Friday, April 6, 2007

What's Wrong with Roadside Zoos?

Contrary to popular belief, roadside zoos do not operate to serve and protect the animals' best interests. Most zoos, whether privately or publicly run, exist for monetary gain and human entertainment.

As a commercial enterprise, the zoo's first order of business is to make money. The animals' physiological and behavioural needs always come second.

Enclosures are often too small for animals that have adapted to living in large, open areas. Undersized exhibits may result in high levels of stress as the animals are unable to retreat from other, more dominant members of the species or from human visitors.

Other exhibits ignore specific species' requirements. For example,some enclosures lack the long runways necessary for birds to fly back and forth in whereas certain tree-dwelling primates would benefit greatly from vertical enclosures that allow the animals to climb up and down.

Inappropriate social arrangements are also quite common at some roadside zoos. Naturally social animals like primates and lions, are often kept isolated while solitary animals, such as bears and tigers, are forced to live together, thus creating an unnatural and stressful living arrangement.

Environmental enrichments (toys, structures and routines that encourage normal feeding and foraging behaviours), essential to an animal's well being, are absent from most roadside zoos. If an animal isn't sufficiently stimulated, it may develop abnormal behaviour patterns such as aggression, lethargy and self-mutilation. The animal may also try to seek stimulation outside of its enclosure.

Animal escapes, surprisingly common at roadside zoos, are a serious threat to public safety. In August 2007, a bear escaped from a zoo in Stevensville, Ontario, resulting in a massive search by dozens of police officers and volunteer firefighters. Residents were warned to stay inside and not approach the bear, which apparently burrowed his way under the cage.

Many of these animals live in unsanitary conditions and are vulnerable to disease and illness. They may go without food or clean water for days and must eat, sleep and defecate in the same small area. Feces may not be removed for days, which can lead to sickness and the development of abnormal behaviours. Medical attention is often neglected in some of the smaller zoos and an injured or sick animal may go without proper treatment resulting in unnecessary suffering or death.

Close-up contact with wild, captive animals also puts the public at unnecessary risk. Injuries and attacks by zoo animals are quite common and often result in the death of a person, the animal, or both.

Diseases can be transmitted to humans who come into contact with wild and exotic animals including tuberculosis, rabies and salmonelosis; non-human primates can carry diseases fatal to humans. Still, touching animals is encouraged at most roadside zoos and hand-washing facilities are rarely provided.

Many captives, unable to exercise their natural behaviours, may develop 'neurotic' behaviours such as depression, aggression and self-mutilation. Stereotypic movements, like head bobbing, rocking from side to side, bar licking and pacing are usually symptoms of a problematic environment.

The myth that zoos benefit the animals while educating the public is partly responsible for the proliferation and public support of roadside zoos. In fact, the increasing demand for new and unusual specimens pushes many species to the brink of extinction and disrupts entire ecosystems.

Very few zoos are involved in habitat preservation and only a handful of endangered species have been successfully released into the wild. Captive breeding programs are too costly and the money spent on them could save many more animals in the wild.

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