Ben Webster, The Times | December 26, 2019
Victoria Aspinall runs Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, home to cheetahs, gorillas and lions, with her husband.
A millionaire conservationist who inherited a zoo has urged parents to stop taking children to see captive wild animals — including his own.
Damian Aspinall, chairman of the foundation that runs Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, says that all zoos should be phased out, with small ones such as London Zoo shutting within ten years and the rest in 25 to 30 years.
He says that zoos exaggerate their conservation benefits and conceal the scale of disease and hybridisation, which makes their collections worthless for preserving species. Some operate a “breed and cull” policy to ensure a steady supply of baby animals to delight young visitors, he added.
In an interview with The Times, Mr Aspinall admitted being hypocritical for calling for an end to zoo trips while welcoming people to Howletts, which was founded by his father, John, who created the Aspinalls casino empire. He said that he needed the money from tickets to fund plans to send his animals back to the wild. He has already returned dozens of animals to their natural habitats, including black rhino and Western lowland gorillas to Africa and clouded leopards to Cambodia.
Mr Aspinall also has long-term plans to turn the zoo into a rescue centre. He said: “Parents should not be taking their kids to zoos. I know that would hurt me as much as anyone else but that’s my honest answer. There’s no excuse for any zoo today. Because parents take their kids to zoos when they are young by the time those young grow up they are culturised that zoos are fine.”
Zoos claimed to be educating the public “but they’re educating them that it’s acceptable to have animals held as prisoners for your entertainment”. He added: “I admit to my own hypocrisy. We have the same problems as everybody else. We have hybridised animals, we have animals that have been in-bred.”
He said only 5 per cent of mammal species in European zoos were critically endangered and only three — the Eastern black rhino, gorilla and orangutan — were in viable breeding programmes that could support wild populations. He accused the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) of running an unnecessary elephant breeding programme as there were still 400,000 in the wild. He claimed that the real reason they were kept in captivity was because “the public likes to see them”.
Some zoo supporters claim that they are “arks” preserving at-risk species but Mr Aspinall noted there were 20,000 elephants in large fenced reserves in Africa. “There’s your ark,” he said.
He said that European zoos spent £15 million a year keeping elephants and rhinos and that this cash would do more good if it were spent tackling poaching in Africa. Mr Aspinall also challenged claims that zoo visitors were inspired to become involved in conserving animals. “Millions of animals are kept in poor cages because a tiny number of people might become activists and take an interest in conservation,” he said. “I think that makes us barbaric as a species.”
Simon Tonge of Wild Planet Trust, which owns Paignton and Newquay zoos, said captive breeding programmes took time and waiting until a species was critically endangered might leave it too late. He said he believed that family visits had educational value.
Malcolm Fitzpatrick of ZSL, which runs London Zoo, said that conservation skills learnt by its staff on captive animals were used in the wild, including administering anaesthetic to tigers to release them from hunters’ snares.
EAZA said that phasing out elephants in zoos would not help conserve them in the wild.
Baboons, Paignton Zoo
The Devon zoo culls an average of two or three young males a year by lethal injection. It says that they have harems and too many males would cause conflicts.
Elephants, Chester Zoo
Six of nine Asian elephant calves born since 2010 have died of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus. The conservation charity Born Free says that the virus affects elephants in the wild but seems to have a greater impact on those in zoos, possibly because of the restriction or stress of being in captivity.
Giraffes, London Zoo
Two females are kept in an enclosure about the size of the fenced area of two tennis courts. Born Free said giraffes were social animals and it was wrong to keep them in central London in a “relatively bare paddock”. The zoo is planning to increase the living space next year to 18,000 sq ft.