures, sometimes with concrete floors and without any enrichment possibility as unfortunately is still the case in some sub-standard zoos all over the world, the connection to the environment is not existent and the educational side of the zoo can really be questioned. This kind of zoos could even contribute to develop bad behaviours towards the animals and the environment. On the contrary, if zoos provide species-appropriate enclosures and offer the animals the possibility to be seen in all their majesty in [an appropriate] surrounding environment; zoos can certainly contribute to educating [younger] generations and developing a desire to protect the environment and the animals living in there.
We also contacted the Party for the Animals, a political party in the Netherlands which, though small, has seats in the Dutch House of Representatives and the Senate. They weren’t able to put anybody forward for interview in time for publication, but did release the following statement setting out their position on the future of zoos:
The Party for the Animals believes that zoos in their current form are no longer necessary in this day and age. We want to convert them into temporary shelter for animals who cannot live in their original habitat or cannot be put back into the wild. We warmly welcome the fact that people want to learn more about (wild) animals. In addition, we are in flavor of introducing children from an early age to the beauty and value of nature and the animals that live there. But with literature, documentaries and beautiful 3D films, a child would get a better picture of how the animals live in the wild instead of in captivity.
For the conservation of species, the fight against the disappearance of animal habitats is the most important thing – a struggle that the Party for the Animals does like no other. Breeding programs for zoos are unfortunately unsuccessful when it comes to the recovery of populations. However, there are surpluses of animals as a result of the breeding programs. As a result, thousands of healthy animals are killed every year in European zoos – also in the Netherlands.
More and more experts point to the impairment of the welfare of animals kept in the zoo. A documentary by the BBC showed that 80% of the carnivores in captivity are disturbed (stereotypical) behaviour. At all times, tighter housing requirements must apply that approach the natural living conditions as much as possible. These changes do not necessarily mean that visitors are no longer welcome, but that the function of the zoo changes as far as we are concerned and that the interests of the animals are paramount.
We also had a comment from Shauna, who thinks that confining animals in small spaces is wrong, and that animals should have the most natural life possible. Are zoos in Europe able to provide this? How would Doug Cress from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums respond?
Yes, accredited zoos and aquariums in Europe do provide the most natural life possible for the animals in their care – often because there is no other option. The loss of natural spaces and habitat for animals has led to massive declines in species numbers, and often their only hope is for conservation interventions and captive breeding programmes to stabilise species until suitable habitats can be found and protected. Again, zoos and aquariums need to take responsibility for telling these stories properly to the general public, but the alternative is not as simple as turning formerly captive animals loose into the wild, where they could encounter hunters, a lack of food, diseases, and a host of other deadly threats.
What would Pierre Sultana from the animal charity Four Paws say to the same comment?
Animals should always be offered species-specific living conditions. They should be able to express their natural behaviour and have happy lives and this is not only true for zoo animals but for all kept animals. Luckily, an increasing number of zoos in Europe have improved their standards over the last years and animals kept in these zoos can be offered conditions which allows them to live most natural lives. Unfortunately, this goes with a financial cost as improving living conditions can mean lower density, maybe less animals of less species if the zoo cannot expand geographically and can also involve investments in new building. That’s why some substandard zoos which cannot pay for the investments needed to improve the living conditions of the animals can be in a difficult situation as they will be less attractive to the visitors and therefore fall into a vicious circle and are more inclined to look for alternative sources of financing (which are not always legal or ethical).
Finally, what about the challenge of technology? Do zoos need to innovate to stay relevant, especially now we have documentaries shot by drones and high-definition cameras? We had a sceptical comment from Ágnes, who thinks that direct personal experiences cannot be replaced by technology. Is she right? How would Doug Cress react?
The answer is not binary – it is not yes or no. Rapid advances in technology such as drones are powerful conservation tools, allowing us to count orangutans in high nests in the forest canopy, identify illegal logging, or record whales and dolphins at play in the sea. But those images cannot replace a personal experience with an animal – nor should they. Taken together, these resources form a collective experience that can inspire humans to dedicate their lives to the study or protection of wildlife.
How would Pierre Sultana respond to Ágnes?
Innovation can have different meanings. Of course zoos need to innovate to attract visitors as most businesses. Over the last years, many zoos have been increasingly innovative in the way they show the animals. Often these innovations have been improving the quality of life of the animals. Innovation has to serve not only the visitors and the employees of the zoos, but also the animals. Investments into innovation have to be in accordance with the general situation of the zoo: where a wealthy zoo could probably invest into drones and other ICT, a substandard zoo should in priority invest into improving the quality of life of the animals, rebuilding and maybe expending the enclosures, or in training their staff.
Are zoos unethical? Or do they encourage a love of the environment and a desire to protect it? And how can zoos stay relevant in the 21st century? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!