Ginger Digest

To zoo or not to zoo: Entertainment or Pure Evil?

Voices Category: 

Posted on 20th May, 2015: "The low ebb to which zoos had allowed themselves to fall in public estimation was made apparent by the reaction I got when people found out what I intended to do. If I had informed them that I was going to start a plastic bottle factory, a pop group, a strip club or something else of such obvious benefit to mankind, they would doubtless have been deeply sympathetic. But a zoo? A place where you reluctantly took the children to ride an elephant and get sick on ice cream? A place where animals were imprisoned? Surely I could not be serious? Why a zoo, of all the things, they asked?

To a certain extent I understood and even sympathised with their views. Theirs was a difficult question to answer, for their conception of a zoo and mine were totally different. The core of the problem lay in the fact that in the past – and even today – a few people, scientists or laymen, properly appreciate the value of a good zoological garden. As scientific institutions, they are simply not taken seriously and there is too little recognition of the fact that they provide the opportunity for an enormous amount of valuable work in research, conservation and education. To a large extent, this ignorance has been promoted by the zoos themselves, for far too many of them seem totally unaware of their own potentialities, scientifically speaking, and continue to encourage everyone to look upon them as mere places of amusement. It is therefore not altogether surprising that both the public and scientific fraternity regard zoos as places of entertainment, something less mobile and transitory than a circus but of much the level of scientific importance."

Writes British explorer, author and conservator, Gerard Malcolm Durrell OBE in his 1976 book The Stationary Ark. Many of you might question his intentions, after all he seemed to have been entirely in favour of zoos, despite acknowledging their obvious pitfalls. But the man states his case quite clearly, “you cannot begin to talk about conservation of a species unless you have some knowledge of how it functions. A well-run zoological garden should provide you with the facilities for just such work.”

From the part that I have quoted in the book, Durrell goes on to expound upon scientific, educational and conservatory benefits of a “well-run zoological park”. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where such a thing exists (and apparently, it didn’t exist in 1970s England either, as Durrell goes on to admit in the book). We live in a world where famed US-based water park Sea World is raking up lawsuit after lawsuit for its reprehensible treatment of orca whales. A latest lawsuit has accused them of unnaturally inbreeding or force breeding orca whales and keeping them in cruel confined space, psychologically manipulating them to perform and sometimes even depriving them of food. And SeaWorld is just one example…

While the Jersey Conservation Trust that Gerard Durrell founded in 1963, started off as a zoo and went on to maintain breeding groups of some of the rarest animals in the world and release their progeny into the wild; few took after his lead. Maybe we wouldn’t need armed guards standing around the poor lonely last male northern white rhino in the world at the Ol Pejeta conservancy in central Kenya, if more people would have listened to Durrell instead of ridiculing him.

But there is a thin and dangerous line between, zoological park for conservation science and research and zoological park that started out for science and then found entertainment more profitable, like in the case of SeaWorld. Can we, human beings, be trusted to make that distinction?

Cruelty in cages

The cruel wild beast is not behind the bars of the cage. He stands in front of it

- Axel Munthe

Animals in captivity are no animals at all. They are mere hollowed-out puppets forced to respond to the whims and prods of their captors. Remember the poor fish from the movie Finding Nemo who was obsessed with bubbles in the fish tank that Nemo finds himself captured in?

Animals in captivity lose all their natural instincts. They become bored and lonely and start displaying symptoms of neurotic behaviour, a disorder called ‘zoochosis’. Ever seen a big cat pace its enclosure compulsively? Or a monkey rock back and forth in its cage? That’s zoochosis.

Some animals have to be put on anti-depressants and medication to keep from bumming out the crowd. Still others, are simply put down and replaced with other from the wild.

I’ve been to the Zoological Park in Delhi and it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. The Asian Black Bear looked emaciated and listless. The leopard was housed in a tiny cage and paced uncontrollably. The gibbon howled and howled endlessly, as if crying out for help, with people mocking and taunting it.

I will never forget the defeated, dead expression on the face of the lion I saw in a tiny enclosure in the Lucknow Zoo, almost ten years ago. In the blazing hot sun, this majestic animal looked like a mop.

Zoos through time

Yet, throughout human history from the Romans to the Chinese to the Egyptians and even us subcontinent folk, human beings have captured animals and used them for entertainment. “We are the absolute masters of what the earth produces,” Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote.

The first ever Zoological Society of London was setup in the early 1800s. Though a ‘modern’ version, where the general public came to visit and be regaled by the captive animals, existed in Vienna, Austria in 1765, zoos became popular avenues of recreation and amusement only after the 1800s. Back then, no one cared about the well-being of the animals or their habitat or nutrition. If they became too sick to be cute, they were simply sent off to the abattoir or killed for the other predators in the zoo to feed on. If any animal died of malnutrition or exhaustion, it was simply replaced with more from the wild. It was a veritable free for all!

It was only in the last century, that the ‘humane’ angle of keeping animals in captivity came into scrutiny. As zoologists and animal psychologists started learning more and more about animal species and behaviour, they realised the special needs of each species of animal.

In 1906, the inventor of the cruelty-free methods of training animals for entertainment, German animal dealer, Carl Hagenbeck, sold his travelling trained animal show and started the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany.

It was the first of its kind. With wide open enclosures that mimicked the animal’s natural habitats and used moats to separate the animal and human visitors. It was a start, but it was not enough.

Zoos in India

There are roughly 10,000 zoos and marine parks located in 80 countries around the world. India has had 355 zoos since the 1800s, while the United States has 200. In India, the Central Zoo Authority, a statutory authority functioning under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is charged with managing the affairs, setting out the rules of operation and disseminating information regarding each zoo in the country.

It was setup in 1992, under the Wildlife Protection Act, to bring India’s zoos to world-class standards. Probably because the casualty rate among animals at Indian zoos is one of the highest in the world at 40%. The birth rate on the other hand is one of the lowest in the world.

Shelters Not Zoos

For the animals and for you.

There is not a country in the world, which can claim that its zoos have not committed horrific cruelty towards the captive animals. Yes, there are conservation trust and zoological parks that are doing good work, but very few and far between.

If you really want to connect with animals and you want such an experience for your children, as well, visit your local animal shelter. Teach yourself and your child about compassion and companionship at an animal organisation that is working towards the betterment of the animals housed in it. No pretense, no hidden agenda, no cruelty.

Zoos are popular even today, after years of people questioning their efficacy and intent. In 2010, over 18 lakh people visited the Vandalur zoo or Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, with an annual 15% rise in footfall expected. Why? Entry tickets at zoos are cheap and taking your kids around is easy.

Well, animal shelters don’t charge any entry fees at all. And give your child a hands-on experience of interacting with animals. There is nothing more rewarding than the thankful lick of a shelter dog, or an appreciative head butt from a shelter cat.

Animal shelters need our support and encouragement, zoos are better relegated to cruel and selfish concept of the past.

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