Treatment of animals in zoos


There was much discussion in the comments of the circus post that I wrote last week about animals in captivity, namely zoos. I guess, we would all like to believe that zoos are animal sanctuaries. But, alas, they are not. Zoos are another form of entertainment for humans. Another chance to “ooh and aah” over animals in simulated “natural” habitats. And, I might add that lions, tigers and bears or any wild animal for that matter shouldn’t be making its home on a concrete or metal floor, or behind bars or fences.

Zoos range from large cage-less parks, or safari parks, to roadside attractions where the animals are kept in small cages with not enough room to move around in. The animals at larger zoos usually are taken from their natural habitats to “teach” humans how these animals live. No part of a zoo is natural and a zoo does not allow the animal to exhibit natural behaviors. How can animals trapped behind metal bars with employees coming in and out to feed them and people gawking and snapping pictures teach anyone anything? People do not usually stay at a particular enclosure viewing the animals for long especially if that particular animal is doing nothing amusing or entertaining.

Dale Marcellini, a curator at the National Zoo in Washington, DC conducted a study of zoo visitors that showed that zoos are little more than backdrops for people’s other preoccupations, a way to “get out of the house”. Visitors spent less than 8 seconds per snake and only one minute the lions. He noted that most people preoccupied themselves with eating, resting, and shopping. Marcellini concluded that “people…treat(ed) the exhibits like wallpaper.” This is an excerpt from his study in Zoo Biology magazine.

The message that some people and zoos send out to the public is that they provide a safe place for endangered animals. This is not true. Most animals are bred by the zoo itself to provide an attraction of cute, baby animals to draw in more customers. They are also bought, sold or traded.

Most elephants in zoos are captured in the wild and taken from their families in the process. Older, unwanted zoo animals may be sold in the wild animal trade, or to circuses or to a canned hunting facility- where hunters pay for the ability to kill an animal usually point-blank range while being video taped, all for a “prize” to take home and mount the on their wall (and DVD players).

Animals in zoos cannot exhibit natural survival skills if they cannot hunt or forage for their food the way nature intended. They often cannot engage in natural behaviors such as climbing, running, swimming, nesting or selecting a mate. Behaviors they can exhibit, however, are those of mental illness like pacing, bar-biting and self-mutilation. Other symptoms of mental and physical distress are actions like swaying, head-rolling and walking in tight circles. Please remember that many animals that are held in captivity in zoos naturally travel many miles, sometimes up to one hundred or more in one day. They cannot do this in captivity.

Although it appears, and scientists and zookeepers uphold, that all of the needs of these animals are being met, they fail to discuss if these needs are enough for the quality of life of these animals to be satisfied.

“Harmful zoo conditions and practices shorten elephant lifespan by decades, as documented in a peer-reviewed survey of 4,500 elephants, published in the prestigious journal Science(December 2008). The study found that Asian elephants in European zoos had a median lifespan of just 18.9 years compared to 41.7 years for wild elephants in an Asian logging camp. African elephants’ median lifespan was 16.9 years, compared to 56.0 years for free-ranging elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park”- from Help

And, of course, like circuses, zoos “train” many of their animals to perform. The same types of training practices that circuses use are also used in zoos. The use of bull-hooks, ropes, beating and excessive force are all used to teach the animal to perform amusing acts.

It seems like an easy enough solution to just release these animals back into the “wild”, however, the risk that these animal will not survive is too great a risk. Their natural instincts have been neutralized by being held captive and never having to forage or hunt for themselves. It is no solution.

The only solution: Numbers. The numbers of people not entering zoos and the number of dollars the zoos will not receive as a result. Visiting an animal sanctuary, where the animals have been saved from dramatic and cruel situations is the best way to support animal welfare and animal safety. If there isn’t a sanctuary within your area, then support habitat rehabilitation programs or organizations that help to protect captive animals and preserve their natural habitats.

Treatment of animals in zoos1 Treatment of animals in zoos

Humans have an insatiable fascination with wild animals. Every year, millions of people go on safaris, board whale-watching cruises and watch Jeff Corwin get attacked by snakes on Animal Planet; others drive to their local zoo for a full day of animal gazing.
This interest in animals is nothing new: Zoos have been entertaining people with exotic animal collections as far back as 1250 B.C. [source: Fravel]. Later, in early 13th-century England, Henry III moved his family’s royal menagerie to the Tower of London for public viewing. For a small fee, visitors would be treated to glimpses of animals like lions, camels and lynxes. And if they brought a dog or cat to feed the lions, they got in for free [source: Encarta].
The first modern zoo — the Imperial Menagerie in Vienna, Austria — was established in 1752 and continues to attract visitors to this day. Nearby, in Germany, is the world’s largest animal collection: Zoo Berlin (formerly The Berlin Zoological Gardens) houses more than 15,000 animals from almost 1,700 species [source: Encarta].
All U.S. animal exhibitors, like the 265-acre (107-hectare) Bronx Zoo just a subway ride away from Fifth Avenue, must apply for and receive a license from the Department of Agriculture. Millions of people visit the thousands of zoos around the world, proving that we simply never grow tired of observing wildlife.
Depending on your point of view, though, zoos are either sanctuaries of education and entertainment or unnecessary prisons. While some people argue that zoos play an important role in conservation and research, others counter that they do more harm than good.
So which is it? Are zoos good or bad? And how do you differentiate between what’s good for one animal versus what’s good for the entire species? It’s a delicate question and one that can’t easily be answered. Let’s start with the good news.From the welfare point of view it is wrong to keep an animal in a zoo if the animal has a less pleasant life than it would have outside the zoo.

Reasons why people think keeping animals in zoos is bad for their welfare:

the animal is deprived of its natural habitat
the animal may not have enough room
the animal is deprived of its natural social structure and companionship
the animal is forced into close proximity with other species and human beings which may be unnatural for it
the animal may become bored, depressed and institutionalised
animals bred in zoos may become imprinted on human beings rather than members of their own species – this prevents them fully experiencing their true identity
although animals may live longer lives in zoos than in the wild, they may experience a lower quality of life
There is more to treating animals in an appropriate way than keeping them healthy: It’s possible (and used to be common) for zoos to keep animals in perfect physical shape, but in conditions that cause the animals to display serious behavioural problems.

Zoos and conservation
But where a zoo is keeping animals in order to preserve a species that is under threat in the wild, and treats its animals in an appropriate way, then this is morally acceptable from the welfare point of view.Some animal activists argue that the conservation argument is flawed. They list the following weaknesses:a zoo may be unable to keep a large enough number of individuals to provide a sufficiently varied gene pool for the species to breed without problemswhere animals are rare and hard to breed in captivity, removing specimens from the wild to zoos may result in the population fallingreturning animals to the wild is difficult
the benefits to the overall species population do not compensate the individual animals for the negative effects of living in a zoo

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