From Tian Tian to the tiger cub: Zoos aren’t, and can never be, the natural world

Is it any wonder children do not understand wildlife when it is shown like this?

Share

The death of London Zoo’s tiger cub, too young to have a name, is desperately sad. The male cub, just over two weeks old, separated from mother Melati and father Jae Jae, drowned in a pool in their enclosure, recently re-designed to make it more like the wild. I feel sorry for keepers at the zoo, who had obviously become attached to the  cub that was filmed tumbling in straw and  crawling to its mother. Their emotions were summed up by Zoo director David Field as “deeply distraught” and “devastated”.

Similarly, it is disappointing that Tian Tian, Edinburgh Zoo’s giant panda, has miscarried. The pregnancy of Sweetie, her translated name, had been eagerly watched by those desperate for a baby panda to boost tourism. It was even immortalised in political phraseology, compared to Labour’s mystery policy closet by Jacqui Smith. The infant bear might even have become a symbol for a united United Kingdom, ahead of the referendum on Scotland’s  independence next year. But no more.

The sadness is perhaps more acute because both incidents emerged at the same time, and were reported in yesterday’s newspapers. When animals suffer tragedies that we humans can relate to, they receive plenty of coverage.

There was a third piece of news yesterday, not accompanied by a picture of a furry animal, but which has arguably greater and more troubling ramifications for our natural world. An RSPB survey has found that four out of five British schoolchildren are not “connected to nature”. Just one fifth of eight- to 12-year-olds have a “realistic and achievable” level of connection to the natural world. Interestingly, town-raised children are better connected than their rural-dwelling  counterparts – perhaps because you have to use a car to get around the countryside.

The RSPB is concerned that if children do not understand wildlife, they will be less inclined to protect nature when they reach adulthood. This makes sense. And there is reason to be concerned: earlier this year, a report by 25 wildlife organisations, including the RSPB, found that 60 per cent of the species studied have declined in the last few decades. Yet is it any wonder that children do not understand wildlife when it is presented in such an unrealistic way and when every death and non-birth is elevated to a national tragedy?

From David Attenborough’s Africa – which showed plucky baby green turtles sprinting for life across the sand – to political debates about badgers moving goalposts, animals are anthropomorphised, given names and qualities in books, TV and film. It is a national obsession. Eight out of ten of my three-year-old daughter’s story books have animal characters – which is useful to explain the world in a colourful and non-threatening way to a young child. But children should also learn that animals kill and are killed.

When David Cameron suggests he has sympathy with those wanting to water down the Hunting Act, the debate has not been about the practicalities of keeping the fox population under control, but dragged on to the territory of protecting a furry creature. My daughter’s favourite book at the moment is That Pesky Rat, by Charlie and Lola author Lauren Child. The rat is desperate to become a pet, but has such bad PR that nobody wants to own him. He laments the fact that his friend, a chinchilla, is well-loved by a rich lady because the animal is so cuddly and furry. Indeed, some argue that the urban fox is just as much a nuisance as the urban rat, spreading disease and raiding bins, but nobody cares about the poor old rat.

Of course, we should all be concerned about animal welfare. Given the furore surrounding the Hunting Bill 10 years ago, the Prime Minister should not unpick such a contentious piece of legislation, particularly when there are far more important things requiring parliamentary time. But the debate needs to be a practical one.

You could say that more births of cute pandas and tigers will help children engage with the natural world. By going to zoos, youngsters will learn about animals, that is true. But zoos are not the natural world. For all the admirable attempts of London Zoo to make the tiger enclosure more natural, with planting designed to “mimic the tropical foliage of the island of Sumatra”, tall trees and high feeding poles to encourage “natural predatory behaviours”, it is still a theme park in north London. The British dank and drizzle that hung over the country yesterday hung over Tiger Territory too. I recognise that the Zoological Society of London and Edinburgh Zoo do important work in protecting two endangered species, the Giant Panda and the Sumatran Tiger. But we visitors should not be under any illusion that we are seeing nature at work.

In zoos, through the bars of cages and glass screens, animals are presented as exhibits, as cuddly as the toys you can buy in the gift shop on the way out. And when a two-week-old tiger cub drowns in a pool, we can be sad, but we should also recognise that this is a daily occurrence in the wild. Being realistic about the nature of wildlife will lead to a greater understanding, and in turn greater protection, of species – and not just pandas and tigers. To misquote Keats, death is nature; nature death.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Consultants - IT - Trainee / Experienced

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40-50K first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Primary teachers needed for supply in Huntingdon

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers need...

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

KS2 Teacher Plymouth

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: genius of Apple, fools and commercial enterprises, and the Queen

John Rentoul
Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” following Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip  

i Editor's Letter: Douglas Carswell's defection

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone