Allegations that visitors to London Zoo's "Zoo Lates" stripped off and attempted to enter the penguin pool as well as pouring beer over a tiger have provoked an understandable uproar in recent weeks. The City of Westminster is reportedly now investigating these and other incidents, including one in which visitors were said to be getting "touchy feely" with the baby penguins and another in which a man apparently asked a staff member, "Which penguin can I fight?" But while such idiocy has prompted calls for any perpetrators to be thrown to the lions, the real culprits would be the zoo managers, if they have put profits before the needs of the animals.
Many of the animals on display at London Zoo have evolved highly sensitive hearing and a well-developed sense of smell to alert them to danger and to changes in their environment. The noise levels from the Zoo Lates crowds could be much louder than anything to which most of these animals have ever been exposed. Add to that the increase in smells from the crowds and the alcohol consumption as well as the visual impact of the increase in visitors, and the animals' stress level could be greatly elevated – but for these captive animals, there is no escape.
The profound levels of stress, anxiety and agitation that wild animals experience in captivity mean attacks on people occur with staggering regularity. In the last month, a 16-month-old girl was scratched by a lion in a circus in France, a zookeeper was bitten by a tiger in Australia, a woman in the US lost a finger to a lion in a zoo and a boy had his hand ripped off by a tiger in a zoo in Brazil. All these attacks were preventable and utterly predictable. Captive animals are not permitted to engage in normal behaviour, such as running, jumping or hunting. Every facet of their lives is controlled, including when and what they eat, when they sleep and with whom they mate, so is it any wonder that they lash out in frustration? Patrons of what London Zoo actively promotes as "a wild night out" are there to party. Rowdy, drunk humans and captive wild animals make for an even more dangerous combination for all concerned.
With tickets costing up to £35, the zoo claims that Zoo Lates bring in important revenue, generating £800,000 a year to fund its "conservation" work. The zoo has also stated that animal welfare is of "paramount importance" and only three people were removed from the sessions during 2013 and 2014. But if the zoo were truly concerned about protecting animals, surely any event which posed even the slightest risk to the animals would be cancelled immediately?
Zoos put the "con" in conservation. Why else would they be raising money to keep animals incarcerated as living exhibits instead of asking the public to donate to schemes that would protect them in their native habitats? When, in 2007, London Zoo spent £5.3m on a new gorilla enclosure, Ian Redmond, the chief consultant to the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership, said, "£5m pounds for three gorillas when national parks are seeing that number killed every day for want of some Land Rovers, trained men and anti-poaching patrols. It must be very frustrating for the warden of a national park to see."
It's bad enough that the London Zoo's permanent residents have no way of escaping their day-to-day confinement, but to promote events which might pose a threat to them defies belief. Everyone who genuinely cares about tigers and all the other individuals held captive inside zoos should recognise these institutions for what they are: profitable prisons.
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