Born to be wild?

Some say that keeping animals in zoos is cruel. Others maintain that it's vital for conservation. Sanjida O'Connell reports on a beastly issue

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The temperature is touching 30C and the cool, blue water in front of me looks inviting. Tamara edges delicately into the shallows and relieves herself noisily, sighs and submerges in the pool, wriggling her long, prehensile nose above the surface like a periscope. Tamara, a Brazilian tapir, is an ambassador. Her duties - stirring from her fat haunches, passing wind and swimming - have attracted a considerable crowd who, from a distance of a metre away, are staring at her intensely. Ignoring us all, she floats regally by.

Tamara is one of 430 species kept at Bristol's tiny five-acre zoo. According to the education staff, there are many reasons to justify keeping animals in small enclosures, including the idea that they are acting as ambassadors for their species. "Having big, smelly animals in captivity gets people so excited and thrilled to be close to them that they may want to help them," says senior education officer Dave Naish.

"A face-to-face encounter touches people in a way that watching a TV programme can't do."

But can zoos compete in a world where we can watch penguins marching on the big screen, gorillas farting in 3D and snow leopards stalking in high-definition?

Zoos frequently stress that their animals are part of captive breeding programmes. In reality, the majority of species are never going to be reintroduced back to the wild and are not being bred for conservation purposes. The world's zoos are part of a giant stud book: genetically compatible animals can be transferred from any participating zoo to maintain existing groups of animals in captivity. For instance, Jock, a male gorilla from London Zoo, was taken to Bristol to mate with Romena, a female gorilla, since her own mate wasn't up to the job. This zoological speed-dating ensures that zoos continue to have healthy gorillas without resorting to capturing animals from the wild. It seems contradictory - a conservation ideal used to justify keeping animals in captivity.

However, whether one agrees with the preservation of zoos or not, many do run some captive breeding programmes where animals and even some plants are reintroduced to the wild. Bristol has just reintroduced British wild parsnips into wetlands; London Zoo has captured field crickets from the last remaining wild population, bred them in captivity and released them in three new sites. "The public come to see animals that they know about," says Simon Garrett, head of education at Bristol Zoo, "but we use their money and our time and expertise to conserve animals which no one apart from us cares about. The public would not come to see crickets."

Equally, not many of us would put our hand in our pocket to fund programmes overseas, yet zoos do this on our behalf. Both Bristol and London support programmes to help eradicate bushmeat, the trade in African wild animals. Bristol has supported the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund for the last 10 years. Part of the remit is to show Cameroonian children their own apes. "Many of them had never seen these animals before, although some had eaten them," says Naish. "The children and their teachers were astounded at how human apes are. This kind of work is not going to solve the problem - it's just one cog in a wheel, but some of the Cameroonians we speak to may not even have known there was a problem that needed to be solved."

This seems to be one of the central justifications - that the public, by gawping at charismatic animals, are funding those that people are less interested in or projects that might otherwise be difficult to raise money for. Another central tenet is education. "The collection is really there as one of the most important ways many people will experience wildlife, people who wouldn't normally get a chance to see animals in their natural habitat," says Dr Georgina Mace, director of science at the Institute of Zoology, London Zoo's research division. "We regard our zoos as a centre to inspire and inform."

Naish agrees: "Children are naturally excited by animals and we can change the way they think from a young age. They are the consumers of the future and we can teach them what problems and threats our wildlife faces, as well as what they can do."

For example, at Bristol Zoo children are taught that recycling their mobile phone is a good idea. Coltan, a mineral used in mobiles and other electronic devices, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo; mining this substance opens up the rainforest to loggers and poachers as the industry is almost unregulated. "We give people ideas for things they can do themselves," says Garrett, "by showing them that the monkey house is built using sustainably harvested wood with the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) logo and that if they like monkeys, they'll be helping safeguard their future by buying FSC timber, too."

Jersey Zoo, founded by the animal collector, author and broadcaster Gerald Durrell in 1958, has been renamed the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to reflect its role as a conservation organisation. It emphasises education, particularly of people from developing countries, to help them conserve their own endangered species. Durrell established a mini university at the trust in 1978, the International Training Centre, which has trained 1,000 students from 100 countries.

From the outset, Durrell insisted that his zoo should save endangered animals from extinction by breeding them in captivity. He was adamant that the enclosures should be designed for the needs of the animals foremost, then the convenience of the keepers, and the visitors last. If that meant waiting around to try to see an animal skulking in the undergrowth, then so be it. Back in the late Fifties, he was some 40 years ahead of his time and it is only recently that other zoos have begun to catch up. But in spite of his vision, there remains a central tension at the heart of all major zoos. No matter how much emphasis there might be on conservation and education, zoos still need to get punters through the doors - they are still a place we go to be entertained.

"We have a big responsibility," says Garrett. "People are here for a fun day out and they could have gone to the cinema or to Alton Towers. But it does give us a fantastic opportunity. People are here who wouldn't normally engage with conservation. Our responsibility is to engage with them and pass on a passion for life change."

So the question remains, however good a job zoos might do, is it cruel to keep animals in captivity? Smaller zoos such as Bristol, London and Jersey have got rid of many of their larger animals: elephants are kept at Whipsnade now instead of London; Bristol only has four large animals. It is undoubtedly much easier to keep an insect happy than a rhino in a small space. "If you found that you had a species where research told you that there was something physiologically or mentally wrong with it, then you'd have to phase it out," says Garrett. "But in general animals in captivity have a good life - they aren't hunted or infested with parasites and they never go hungry."

Bristol has two Asiatic lions, and the board outside their cage describes the species' demise. It points out all the attributes of their very small enclosure. It states that lions in the wild naturally lie around for up to 16 hours doing practically nothing. Sometimes the keepers hang up meat on pulleys to make them leap for it to try to recreate a little of the frisson they might feel if they hunted. "They can't be bothered to jump up for it," says Garrett. "And we can't lob in a live goat. At the end of the day, it's a philosophical question - is it better to be a cheetah in the wild that might live less than a week or a cheetah in captivity that has all its needs catered for?"

London Zoo www.zsl.org/london-zoo/; Bristol Zoo www.bristolzoo.org.uk; Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust www.durrellwildlife.org

Gerald Durrell: a conservationist ahead of his time

The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust opened in Jersey in March 1959, founded by the writer and conservationist Gerald Durrell, author of the bestseller My Family and Other Animals.

The purpose of the zoo was to create a safe place for animals, dedicated to breeding endangered species to ensure their survival.

In 1978 Durrell established a training programme within the grounds for conservationists from zoos around the world and in the wild, so that they could begin the process of saving species in their country of origin.

Durrell was a pioneer of "captive breeding", which many prominent zoologists at the time believed was unnecessary and irrelevant.

Although open to the public as a zoo, animal welfare and conservation are its priorities, not the entertainment of visitors.

The trust has established breeding groups of many species of endangered mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and has pioneered the return of their offspring to the wild.

The trust has an organic farm where food is grown for the animals. This means the animals have more interesting food, such as whole blackcurrant branches or sunflower stems, as well as enabling the zoo to give them delicacies it would otherwise be difficult to obtain.

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