Posted by: LucidMystery | December 19, 2008

Now That’s an Issue Worth Discussing

My girl Colo, first gorilla born in captivity, at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1956. Isn’t she a dignified old lady?

For those of you who know me, it’s no secret that I’m an animal-lover and have worked in zoos for 8 years (seven in one, and a summer and fall at another.) Now my research is focused on raptors, and I’m directly connected to an aviary which is pretty much the same deal, just for birds. From this, ya’ll can see that I don’t automatically shy away from the idea of animals captivity. Why is that? you ask. If I love animals as much as I say, why am I ok with them being in captivity? I get so tired of organizations like PETA who are just annoying or individual people who ask me this question before they think about it themselves.

First of all, I’m not “ok” with animals in captivity. I look at it as something of a neccesary evil. In many cases, if someone hasn’t seen, say, a giraffe or kangaroo or gorilla, that person will never understand how amazing the animals are and thus will never care about them as much. And I’m sorry, but a lot of animal conservation goes back to the occasional wealthy person who visits a zoo, decides they really like animal X, and then donates a ridiculously large sum of money to help preserve its species in the wild. I kid you not. Those kinds of instances rely on the presence of zoos.

Also, a lot of species exist only in zoos now (ie, przewalksi’s wild horse) or only exist in the wild because of captive breeding programs that led releases in the wild (ie, red wolves.) Animals in the wild may have the freedom captive populations lack, but so many species’ existence are on the brink of extinction or extirpation that their only hope are their captive counterparts. Every species housed in a zoo (except maybe like goats and ponies) has an SSP, a species survival plan. This esentially entails a master list of all the members of a species in zoos and their pedigrees so that captive breeding plans can be worked out while avoiding breeding to animals who are closely related. Currently, a lot of molecular ecology projects going on are trying to genotype wild populations so that wild breeding patterns can be simulated in captivity. For example, if western lowland gorillas whose territory is south of a river only ever breed with other populations of western lowlands also from south of the river, then in captivity, individuals whose ancestors lived south of that river will only be bred with other captive gorillas whose ancestors also came from south of the river. Make sense?

And it’s not as though most captive animals (at least in the US) have utterly terrible lives. The AZA has set up guidelines for housing most species that you find in zoos, and those guidelines cover everything from how many acres of space they need in their exhibit, how much climbing material they need in their exhibit, if they need an area to swim, how high the walls of their enclosures need to be, etc etc. When zoo or animal park actually follow these guidelines, the animals live in enclosures that have been designed exactly for their needs.

Also, most zoos have an enrichment regiment that regularly stimulates behaviors and instincts that captive animals don’t need to use on a daily basis. This could be training the animal (not to do “tricks,” mind you, but useful behaviors), giving them unique diet items or “toys” on occasion, or anything like that. For example, one common item you can see in a lot of different species enclosures are boomer balls. These things are ridiculously tough (almost unbreakable even for elephants) but float and can be picked up by anyone with moderate strength. Some keepers have drilled holes in them and stuffed in food items so that whatever animal is receiving the boomer ball has to work for their snack. Another fun little food gadget, this time for gorillas, is a sandwich feeder. Essentially, two pvc pipe frames with strong wire meshing one side held together after being filled with food. The gorilla then have to get the food out from between the two layers of mesh (the openings are big enough for gorillas to get their fingers through.) It’s kind of hard to describe, sorry, but it’s really a cool enrichment item, and the gorillas love it.

I do have a serious problem, though, with captive animals who are mistreated. If you are in the US, never go to an animal park that is not AZA accredited. If the AZA is either not inspecting them or has refused accredation, then the park probably does not follow any reasonable standard for housing their animals. And even those who are AZA accredited sometimes follow the bare minimum requirements, which is sufficient, but I woulds rather support an organization who goes above and beyond. Also, I’m in two minds about circuses and other arenas where animals have to perform. True, it often accomplishes the same goal as a zoo (promoting awareness), but I have a harder time justifying a chimp wearing a tutu and tiara than I do a chimp in a natural setting, even if it’s not the wild.

Also note that I did say the goal of a zoo is to promote awareness. I have issues with zoos that have tried to become tourism powerhouses because I feel that the visitor’s comfort and wallet comes before the animals, but ultimately, the animals do prosper in spite of all that jazz. And as long the animals are well cared for and the public is educated, I can live with uber expensive Icees and t-shirts. In addition, especially the larger zoos often support organizations dedicated to preserving wildlife)

I would also like to point out that most animals in captivity have much longer lifespans than their wild counterparts. That is because most zoos have a well-trained veterinary staff quick to act on any malady, a luxury that wild animals obviously can’t have. What really boggles me though is a little tidbit I picked up off AOL news today: apparently, the average lifespan of an African elephant in captivity in Europe is only 16 years. Sixteen years??? The average lifespan for elephants in the wild in Africa is around 60!  Though I’ve heard of captive elephants living as old as 80, I know they certainly at least reach their 40’s and 50’s since I have seen healthy and captive elephants in those age ranges even if I don’t know the statistics on how much older they generally love. (The first circus I ever went to, their older elephants were in their mid-40’s, and these were traveling performers!) So what in the world is going on with European elephants? European zoos were the first to start focusing on the animals’ needs when designing enclosures, so I can’t understand why they are so far back in the game. It’s very disconcerting.

The only other situations where one hears of captive lifespans being shorter in is situations of large marine organisms, especially marine mammals. The natural condition for killer whales and dolphins is essentially to live in a very large social group and be to travel wherever they want throughout our oceans (even if they limit their ranges.) That just isn’t possible to duplicate in captivity. Most aquatic parks can’t maintain more than 4 or 5 killer whales at the very best. Beyond that, and it would be too expensive for feeding and maintaining a pool big enough for them (though I would argue it’s impossible to have a pool even big enough for one.) The same is true for dolphins, though their captive pods can be a little bigger. Yet in the wild, it’s not unheard of for either of these species to live in family groups of 5-30 individuals. And dolphins have even been noted to form temporary “herds” of multiple pods that contain hundreds of dolphins! No matter how hard we humans may try, reproducing that lifestyle in captivity is not feasible even in an imaginary sense.

To sum up, let me just repeat that animals in captivity is a necessary evil. Obviously I would much rather all animals be out in the wild, living how they were designed to; but that just isn’t plausible anymore. For some species, their very existence relies on a captive situation. And for some animals, rehabilitation in captivity (ie, manatees who have been hit by boats) is the only way the can experience the wild again. In the end though, as long as the animals are not being mistreated (ie, a bear chained up to a store in a tourist trap, let me just go chain up the owner and I’ll be right back), keeping a few individuals well-cared for in a zoo is a concept that is here to stay because it needs to be.

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