Thursday, April 5, 2007

Zoos: Frequently Asked Questions

1) Doesn’t the government regulate zoos?

Although a few governments may have minor regulations in place, for the most part they simply don’t exist. Guidelines are usually created by the zoo industry itself, a self-appointed body that includes both privately and publicly funded facilities. Rules and protocols are generally voluntary and self-regulated; if animal welfare interferes with the zoo’s ability to make money, it can be ignored.

2) Aren’t zoos contributing to conservation projects?

While a large number of zoos are involved with captive breeding programs, only a small number of zoological parks are involved in true conservation projects. Surprisingly, only a handful of endangered species have been successfully released into the wild. Real conservation requires the preservation of an animal’s habitat. Captive breeding programs are far too expensive and the money spent on them could save countless more animals in the wild if habitat preservation were a priority.

3) Don’t zoos help to educate the public about endangered species?

No. Seeing animals in zoos (and marine parks) does little to educate the public. A recent survey revealed that the average zoo visitor spends eleven seconds at each exhibit. All the public can see is the size, shape and colour of the animals. Their natural abilities, social interactions, foraging habits, etc. are all manipulated and controlled by the zookeepers. Even the animals’ habitats are artificially constructed with the emphasis on simplicity, accessibility, easy cleaning and adequate public viewing.

4) Don’t animals in zoos have everything they need to live happy, healthy lives?

No. Exhibits at zoos often lack the appropriate space and conditions to meet most animals’ behavioural needs. This is because those factors are determined by available space and money and not on want is best for the animals. Unsanitary conditions and proper nutrition are also problems at many of today’s zoos. This often results in the development of abnormal behaviours, including aggression and depression, or sickness and disease.

5) If animals at a particular zoo were suffering, wouldn’t some agency like the humane society shut it down?

Probably not. Animals are still considered property under the law and not sufficiently protected. Unless a zookeeper is caught ‘red-handed’ beating an animal by some level of law enforcement, it is difficult to move forward with charges. Many laws allow for necessary pain as in regards to training practices and even if it is proven that an animal is suffering, there is the matter of ownership and where to place the animal if seizure is even permitted. Most humane societies lack the necessary authority to enforce anything other than basic animal welfare protocols so as long as zoos provide some form of food, water and shelter, they are in compliance with most laws.

6) Aren’t animals in captivity treated by a qualified veterinarian?

Yes and no. While a number of accredited and modern facilities have veterinarians on staff, many smaller roadside zoos do not. They may have someone who comes in periodically but this person may or may not be qualified to tend to every species’ needs. An injured or sick animal at one of these facilities may go days or longer without proper treatment. This often results in unnecessary suffering, death, or both.

7) If an animal is born in captivity, then isn’t that all it knows?

Non-domesticated animals, even ones born in captivity, retain some of their natural, or wild, behaviours. Whereas cats, dogs and horses have been domesticated over many centuries to be around humans, wild animals in zoos have not. They still need to express their natural instincts such as foraging, nest building and interacting with members of the same and different species, among others. Suppression of these instincts can result in the development of abnormal behaviours, poor health and death.

8) Wouldn’t it be cruel to release an animal that only knows life in captivity?

Many zoo breeding programs were developed for this very purpose: to release captive endangered species back into the wild and there have been a few successful reintroductions. However, this doesn’t justify the over-breeding of animals at many of today’s zoos. This has led to countless ‘surplus’ animals being sold to medical research laboratories, exotic animal dealers (destined for the pet trade), the exotic meat industry or simply being destroyed. As mentioned above, wild animals in zoos are still wild animals. With the proper help, they can live full, rich lives in their natural environments.

9) Isn’t it better to have animals in zoos rather than let them become extinct?

While a very small number of zoos address habitat preservation or the creation of exhibits with the animals’ biological and behavioural needs in mind, the vast majority are profit-driven amusement parks. These zoos should be phased out over time and breeding programs strictly regulated to control the number of ‘surplus’ animals. If something is done about habitat destruction now, the extinction of future species can be averted.

10) If you closed down all the zoos, what would happen to the animals?

Not every zoo would close nor would the closure of zoos happen all at once. Zoos could be phased out in three steps. 1) The zoo would immediately stop all captive breeding programs. 2) Acquisition of animals from the wild or other zoos would discontinue. 3) When the last of the animals died, the zoo in its present form would cease to be. The completion of this process would take many years giving the zoo plenty of time to reinvent itself into some other profitable enterprise (e.g. amusement park, shopping complex or performing arts theatre). In the meantime, animal welfare would take precedence and animals that cannot be adequately accommodated would go to reputable sanctuaries.

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