Vegan Uncensored: Why it’s time to let captive animals go free – part II – a focus on zoos

"Image courtesy of africa /".

“Image courtesy of africa /”.

A few weeks ago we looked at marine parks and the reasons they need to be banned, as dolphinariums have recently been banned in India. This week we turn our attention to zoos and land animals – and why captivity of land animals is equally cruel.

India’s decision to ban marine mammal parks is commendable, and it provides hope that someday marine mammals around the world will remain free to roam their natural environments. However, that ban makes no mention of zoos that exhibit land animals. Zoos continue to thrive in cities in India and in almost every major city in the world. They provide visitors with the opportunity to see animals most people would never see if not for zoos. They are popular with the public and, like marine parks, their claims of public education and conservation remove any niggling questions people might have about the ethics of confining animals for visual pleasure.

Let’s go back in time to look at this concept. Zoos were not always associated with education, conservation and public amusement as they are now. They started out as private menageries that were status symbols for wealthy Europeans; “common” people were not allowed to view the animals. Only around the 18th century were zoos opened for public observation. Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was the first zoological garden that opened in Paris in 1794. This was the first zoo to resemble a modern zoo, where animals were available for viewing as people walked about the zoo, and animals were organized by continent or taxonomic label. The animals were procured from the wild or sent as gifts from African and Asian rulers (Animals and society – Margo DeMello). Zoos have since been embraced as an institution around the world. In the past, there was a blatant disregard for the suffering of animals during their capture and eternal confinement; however the zoos of today say they treat their animals well, and further, claim benefits such as conservation and the education of people, especially children.

Zoos maintain the primary distinction between wild and domesticated animals, and only wild animals can be placed in a zoo. Historically, all of these animals were captured from their homes by hunters or traders and transported to zoos around the world. Due to the stress of capture and transport, about two-thirds of the animals died en-route. Elephants, who are highly intelligent and social animals, are very dependent on their herds. The bond between a mother and her calf is especially strong. In order to capture baby elephants, which was what zoos wanted, the protective mother – and sometimes the entire herd – would be killed. This was also true for other social animals such as gorillas, chimpanzees and hippos, all known to guard their young.

Modern zoos have adopted captive breeding measures which, they claim, make them self-sufficient and less reliant on animals captured from the wild. However, some zoos continue to support legal and illegal trade of wild animals around the world.

According to the book Animal rights in South Africa by Michele Pickover 70 per cent of the elephants currently in European zoos are caught in the wild. Catching elephants in the wild destroys their social structure, which is essential to maintaining civil behavior. Studies show human interference has contributed to the escalating problem of rogue elephants, who are killing people, destroying villages, killing and raping rhinoceroses, and displaying antisocial behaviors previously unrecorded in elephant populations.

As  Pickover notes in her book, “wildlife traffickers rely on zoos that knowingly cooperate with the illegal trade. High rewards and relatively low risks make the partnership desirable, and in some cases zoos even launder illegally caught wildlife and pass them on to other zoos in what appear to be legal transactions.” The price tag placed on baby animals by the zoo industry keeps illegal animal trade lucrative. More and more animals are taken from their habitats and put into zoos, while they remain endangered in their natural habitat.

Captive breeding of animals in zoos is highly problematic. Only a certain number of animals are kept in a zoo: those who bring in customers and provide for breeding opportunities. Baby animals are the most sought after by zoos since they attract customers. When these animals grow out of their babyhood and are no longer an asset to the zoo, they may be discarded to make space for others. Surplus animals, a direct result of captive breeding, are sold to dealers, who then may sell them to research labs, petting zoos, circuses, canned hunts, or into the exotic pet trade Some zoos also resort to killing surplus animals themselves. Lisa Kemmerer in her article, Nooz: Ending Zoo Exploitation, talks about Beanie, a gibbon who was born in a zoo. When he was young, he was cute and attracted a good deal of customers to the zoo. But when he grew up into just another adult gibbon, he was sold to a research laboratory. There, he developed encephalitis that left him blind and suffering from epilepsy. The International Primate Protection League (IPPL) took him under their care, where he spent the rest of his life. Had the IPPL not stepped in, Beanie would most likely have been euthanized.

Surplus zoo animals are sometimes also sold to circuses where they may be trained to perform contrived acts for profit using physical abuse, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and other forms of negative reinforcement. Stoney, an elephant born at the Portland zoo, in 1973 was sold to an animal trainer when he was just three years old. While being forced to stand on his hind legs for an act at the Luxor hotel and Gambling hall, he pulled his hamstring muscle and was unable to work. Instead of giving him proper veterinary treatment, Stoney was kept in a maintenance shed. Because he could not walk or stand, he was kept in a mechanical device called “crush” that held him upright. Here he was forced to live for many months. In spite of lobbying and petitions from animal groups, Stoney was not relieved of his suffering. Finally, fearing bad publicity, Luxor hotel made an attempt to move him to an elephant breeding farm.  The attempt to release him from the mechanical device did not go according to plan and he fell to the ground. He lay there, crying in pain, but no help arrived. He died after more than a day of suffering. A similar fate awaits many zoo animals who are sold to circuses. It is time for zoo patrons to make the connection between circuses, canned hunting and zoos. A big reason why industries such as canned hunting and circuses  thrive is because of the public’s overwhelming support of zoos.

Another problem with captive breeding is that although some animals that are endangered in the wild are plentiful in zoos, they cannot be reintroduced into the wild. For example, there is an over-supply of lowland gorillas in zoos, while their population in the wild is near extinction.  Yet, the captive-bred gorillas cannot be introduced into the wild because they lack the skills required to survive.

Captive breeding “successes,” like the introduction of captive bred Mexican wolves back into their habitat in the American continent, are referenced when the conservation potential of zoos is questioned. However, of the 101 wolves that were released, 23 were soon killed by humans, and nine were run over by cars. The Fish and Wildlife industry of the US has authorized the removal of 70 Mexican wolves over the past decade at the behest of public lands livestock ranchers.

No amount of captive breeding will ever reinstate healthy numbers of animals in the wild because the reasons why these animals are endangered are not being questioned. Animals are dying in the wild because human population is getting out control. More and more forests are being destroyed to make way for sprawling cities, and our unsustainable way of producing food means the demand for new farmlands will only keep increasing, further endangering habitats of more animals. Furthermore, animals continue to be viewed as resources who exist solely to satisfy and entertain humans. Unless these things change, no amount of captive breeding will restore animals in the wild because there will be no wilderness left to restore them to.

No zoo, no matter how resourceful, can begin to duplicate the natural habitats of most wild animals. A jaguar, for example, has a range of 25,000 acres in the wild which is greater than the total land area of all major zoos worldwide (according to Ralph Acampora in Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices). Elephants, who love walking and travel with their herd for tens of kilometers every day in search of food and water, are often kept solitary and in enclosures that are a mockery of their natural habitat. These conditions lead to health problems. Sixty per cent of elephants kept in zoos suffer from chronic and many times fatal foot ailments caused by standing on unnatural surfaces.

Zoos are exploitative industries that profit from animal suffering. People who visit zoos do not come away educated about conservation; if they did, they would not go to a zoo again. Animals in the wild continue to have their homes destroyed and be driven to extinction, while zoos produce excess animals with little chance of reintroduction in the wild. Surplus animals are disposed of using the most profitable means necessary by an institution that only values them economically. In complete contradiction to their conservation stance, zoos continue to capture animals in the wild, killing many in the process. All of this is done to satiate people hunger to see wild animals. But is that even worth it? Put into unnatural environments, these animals cannot behave as they would in the wild. They are bored, sick, and display abnormalities that would never exist had they been in an environment natural to them. What people see are once majestic animals who are made powerless and completely dependent on humans for survival. They are imprisoned for no fault of theirs, with no chance of ever getting out.

About the Author:

Siddharth Iyer is a student from India, who is currently studying in Finland. He is a life long vegetarian who turned vegan in 2010.