Criticising and nit-picking zoos is easy copy for journalists. The imperfections of zoos needs getting in proportion and the positive work they achieve for wildlife and people needs some recognition.
Zoo bashing season
Recent reports in the press concerning issues with zoos have attracted a lot of attention and a series of negative articles in the media, some of which even call for an end to zoos. The two particular examples of this in the past year have been the deterioration of a zoo in the Lake District due to the failure of the local authority to act over a number of a years, and a fatality at another zoo, which at present is subject to an investigation involving a number of agencies.
Both these stories were, rightly, of interest to the media. However the internet reporting and transposition into the social media has led to much conjecture and comment that is at least misleading, at times not related, and at worst grossly offensive.
Despite claiming to have “community standards” the facebook pages for the zoo where the lady sadly died following contact with a tiger, has had a number of animal rights activist add their less than sympathetic views. “Kill the cunts who put wild animals in cages for other cunts to look at them” has been challenged and is stated to be within community standards and so it stays up for all to read!
Whilst the death is being investigated by the local authority, police and (presumably) the Health and Safety Executive, it might be worth considering that on average there is a staff death at a UK zoo every 2 – 3 years. On UK farms there are deaths on average every 2 – 3 weeks, building sites are almost as dangerous and on UK roads there is a death every 3-6 hours. Although farms, building sites and roads are far more dangerous they generally get much less press coverage for serious injuries and fatalities. The reports that do occur about zoo fatalities are then seized upon by the animal rights keyboard warriors to spout their rhetoric irrespective of any relationship to the actual news story.
Their calls to “ban all zoos” usually contain many, oft repeated, mis-statements which through repetition start to gain credibility. A current one is that “zoos are only in it for the profit”. A quick look through the membership of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA) will actually reveal that most large zoos are charities or have multiple conservation charity connections and commitments. All zoos within the UK are required, by law, to contribute to conservation and education, whether in Biaza or not, and many of the smaller ones will not have the income to return a reasonable profit on investment even if that was the originally the intention.
Key accusations levelled at zoos
A further development in the “in it for profit” comments that are currently being stated at every opportunity is that “baby animals are sold, not only to other zoos, but also to circuses, canned hunting facilities and even for slaughter”. In moving our surplus animals to other zoos there has never been more than a free lunch involved for the transporting staff. Selling some of the endangered animals would also be illegal. Animal circuses although I think still legal in the UK, are effectively banned from so many places that the market would not exist, canned hunting as such does not exist in the UK, and indeed in very few other countries, who use indigenous wildlife anyway and would not risk the furore that being caught importing such animals would cause.
Another common mis-statement that initially seems a good idea is that “animals would be better in reserves or sanctuaries in countries in which they belong/came from etc.” Again wrong in the main. A tremendous number of exotic animals, particularly large ones come from third world countries with major failings in infrastructure. Some of the reserves in Africa with rhinos have game rangers killed by poachers regularly.
The suggestion that usually follows the animals being “better in reserves in their own countries” is often that people who want to see them can “go and observe them in the wild”. Something like 23,000,000 people visited zoos in the UK last year. Many of them would not be fit to travel to the wild, could not afford it, and the tourist development required in the various countries “with the wild” would almost certainly reduce the wild.
Even with multiple reserves species can easily become extinct. Ring-tailed Lemurs (yes Dotty from TV’s Animal Magic and King Julien from the hit film series Madagascar) will be extinct in the wild within 10- 20 years on current (well researched) projections – fortunately they do very well in zoos. Tourists to Madagascar are able to see these animals in several of the easily accessible reserves, and this builds a false sense of security because the reserves are not contiguous and genetic isolation will ultimately lead to even the bigger groups dying out. (Q. What do you call a ring-tailed Lemur who leaves the reserve? A. bushmeat).
Rescue acts and the lessons learnt
The small zoo that I work in, although not primarily a sanctuary or rescue centre has over the years taken in a number of exotic animals, that through no fault of their own have become homeless. Most large zoos will not do this. These include a sugar glider, seized as an illegal immigrant at Heathrow, a palm civet found wandering in the midlands and a group of lemurs that were confiscated when being illegally traded. Each has a story which adds to our teaching repertoire, and some of the stories we publicize more widely to try and prevent similar situations occurring again.
We value our animals as individuals, and not according to how high up the IUCN hierachy of “least concern” to “extinct” the species is. Animals are not euthanased except for medical conditions with little hope of successful treatment, and animals are not sold to the public or other zoos. Animals of conservation value are transferred to other zoos free of charge for the appropriate breeding projects or to assist in maintaining social groups.
Crude thinking on captivity and standards
Many of the animals that are in a critical state in the wild actually do quite well in captivity, and particularly in the better (but not necessarily largest) zoos. That doesn’t mean that some zoos do not get it wrong. In every field of endeavor there are some organisations that get it wrong: health care, government departments, manufacturing, retail, defence. We see failings in organizations in these sectors regularly in the papers, but we do not seek to close them all down and prosecute, or persecute the operators. We generally enquire, occasionally prosecute, learn from our mistakes and move on.
At the time of writing (June 2017) there are two larger zoos and one, possibly two smaller ones that have suffered serious adverse publicity and social media bullying as a result of the reporting of accidents and or gross failings in standards. There are also, within the UK, in excess of 400 separate organisations with zoo licences. This would suggest that there are maybe 1 in a 100 that have problems, that might suggest a 99% success rate if one wants to be numerate about it. These issues are seldom that clear, but a reported 1% failure rate in an area of endeavor that is by definition, open to public scrutiny, is perhaps a suggestion that the vast majority of zoos are getting what they do about right.
Licensing and staffing
Is the current zoo licensing situation in the UK fit for purpose? Well actually it probably is, it was one of the first (in the world) back in the early 1980s, and it has since been seriously “tweaked” by the European Union. Whilst there appear to be failings it is possibly because the licence for a zoo is issued by the local authority which typically may have between zero and four zoos in its area and multiple other diverse licensing responsibilities. They have contact with a trained Defra inspector every few years. Experience and training vary considerably in those responsible for inspecting and zoo licensing. Is that the fault of the zoo? Clearly not. However the UK system is in fact one of the toughest in the world (if not the toughest) despite the odd failing, it is also potentially, like our legal system, one of the fairest in the world. Like the legal system it is easy to criticize, but it is difficult for the critics to come up with anything better. Even if there was a new improved system failings would still occur because of the number of people involved and because no matter how many checks and balances exist accidents still happen.
Zoo staff are like the majority of the NHS staff, not in it for the money, willing to work extra hours, occasionally get a bloody nose for something that is not their fault and generally happy to know they are doing some good with their lives. Most are happy to talk to the public about what they are doing and why they believe what they are doing is right. Please do not let one failure of the system and one fatal accident be turned into a change in public perception through trial by social media.
Director at Tropiquaria, a small zoo in Somerset. During his life he has taught in FE and university and spent a short period of time as a criminal lawyer.
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