This was the subject of a BBC shows, Horizon a few weeks ago which I only recently watched . Zoos are always a controversial topic but the show was fairly well balanced and not as critical as it may have been.
Despite this it still outraged many on social media along with animal rights groups, mainly PETA, who were especially critical and latched onto every negative issue. The practice of culling a healthy, but genetically useless giraffe in Copenhagen zoo has been heavily criticised. As has the fact that the culled animals were being dissected in public and then fed to the other animals. Culling is unfortunate but zoos can’t keep an infinite number of animals.If no other zoo can take the animal and if it offers no breeding potential then sadly there is little other choice. Culling is always controversial and I could see why people were shocked but I didn’t see the problem with publicly dissecting the animals, that actually seemed quite an interesting and educational thing to do. Many animal shows such as “Inside Natures Giants” dissect animals regularly without causing the same outrage. Likewise the carnivores in the zoo have to eat something and a dead giraffe is as good a food as any, what else were the zoo supposed to do? Put a giraffe in the bin?
The show did raise many issues though, why were we only criticising one zoo for culling when hundreds of zoos do the same practise? Copenhagen zoo, along with others have culled for years but when they made into an educational event it became a big story. Even the other pro-culling zoos criticised Copenhagen for letting the public know what really went on. The problem with this sort of secrecy is that, by not releasing information, you prompt a wave of conspiracy theories and protests when the information does come to light which undermines public confidence in zoos.
A particularly contentious point was that only around 3% of a zoos income goes towards conservation in the wild. I don’t really see the problem here though, zoos have a lot of expenses and the fact that they can do educational programs, keep animals, pay their staff and donate to wild conservation projects seems a fairly good achievement. Zoo’s are not necessarily about improving the wild environment, conservation groups such as WWF attempt to do that whilst zoos provide homes for the animals and breed viable populations for re-release. Giving 3% is not really a problem, more of a misconception surrounding what zoos are for. PETA were quick to criticise further saying “And that money is failing to have any real impact on conserving species.” Unsurprisingly PETA have no evidence for that claim and unnecessary criticism of this nature really doesn’t help anyone.
Many people chose to criticise the fact that “90% of animals in zoos are not endangered” and thus zoos are ineffective. The problem is that people tend to think of animals as endangered or not endangered, whereas in reality there are many stages. You have “Least Concern”, “Near Threatened” and “Vulnerable” categories along with “Endangered” and “Critically Endangered” according to the IUCN who are the people who essential monitor all the worlds’ animals. To say 90% are not endangered was an unfortunate turn of phrase and one that people are using to make ill judged arguments. Just because an animal is not endangered doesn’t mean that it is likely to survive. That is not to say that all the animals are there for protection. Sadly, some zoos were made for entertainment purposes but many are gradually phasing out “show” animals. If a zoo does have non-necessary or non-endangered animals it puts them in an awkward position. If they kill them they will be criticised, if they keep them they will be criticised. This is the problem with many of the arguments from animal rights groups. There are no viable suggestions, merely criticism of any action, much of which is aimed at the people who probably weren’t even working for the zoo when the animals were brought in 20+ years ago. The constant commenting of “Close the zoos”, “Free the animals” or “#FreeTillikum, on social media illustrate a complete ignorance to what the real issues are here. It’s just lazy, uninformed sniping that serves no purpose.
The topic of captive breeding was addressed and many were critical about the effects. There are many success stories of captive breeding but also many failures. It could be argued that we are getting better at doing them and if habitat restoration was to occur then we could release animals back to their native environment. Stopping habitat loss is a complicated social problem that normally relates to employment and corruption, something well beyond the control of a zoo.
What the show didn’t really touch on was the educational side of zoos. One expert said he felt there was no evidence that zoos make people care for the animals and that people weren’t really engaging with the animals. Whether this is true or not is unclear but zoos do a lot of educational things, such as the public dissections in Copenhagen zoo, along with workshops, training courses and university research. Zoos certainly help us to understand animal behaviour and may help with saving wild populations
Not all zoos are equal and many do need to improve and modernise to keep up with new practises and new breakthroughs in animal behaviour research. Of course the ideal solution would be to have all the animals in the wild and not need captivity but that is not the reality and so people are doing what they think is best to save the wildlife. Overall this was a good TV show that has prompted debate amongst many whilst at the same time angering many animals right groups. Zoos are not perfect but I can’t see how getting rid of them entirely would do any good at all.