Moos’ Blog

Bio­di­ver­sity Counts!
Obser­va­tions and opin­ions con­cern­ing zoos, evo­lu­tion, nature con­ser­va­tion and the way we treat/​support the ecosys­tems which are sup­posed to serve us.


Don’t human­ise zoo animals

pub­lished 13 Novem­ber 2015 | mod­i­fied 18 Decem­ber 2016

selection of publications of births at zoosA cou­ple of days ago an inter­est­ing inter­view was pub­lished in a Dutch news­pa­per with the direc­tor of Ams­ter­dam Zoo (Natura Artis Mag­is­tra), Haig Balian. Being a Dutch­man with Armen­ian roots and a back­ground as a suc­cess­ful film pro­ducer he is an atyp­i­cal zoo direc­tor, though he has stud­ied biol­ogy in his early days. Being the odd one out com­pared to other zoo direc­tors doesn’t mean his opin­ions are odd as well. In fact his down-​to-​earth pol­icy regard­ing the anthro­po­mor­phism in pub­lic expres­sions about Ams­ter­dam Zoo ani­mals is some­thing that prob­a­bly many a zoo direc­tor is think­ing but isn’t say­ing out loud.

We bet­ter tell some­thing about the species than pro­mot­ing its given name
Haig Balian, direc­tor Ams­ter­dam Zoo »

Because human­iz­ing ani­mals is pro­gress­ing, and it should be only about species,” added Balian. It’s not just the ‘human’ name of zoo ani­mals — as if they are pets — but the lan­guage that is being used when describ­ing inci­dents with zoo ani­mals too. In other words, Ams­ter­dam Zoo will not have a baby giraffe being born but a calf, a new­born zebra will be called a foal, etcetera. ‘Mother and child are doing fine’ will be avoided when inform­ing the pub­lic about suc­cess­ful repro­duc­tion of yet another endan­gered big cat. And when in pub­lic zoo staff will not be using ‘human’ names to call the ani­mals, and ani­mal names will not be men­tioned in pub­li­ca­tions. This is com­mon pol­icy since 2014 in Ams­ter­dam Zoo.

This pol­icy at the Zoo of the Dutch cap­i­tal reminded me of some­thing related to this. Peo­ple have lost touch with nature, because so many of us have been born and raised in urban areas. The great out­doors is an excit­ing but strange envi­ron­ment which we only see on tele­vi­sion in BBC nature doc­u­men­taries with explana­tory nar­ra­tives by Sir David Atten­bor­ough. Even a farm is a place very unfa­mil­iar to us nowadays.

So, we have never seen or expe­ri­enced at close range the strug­gle to sur­vive dur­ing every­day life in real nature or on a farm. Food can be scarce in cer­tain peri­ods for wild ani­mals and sur­vival suc­cess in predator-​prey rela­tion­ships are based on hunt­ing and escape skills. While in the pro­tected envi­ron­ment of a farm a cal­cu­lat­ing preda­tor called ‘man’ slaugh­ters ani­mals when they’ve reached their slaugh­ter weight or when they don’t meet up with the expected growth or repro­duc­tion. And because we lack this knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence the life of wild ani­mals and farm ani­mals is romanticized.

So, cap­tive wild ani­mals become pets with names and friends. But hey, they are nei­ther pets nor peo­ple. They are kept in cap­tiv­ity for a pur­pose, they repro­duce for a pur­pose, and they are used for edu­cat­ing the peo­ple for a pur­pose. And that pur­pose is called con­ser­va­tion of endan­gered species. The sooner peo­ple under­stand that zoo ani­mals are kept for that pur­pose the better.

Zoo ani­mals are cap­tive wild ani­mals and not cud­dly pets kept for enter­tain­ment pur­poses, although the lat­ter might enhance the turn­stile num­bers and the annual revenues.

Lion dissection Odense ZooIn my opin­ion zoo ani­mals should not be pro­vided a ‘human’ name but instead addi­tional space and an envi­ron­ment to express their nat­ural behav­iour, so they can be ambas­sadors for the related species in the wild. When pro­vided the best pos­si­ble means these ani­mals serve in the best pos­si­ble way the edu­ca­tional pur­pose of a zoo. Explain­ing about bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tems, and the need con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes. But this should also include explain­ing why there are sur­plus ani­mals as part of ded­i­cated breed­ing pro­grammes, and why the sur­plus ani­mals some­times are killed. When they are killed they have still got edu­ca­tional value, as shown trans­par­ently by two Dan­ish zoos last year. Although it cre­ated an uproar amongst many tender-​hearted zoo lovers and zoo haters as well, the down-​to-​earth Dan­ish peo­ple appre­ci­ated the pub­lic anatomy lessons at the zoo premises when a sur­plus giraffe (Copen­hagen Zoo) and a sur­plus lion (Odense Zoo) were dis­sected before a live audi­ence. Apart from the rea­son why those sur­plus ani­mals came about — some ques­tions come to mind — I think it’s excel­lent study mate­r­ial and used in the right way. Another value of the sur­plus kills is of course that they serve as food to the zoos’ predators.

Inter­view with Bengt Holst, Copen­hagen Zoo sci­en­tific direc­tor, about Mar­ius the giraffe killed at Copen­hagen Zoo and pub­licly fed to the lions:

(Source: ignored­voices YouTube channel)

Hope­fully, more zoo vis­i­tors become more down-​to-​earth regard­ing the ani­mals in zoo­log­i­cal facil­i­ties — like for instance the Dan­ish peo­ple — when they don’t know the names of the ani­mals. When they don’t anthro­po­mor­phise the ani­mals and don’t over-​dramatise sur­plus ani­mal killings they may be more sus­cep­ti­ble to and appre­ci­ate the edu­ca­tional efforts of the zoos they visit.

In my view the only real value of a zoo is when they con­tribute sub­stan­tially to nature con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes and pre­vent endan­gered species from going extinct, such as the Prze­wal­ski horse, Cal­i­for­nia con­dor and Ara­bian oryx.

(Source: NRC Han­dels­blad, 06.11.2015; Odense Zoo news dis­sec­tion debate, 10.10.2015; Wikipedia — Mar­ius (giraffe))

Related blogs

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

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

about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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