The cruelty of zoos

By Kathryn Aedy

One hanged mountain goat, 41 stingrays, four gorillas, a baby hippo and a baby elephant dead at the Calgary Zoo in the past four years. Calgary Zoo president Clement Lanthier cleared up the stingray controversy by stating, “I think we need to be very frank here. Our main expertise is not in fish here at the Calgary Zoo.” A few public statements from zoo spokespeople and business goes on as usual. The main idea behind zoos is conservation, recreation, education and the repopulation of endangered species. We can endlessly hear of all the responsibilities of zoo workers, the rationalizing for unexpected deaths and the optimistic endeavours of the future, but at the end of the day, all it takes is one look at a seemingly sedated lion to understand that conservation is on the back burner to human interests. So, why do we tolerate, or worse yet encourage, the captivity of wild animals, miles from their natural habitats?

Most, if not all, zoo animals have insufficient space to develop and grow in a “natural” environment, where their biological needs are met. Though it doesn’t take a genius to guess, psychologists have discovered that animals in captivity become depressed and even psychotic due to a lack of stimulation and space. Animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi found that “more than 60 per cent of the animals in [Indian] zoos have marks on their heads because of continuously banging their heads against the bar.” Here, Zoo Check Canada, an animal protection charity, has been working towards freeing Lucy, an Asian elephant at the Edmonton Zoo, who, though naturally a very social creature, lives unhealthily alone. Even former The Price Is Right host Bob Barker has said he will go to Edmonton if it means that Lucy can be taken to an American elephant sanctuary for her own well-being. Take a brief look at a number of Lucy’s ailments over the past 28 years and judge the conservational benefits of her captivity: pus oozing from tip of tail (1983); chronic ear infection (1990); arthritis (1991); white discharge from trunk (1994); conjunctivitis (1999); open mouth breathing, sore on trunk (2004); not eating or drinking,¬†will not open mouth, diarrhea and early stages of colic (2008).

Everything about a zoo is unnatural. A five-year-old could tell you that lions, elephants, giraffes and hippos belong in Africa. So what are they doing in North America, subject to 30-below weather? According to Les Schobert– a former general curator of the Los Angeles and North Carolina zoos, with 30 years experience in the field– they’re standing on concrete, squished into a space no larger than a two-car garage, also known as their winter home. Sometimes they do get to go outside, to endure harsh conditions that would never occur in their natural habitat. Two African baboons froze to death at the Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton this past December after one zookeeper accidentally locked them out in-20C degree weather. When a lioness at the Vancouver Zoo killed a golden eagle during a raptor show, a spokesperson said that the same would have happened in the wild, because “cats eat birds.” However, this death was not inevitable. Lions do not reside anywhere near golden eagles in the natural world.

Animals face numerous threats in the wild, from hunting practices to global warming. Without a doubt, these are issues that cannot be ignored, but it is absurd to believe that removing species from their natural habitat and placing them in captivity for eventual reintegration (which rarely occurs) will prevent these issues from worsening. Animals are part of our natural environment and we must take an active interest in their livelihood through actual habitat protection, poaching prevention and field observation.

Gerald Durrell, a former zookeeper, naturalist, conservationist and author, saw that only entire populations of animals under immediate threat should ever be part of a captive breeding program, as a short-term solution. These measures should be taken not only for the sake of species survival, but also for our own maintenance of the planet. When we observe wild creatures in artificial, domesticated environments, we are not witnessing anything near the complex reality, so what are we really learning? Moreover, we teaching younger generations that we have a superiority over animals which not only allows us, but entitles us, to enclose them in small, boring, unlivable spaces for our entertainment. In the words of philosopher Peter Singer, “Pain and suffering are bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the race, sex or species of the being that suffers . . . pains of the same intensity and duration are equally bad, whether felt by humans or animals.” We must ask ourselves how we would expect to be treated if our role in the wild were reversed.