Why there's no such thing as a good zoo

The alleged abuse of elephants at Twycross Zoo should make us consider once more the role zoos play in animal conservation

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Damian Aspinall, who inherited a number of zoos from his father, recently wrote an article titled: "Zoos and wildlife parks are no way to treat an animal”. It raises some interesting points about the urgent challenges facing conservation today. And it's also aptly timed with another story that has emerged at Twycross Zoo in Warwickshire, which involves allegations of zoo workers abusing their positions of power and causing deliberate suffering to animals after two elephants were allegedly beaten with canes. Both workers have been sacked and Twycross maintain that no lasting harm came to the animals.

Most people nowadays recognise that not all zoos are considered equal: there are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ zoos. Most of us would agree that those pitiful animals in barren cages so often found at far eastern roadside zoos are in the ‘bad’ category while we would expect zoos in developed countries, like Twycross Zoo and the zoos of the Aspinall Foundation, to maintain higher standards of animal welfare and be among the ‘good’ ones. But categories are not always that clear cut and boundaries often overlap.

Insidious mistreatment of the kind that is alleged to have gone on at Twycross Zoo can be hard to detect by the lay visitor. We walk along paths through well maintained grounds to a welcoming reception. Everything appears clean and well kept. The seating is comfortable, the refreshments good and the general ambiance of the place is tasteful and nice. We see only well-fed creatures who appear to be adequately looked after. We go home happy, taken in by all the hype, and our trust in the benevolence of these commercial enterprises remains in tact.

All seems well and the popularity of these places only confirms this to us. But even with unannounced inspections it is hard to uncover this kind of abuse. If inspections are missed altogether and legal standards are not complied with or enforced across the zoo industry, as publicised by this report, it makes it very hard to effectively protect animals in zoos.

If you were to take the time to observe the individuals a bit more closely, do you think you would be able to notice any abnormality or signs of abuse? Would you spot symptoms of distress and suffering like hair plucking, listlessness or teeth grinding? Are the animals behaving as they would in the wild? How many elephants do you see in the wild that get down on their knees on command? That are fed by hand at fixed times of the day? What kind of educational value does this offer us? What kind of training techniques do you imagine were used to make these magnificent, proud creatures so obedient? It may make us laugh but it brings no benefit to the animal itself.

Like the Aspinall Foundation, Tywcross Zoo also boasts that it serves much needed conservation initiatives. Yet elephants fare particularly poorly in captivity, as the dreadful breeding records, high infant mortality rates and reduced longevity show. Aspinall defends his zoos by pointing to a number of successful reintroductions into the wild, including 51 gorillas over a decade and three rhinos this year.

But even if there are examples of reintroduction working, it amounts to a tiny handful of captive bred individuals that are benefiting, while millions more spend their entire lives incarcerated in zoos. Is this justified? Or more to the point, if endangered species are preserved only within the artificial confines of captive breeding programs is this to be applauded as successful conservation?

Conserving cruelty

I wish something as simple as a zoo was the answer to the challenges that face conservation today but sadly after 400 years zoos, wildlife parks, safaris, and nature parks remain stuck in the past. They have failed to meet these challenges or reverse the mass decline in endangered species. Successful conservation does not occur within cages, but within the wild habitats where these creatures belong.

Instead, these elephants are forced to waste away as exhibits in a cramped themed park- a tiny fraction of the vast space they would naturally roam. Deprived of privacy and a refuge, they are on constant view to the tourists who are immersed in an ersatz "Sri Lankan experience" in the heart of the West Midlands and meander by the elephants for "close quarter views". Just as unnatural, is holding a rock festival in the park where clubbers are encouraged to release their ‘wild side’.

But even putting these grossly inappropriate commercial ventures aside, it may still be the case that zoos, including the Aspinall Foundation, endeavour to uphold high standards of animal welfare, impart informative nuggets to the public and attempt to fulfill more than their minimal legal requirement of conservation. But to me such efforts are mere tokenism and do not justify the unnatural confinement of wild animals. Neither do they serve the exigent issues of conservation.

So when these elephants have it bad enough already, they are now allegedly being beaten too. It is not the kind of behavior we would expect from a ‘good’ zoo, not from a ‘bad’ zoo either. Yet even in those ‘good’ zoos where there is no overt cruelty like beatings, the animals suffer. This is why I consider there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ zoo. All zoos are equal. Damian Aspinall is right: no zoo or wildlife park is any way to treat an animal.  

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