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.

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.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

How You Can Help Animals in Captivity

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Perhaps you don’t have a lot of time in your day-to-day life to devote to animal activism. That’s okay, you can do as little or as much as you want. Whether you are at home, at work or out with friends, you CAN make a difference in the lives of captive animals.

Here are 12 simple ways in which you can make people aware of the plight of animals in captivity:

1) If you see a poster sponsoring a local zoo in the window or on the bulletin board of a grocery store or some other kind of business, write or call that business and voice your concerns. Explain to them how animals suffer in captivity, how zoos put the public at unnecessary risk and that you will not support businesses that support cruelty.

2) Arrange to speak at your local town or city council about why a new zoo should not be allowed to open or why an existing one should not be permitted to expand. Make sure you do your homework and speak from facts as well as feelings.

3) If your local newspaper prints a feature story on a local zoo, write to the paper and explain the problem with zoos and that you will not purchase a paper that condones animal exploitation. Also, if your local paper writes against a particular place that keeps animals captive, write and express your appreciation and support.

4) Invite your family or friends to watch a nature or wildlife documentary film with you (they also make great gifts!). Have a discussion afterwards about why it’s better for animals to live in the wild rather than in a zoo.

5) Some humane societies work in partnership with local zoos in a misguided attempt to educate the public about wildlife. If this happens in your area, write to the humane society and explain to them why zoos are doing a disservice to animals by keeping them in captivity. Remind them that they are supposed to be protecting animals and not working with those that exploit them.

6) Get permission to hang up an anti-zoo poster at work, along with brochures explaining why the public should not support places that display wild animals.

7) If your child’s class is planning a field trip to a zoo or marine park, write to the teacher and the school principal explaining why you will not let your child attend. You can also meet with the teacher and supply him or her with information about zoos along with alternatives that do not exploit animals.

8) Distribute anti-captivity literature at work, your veterinarian’s office, the library or even downtown at a busy intersection (just make sure you are not violating any municipal bylaws first).

9) If you notice that a lot of books at your local library endorse the keeping of animals in captivity, donate books (as well as videos and DVDs) that show animals living in their natural environments and discourage keeping animals in zoos (books also make great birthday or Christmas gifts).

10) Strike up a conversation about animals in captivity whenever and wherever you get the opportunity. If there has been a recent incident involving a local zoo, raise the issue with the person you are sitting beside on the bus. Try talking with a friend about animals in captivity when standing in line to see a movie, just loud enough so that the people in front of or behind you can hear.

11) If you witness neglect or abuse at the zoo or marine park, inform the proper authorities, including the local humane society and the nearest animal protection group immediately.

12) Wear an anti-zoo button or t-shirt to show how you feel about animals in captivity. You can also place a bumper sticker with an anti-captivity message on the back of your car – people will notice, guaranteed!

You can purchase anti-zoo merchandise, including brochures and another educational materials, from a number of national and international animal advocacy groups. Some organizations may send you brochures to distribute for free (or for a minimal donation to help with printing costs, shipping, etc.).

Remember, you can be creative and assertive when helping the animals but above all, be polite. Let them know that you are just like them – compassionate, caring and kind – but that you don’t want to see animals suffer needlessly.