The problems with zoos

Last year, people were outraged when they heard about the zoo in Copenhagen that killed a healthy two-year-old giraffe. Marius was shot because his genes weren’t unique in the European giraffe population and he was unsuitable for breeding programs.

giraffe

But Marius’ death wasn’t an anomaly. Of the 340 zoos in the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), approximately 3000-5000 healthy “surplus” animals are killed each year.

In the US it’s no better. Animals are often traded among zoos like playing cards and can end up in circus, private collections, or even in “canned hunting” parks, where people can pay to kill them.

Most zoos have captive breeding programs—and of course cute baby animals are a huge draw—but what happens when there are too many animals in the zoo? Unless a zoo is saving species by breeding them and releasing them into the wild, these breeding programs are pointless.

Being born into captivity is no life for an animal. Even the most enriched captive environments simply cannot compare with an animal’s natural habitat.

Chai in barn c/o FWPZE

Chai at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, before being moved to a zoo in Oklahoma.

And if zoo animals aren’t in a natural environment, they won’t be displaying natural behavior—especially when zoos often don’t treat their animals right. Zoos often point to their facilities as being great educational tools for visitors. However, visitors can’t learn about wild animals by visiting captive ones.

It’s better to learn about animals through educational nature shows (ones that film animals from a distance and don’t harass them). PAWS has a great program underway where people can watch their rescued animals on webcams.

I’ve often thought seeing animatronic animals would be better. Realistic-looking robotic animals could be programmed to behave like real, wild animals. People could learn about what animals sound like, look like, and how they act—all without involving real animals. I hope the zoo of the future is a beautiful park with fake animals. (It would cost less to run as well.)

Further reading:

Zoos are fit for neither child nor beast

Surplus Animals: The Cycle of Hell

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Help protect chimpanzees

Good news on the horizon: The US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that chimpanzees in the US be added to the federal endangered species list.

chimp on wikimediaRight now, wild chimps are listed as endangered while their captive cousins are listed as only threatened. This means people can breed, sell, ship, and experiment on captive chimps in the US.

Adding captive chimps to the endangered species list would change that and would help chimps in zoos, circuses, and in the entertainment industry.

Changing their status will prevent chimps from being used in invasive medical testing procedures and from being taken across state lines. It would also ban the international commerce of chimps.

The Humane Society, Chimpanzee Sanctuary NW, and The Jane Goodall Institute all back the proposal.

You can read the press release from Chimpanzee Sanctuary NW and an article by the Washington Post for more about the chimps’ plight.

Take Action!

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public feedback about the issue. Please visit this Humane Society page, add your comments, and sign the petition asking US Fish and Wildlife Service to help all chimpanzees by applying Endangered Species Act protections to captive chimpanzees.

Thank you!

An Apology to Elephants

HBO An Apology to ElephantsWhat’s the problem with the elephant in the room?” asks veterinarian Mel Richardson rhetorically in the new HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants. He answers his own question: “the room.”

The problem of elephants in captivity is the heart of this film, narrated by Lily Tomlin. It guides viewers through our complicated relationships with elephants. It shows beautiful footage of wild herds and contrasts them with heartbreaking scenes from circuses and zoos.

The documentary interviews several elephant experts, including the late Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Her sanctuary in California is a refuge for elephants.

The film is difficult to watch. Elephants in circuses and zoos are trained through forced submission and physical violence. The bull hook is an instrument of torture and the elephants learn to fear whoever bears one. But it’s important to know about the plight of captive elephants. How they’ve been ripped away from their families in Africa and Asia just to entertain us.

baby elephant training (PETA)

The performances that these majestic elephants are forced to participate in seems to mock their very elephant-ness. The ringleaders have stench of colonialism on them. Conquer, dominate, exploit, profit.

Ringling Brothers Circus (Amy n Rob)

Elephants have been exploited for a long time. They’ve been used to perform hard labor, as instruments of war, as objects of entertainment, as transportation–not to mention being killed for their meat and ivory. Humans have been unkind to pachyderms and we owe them a better future.

Elephants in the wild form tight social bonds. Male babies stay with their mothers for up to 15 years. Females never leave the matriarchy.

The Oakland Zoo is featured prominently in the film as an example of a zoo that is changing. They’ve increased the enclosure (it’s still just 6 acres, but that’s six times bigger than Seattle’s paltry enclosure). Instead of direct contact (which involves bull hooks), they use indirect contact so trainers are never in the same area as the elephants. When they do interact with elephants, it’s through a fence and with positive reinforcement.

bullhook (IDA)

The trainers acquired the elephants through other, sub par zoos, and to my knowledge they aren’t breeding them. They acknowledged that the wild is the best place for elephants but since these ones can’t be released into the wild, improving their living conditions is the next best thing.

I don’t support zoos and I would like to see the Oakland Zoo elephants to go a sanctuary like PAWS too. Profiting from animals, whether in a zoo or circus, isn’t right. But on the spectrum of elephant treatment, Oakland is doing a whole lot more than most places.

After seeing this film, you can bet I’ll be at the circus the next time it comes to town–protesting it! In this area, Ringling has learned to stay out of Seattle, but they still come to Everett and Tacoma. I’ll be there, speaking up for the elephants who can’t. Elephants as old as I am who see nothing but the inside of trucks, the sharp end of a bull hook, and the jeering crowds in a circus tent.

I’ve written the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and asked that their elephants be released to a sanctuary. I encourage you to do the same. Write to the officials in Seattle or your local zoo.

Resources:

Have you seen An Apology to Elephants? What did you think? Do you know of other captive elephants who have campaigns to help them?