Zoos—do we really need another one?

By October 7, 2020October 8th, 2020Conservation, Editorial, Education, Tourism

Gorilla at the Bronx Zoo, acknowledged as one of the top zoos in the world. The Bronx is one of 240 establishments accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Collectively these organizations fund more than 2500 conservation projects in more than 100 countries and spend, on average, US$160 million on conservation initiatives annually. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Carte Blanche is a long-running and highly regarded investigative television series in South Africa. On Sunday evening’s agenda was the news that, controversially, a new zoo is about to open no more than an hour’s drive from the country’s premier wildlife sanctuary, the Kruger National Park. Why? What purpose could it possibly fulfill?

In the early 1950s, as a kid growing up in East London, a small city on South Africa’s East Coast, a weekend visit to the local zoo was a real treat that, with a bit of luck, included a dollop of ice-cream atop a dangerously brittle cone. Eat fast or lose it was the basic code. I vividly remember the sense of little-boy wonder at seeing big dangerous critters behind sturdy bars. And also the delight that was “Jimmy the Crow.” Jimmy was a linguist of note who, according to my late father, could tell people to “bugger off” in six languages. Oh, how I longed to hear him utter these forbidden words, but all I got on a good day was a croaky, “ullo.” With hindsight, I suspect that the evil-eyed avian trickster’s depth of vocabulary was much embellished by my teasing parent.

While I can still smile at such nostalgic moments, they are also masked with sadness. Sadness that I didn’t see in a small, unadorned cage, the haunted look in the leopard’s eyes as he (or maybe it was a she) paced obsessively up and down the gloomy enclosure. I didn’t hear in the lion’s roar his pathetic need to proclaim a proprietary right over a cement-lined pit. Or see the resigned hopelessness of a baboon chained to a post. Maybe such empathy and perception were beyond the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. Or perhaps it was simply that I was growing up in the twilight years of a colonial past where gawking at dispirited creatures and other oddities was an accepted entertainment of the time.

What I know now, that I didn’t then, is that by far the majority of the estimated million vertebrate animals existing in zoos around the world are unhappy, suffering from anxiety and depression. So widespread is their negative psychological state that a scientific term has been coined to describe it—zoochosis. The pacing, the excessive grooming, rocking from side to side, instances of self-harm are all manifestations of this psychopathology.

Places like the East London Zoo haven’t gone away. It still exists nearly seven decades after I was there. And my guess is that it is no better now than it was then. More probably, it is even worse. I read that the lion enclosure is now gone. A blessing? In some ways, perhaps, only now it has been re-purposed as a home to a family of chimpanzees who, according to one online guide, “offer great entertainment with their family games and endearing personalities.” Really? And what earthly purpose could have been served by the 35-year incarceration of Jenny, the brown bear, before her rickety old being was mercifully put down in 2018?

Understandably, there have been calls for the zoo’s closure. Recently, there have also been deeply distressing stories of animals starving to death in the Bloemfontein Zoo. And I am sure there are many others besides. Even the most cursory glance through the web pages of organizations such as Four Paws and Born Free reveal the appalling conditions under which so many animals are held in captivity. It is certainly not just an African issue; it is a matter of global concern.

One might be forgiven for some hard-line thinking about the value of zoos everywhere in this day and age. Should they exist under any circumstances? Certainly, we need to think very carefully before adding new ones to the list of more than 10,000 zoos worldwide. It’s a staggering figure, but that is the assessment of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. According to the same National Geographic article, in the US alone, the Department of Agriculture licenses some 2,400 “animal exhibitors.”

But, it should be acknowledged that, as with so many aspects of life, there are zoos and there are zoos. Above the plain awful and the slightly better lies a thin veneer of really good ones. They probably number no more than a couple of hundred and include such household names as the Bronx, San Diego, Singapore, Lisbon, London, Frankfurt, and Rotterdam. These zoos, and others like them, go to a huge amount of effort and money to provide the best living conditions they can for their inmates. But beyond that, they also play an important role in education, conservation, and research.

Zoos in this rarefied company can provide an insurance against the extinction of highly endangered species through captive breeding programs which provide a reservoir gene pool against an existing or future population crash in the wild. Their role in education is massively important, especially in giving city children an opportunity to see, learn, and appreciate the ecological role of creatures they are unlikely to see in the wild in their lifetimes.

The gold standard of conservation is for healthy populations of wild animals to thrive in their natural environments. Good zoos understand this and work with many conservation NGOs around the world towards this common goal. It isn’t a perfect collaboration, but as Professor Andrew Cunningham of ZSL London Zoo says, “There is a need for greater collaboration between those at the coal face of zoological science and those managing animal collections, to ensure this connection between zoos, field conservation and public education is as tangible, genuine and widely-understood as possible. But given the dramatic and accelerating collapse in biodiversity currently being witnessed all around the world, the case for responsibly-managed zoos remains strong.”

Will the new zoo in Mpumalanga be one of the few “responsibly-managed” zoos in the world that Prof Cunningham would endorse? Or will it become yet another sad menagerie of even sadder animals whose sole purpose is to turn a quick buck for their keepers? Watch Carte Blanche’s Cages and Controversy and decide for yourself.

There are millions of wild animals in captivity worldwide, and so many are neglected, suffering, or abused. You can help Born Free (a powerful global NGO) to prevent this maltreatment. If you witness an instance of an animal in captivity that concerns you, you can “Raise the Red Flag” to alert Born Free to your concerns and receive guidance on how you can take action to help captive wild animals further.