AboutZoos, Since 2008


Zoos are the prob­lem, not the solu­tion to ani­mal conservation

pub­lished 31 August 2016 | mod­i­fied 31 August 2016

By Margi Prideaux

Instead of impris­on­ing ani­mals for profit, why not sup­port shared efforts in coexistence?

La Barben Zoo, FranceIn the past month the deaths of ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity have high­lighted con­tin­u­ing con­cerns around the con­tri­bu­tion of zoos to con­ser­va­tion. Zoos are enter­tain­ment, and while they con­tribute to con­ser­va­tion they don’t pro­vide any real solu­tion. Wildlife can only be saved by empow­er­ing their pro­tec­tion in their own nat­ural habi­tats — and that means we have to work with local com­mu­ni­ties and not against them.

What zoos do!
On 28th May 2016, for exam­ple, Harambe, a cap­tive born gorilla, was shot dead after a young boy fell into his enclo­sure at the Cincin­nati Zoo in the United States. One week ear­lier, two lions were destroyed at Santiago’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Zoo in Chile, and a week before that a Suma­tran ele­phant called Yani died in the noto­ri­ous Surabaya Zoo in Indone­sia. An online dis­cus­sion has exploded about each of these sad cases, but by and large it’s a debate that excludes the views of those most impor­tant for success.

Oppo­nents of zoos such as Marc Bekoff, a behav­ioural ecol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado, argue that an animal’s life in cap­tiv­ity is a shadow of their expe­ri­ence in the wild. Pro­po­nents of zoos such as the World Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums counter that the con­ser­va­tion ben­e­fits zoos pro­vide out­weigh the iso­lated (albeit tragic) costs paid by the ani­mals involved.

On social media zoo sup­port­ers say that cap­tive ani­mals serve as con­ser­va­tion ‘ambas­sadors’ for their wild coun­ter­parts, and that zoos are a ‘Noah’s Ark’ that pro­vides a buffer against the decline of endan­gered species. In truth, this is a script that even the zoo indus­try has qui­etly aban­doned.

While some species such as oryx, wolves and con­dors have ben­e­fited from cap­tive breed­ing pro­grammes, there is pre­cious lit­tle evi­dence that zoo bred genet­ics are being used to strengthen wild pop­u­la­tions of goril­las, ele­phants and dol­phins. Zoos recog­nise that they have insuf­fi­cient space to engage in suc­cess­ful breed­ing pro­grammes for large mam­mals, and are unable to accom­mo­date more than the small­est frac­tion of the world’s 22,784 species that are threat­ened with extinc­tion. So why do zoos persist?

Colo­nial exploita­tion
Zoos began life as amuse­ments, and while they have evolved they still exist to make money and tap into a wealthy soci­etal appetite for enter­tain­ment. But at a deeper level they are key com­po­nents of an inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion sys­tem that resem­bles the West’s colo­nial and racial past. This sys­tem believes that com­mu­ni­ties in parts of the world where most endan­gered species live are a prob­lem that must be fixed — most often by acquir­ing tra­di­tional lands, estab­lish­ing camps and other expe­ri­ences for wealthy tourists, and employ­ing gun-​carrying guards to patrol the bound­aries of parks and reserves.

Both zoo pro­po­nents and their oppo­nents rarely recog­nise that dis­cus­sions about con­ser­va­tion radi­ate almost exclu­sively from Europe, North Amer­ica and Aus­tralia. Mean­while, the voices of those who actu­ally live along­side the ani­mals in ques­tion are ignored. To fill their exhibits, zoos either breed ani­mals or remove them from the wild. And that leaves a trail of money behind each indi­vid­ual ani­mal as it moves from one enclo­sure to another along the long chain of cap­tiv­ity, bear­ing an uncom­fort­able resem­blance to other com­modi­ties that are traded under global cap­i­tal­ism includ­ing slaves and human trafficking.

How­ever, most of this money doesn’t flow to the com­mu­ni­ties where these species nat­u­rally live. It flows between pro­fes­sional (and some­times ille­gal) wildlife traders and the cof­fers of gov­ern­ments along the way. Some­times ani­mals move through inter­me­di­aries, per­haps to remove any traces of their origins.

Zoos’ income/​conservation invest­ments ratio
Zoos do invest in con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes, but the gen­eros­ity of these exchanges is small com­pared to the prof­its that are derived from the ani­mals in their exhibits, or the large sums that are spent on acquir­ing ani­mals and cre­at­ing zoo dis­plays: in 2011 John Fa and his col­leagues cal­cu­lated that invest­ments in situ or in local con­ser­va­tion efforts rep­re­sented less than five per­cent of the total income of zoos in the USA.

The peo­ple of the forests and low­land swamps of Cen­tral Africa — the home of Harambe’s kin — don’t sit on the Board of the Cincin­nati Zoo. Com­mu­ni­ties in the arc­tic north are not part of the man­age­ment deci­sions for Walker, Vic­to­ria and Ark­tos, three polar bears at the UK’s High­land Wildlife Park.

Sourc­ing from the wild
In 2015 Big Game Parks, the trust that man­ages three game reserves in Swazi­land, sold 15 infant and three preg­nant female wild ele­phants to US zoos. The move was roundly con­demned by more than 80 experts as hav­ing “no sin­gle redeem­ing virtue.” Were local people’s views sought or lis­tened to in this trans­ac­tion? My sources say no, yet many zoos con­tinue to imply that their exhibits exist to con­tribute to con­ser­va­tion in these regions.

What would hap­pen if these com­mu­ni­ties were asked for their opin­ions on how best to con­serve ani­mals with which they’ve lived for gen­er­a­tions? Instead of trans­port­ing ele­phants halfway around the world, they might ask for sup­port to move their vil­lage out­side of a wild ele­phant migra­tion path. They might pre­fer that efforts were focused on reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions so that polar bears and their human neigh­bours could con­tinue to live their lives suc­cess­fully on the ice. They might also ask for assis­tance to help buffer the impact of glob­al­i­sa­tion on their liveli­hoods so that trad­ing, hunt­ing and poach­ing could be reduced.

What about local coex­is­tence?
My book­shelves are buck­ling under the weight of sci­ence and dis­cov­ery about ani­mal cog­ni­tion and cul­ture that has exploded in the last ten years. But my most trea­sured pos­ses­sion is a copy of a book called A Com­mu­nion of Sub­jects, edited by Paul Wal­dau and Kim­berly Pat­ton, whose pages echo with the sto­ries of the many ways in which peo­ple across the world relate to animals.

Many human cul­tures under­stand that peo­ple and wildlife share the same spaces, and there­fore need to cohabit in order to sur­vive. Human and non-​human cul­tures alike are threat­ened by pol­lu­tion, defor­esta­tion and cli­mate change. The destruc­tion of the nat­ural world impov­er­ishes every­body. So if we did ask local com­mu­ni­ties for their opin­ions on what to do about these issues, we might be sur­prised by their suggestions.

What zoos should do!
But for these voices to be heard, zoos have to aban­don their dom­i­nant posi­tion in debates over con­ser­va­tion, a posi­tion which over­shad­ows the mul­ti­tude of smaller views and the wis­dom they often rep­re­sent. Zoos should speak with hon­esty about the work they do and don’t do, and admit that many of their liv­ing exhibits are designed for profit.

This hon­esty would allow their vis­i­tors to have a much franker engage­ment with the issues sur­round­ing endan­gered species, one made more pow­er­ful by direct wit­ness of the ani­mals they are dis­cussing — like a sil­ver­back gorilla that has been robbed of his her­itage because he earns money for the zoo. It would also give zoos more lever­age to pro­mote other attrac­tions that are not mired in the same eth­i­cal debates, such as species that are local to the region of the zoo, or com­puter sim­u­la­tions and robotics.

When zoos cease to dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion, the pub­lic will be able to hear how they can empower local con­ser­va­tion efforts wher­ever apes, ele­phants, dol­phins and big cats are threat­ened — and what the stew­ards of their nat­ural habi­tats can do the stem these risks. By revers­ing the neo-​colonial struc­ture of inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion, this will put ani­mals and peo­ple at the cen­tre of the debate.

This arti­cle has orig­i­nally been pub­lished on www​.open​democ​racy​.net under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution-​NonCommercial 4.0 Inter­na­tional licence. A few minor adjust­ments to the lay­out have been made.

Please read the com­ments to the orig­i­nal arti­cle for a broader perspective.

(Source: open​Democ​racy​.net, 22.06.2016)

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Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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