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?

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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.

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