The Answers Project: Should all zoos be closed?
Elizabeth Mearns

The Answers Project, where The Agenda's Stephen Cole and Mhairi Beveridge consult the best brains on the planet to shed light on some of the most pressing ethical, scientific, geopolitical and philosophical quandaries, is back for a second series. In this episode we ask 'Should all zoos be closed?'

What is a zoo? 

There are various establishments that could be seen as zoos, not just caging animals but also aquariums, sanctuaries, safari parks, even animal rehabilitation centers. An establishment is usually referred to as a zoo if it is an area where animals are kept for public exhibition for education or commercial purposes. 

Although sanctuaries and wildlife parks do have animals on display and visitors are encouraged for funding, it's not their primary purpose. The main purpose for sanctuaries is rehabilitation, saving animals with the aim of returning them to the wild, or if they can't be returned, usually giving them as much space to roam as possible. 

Wildlife sanctuaries are also areas where wild animals are protected in their natural habitats, while zoos often have artificial habitats where temperatures are controlled. That's usually because they've been shipped in from different countries. In a sanctuary the animals are normally native to that country.

Is it difficult to set up a zoo?

If you were thinking of starting a zoo, what would you need to do? The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is a global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, all dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world. 

Dr Martin Zordan, CEO of WAZA says:

"Each country will have their own legislation on how a zoo and aquarium needs to be run. There's a lot of diversity. Some countries don't even have a definition on what a zoo or an aquarium is. Then, some region of the world, for example, Europe or the European Union, particularly, you will have the 'EU Zoos Directive'."

There are also further volunteer programs, which are not legally binding, but give you certifications and accreditation programs so that zoos and aquariums can demonstrate to visitors and governments that they have the highest standards.

Although WAZA will offer guidance and support to its members, there are no specific rules and every country can do it differently. 

Many countries have strict laws relating to zoos: Austria, Switzerland and Denmark all have very high welfare standards and tight regulations. But there are huge parts of the Middle East that are not so hot on animal rights.  In Iran, for example, there is currently no legislation or policy on the welfare of animals in captivity. 

A lack of rules can lead to cramped, unsuitable or cruel conditions in zoos that are highlighted by animal welfare organisations and the media.

Singapore, one of the world's top rated zoos, welcomes Li Li the first Giant Panda born at the zoo. /Roslan Rahman / AFP

Singapore, one of the world's top rated zoos, welcomes Li Li the first Giant Panda born at the zoo. /Roslan Rahman / AFP

What are zoos good for?

Zordan believes zoos are not just educational but crucial to the creation and preservation of the human bond with animals.

"There is this concept of biophilia, which is how interacting with life makes us feel. And there is something that is even science-based proof is generated in people that have these experiences with animals, with plants and so on. I'm very concerned that these experiments need to be real so that we don't suffer when it's cold and 'the extinction of experience' so they can have value because in this world, when so much is virtual it is very easy to value only what is virtual. So you could lose a species and you could keep photos or videos of it. But that emotional connection is not there."

Biophilia is our human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. The progressive loss of interaction between humans and nature could be one of the key environmental concepts of our time.  These interactions are important not only for our human benefit but its loss may undermine support for pro biodiversity policy bypolicymakers in the future. 

However, while animals may be benefitting the human condition, keeping animals in zoos often does not benefit the animals themselves. Animals in captivity do not live the same lives that they do in the wild. 

Mark Backus, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says:

"For many, many years I've been studying the social behavior of various animals in the field. And I'm a strong supporter of the rapidly emerging field of compassionate conservation."

Compassionate conservation aims to combine the fields of conservation and animal welfare, and the founding principle of this whole practice is do no harm. 

Backus explains "Their freedom of movement and their freedom to make choices is really strongly restricted…it's impossible for any kind of zoo or wildlife park to replicate what it would be like for a wild wolf or a chimpanzee or a gorilla or elephant to live in natural groups. So they're stressed, they don't have a lot of choice over who they live with, what they eat, when they sleep, where they sleep, and they often don't have any way to get out of the public eye to the extent that they need it."

In many establishments, the zoo management restricts the animals' privacy so they can be on display for the public for commercial reasons. They want the public to see the animals but often those animals are showing signs of stress. 

However, Backus is not completely in favor of zoos closing.

"What I would like to see would be zoos converted to rehab and rescue centers for animals who literally can't go anywhere else. And you know, some people will argue, these zoo animals can't go anywhere because they live in captivity. But that's not what I really mean. what I really mean would be animals in need. And so no more captive breeding, no more killing animals and I mean killing them. They're not being euthanized. Euthanasia is mercy killing. These are animals who are being killed because they can't contribute to zoos' breeding programs."

Many zoos have what is called a captive breeding program for endangered species, which can help some species avoid extinction.  But it's also argued that removing wild animals from their natural habitat further endangers the non-captive population because the remaining ones will be less genetically diverse and may have even greater difficulty finding mates. The vast majority of captive breeding programs don't release animals back into the wild, and the offspring are only really useful if they can contribute to the breeding program. And if they aren't, they may be culled. 

Biophilia is our human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. / Jo Anne McArthur/ Conservation Through Public health (CTPH)

Biophilia is our human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. / Jo Anne McArthur/ Conservation Through Public health (CTPH)

Can there be justice for animals?

Kevin Schneider is an elephant lawyer and the Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project in the U.S., which campaigns for legal recognition of the rights of at least certain non-human animals. 

'Non-human animals' is a common term in the animal rights movement as it helps to distinguish between human animals and non-human animals.  This distinction helps to remind people that non-human animals have similar characteristics to humans - pain, compassion, memory and things like cognitive function. Science has proved that some creatures such as dolphins, apes and elephants are highly intelligent, Orangutans are believed to have an intellectual capacity similar to a five-year-old child. And for these reasons, animal rights activists argue that these similarities justify giving nonhuman animals rights that human society has afforded to humans. 

Schneider explains how, "We work primarily through the common law in American courts, and we've been filing habeas corpus petitions on behalf of chimpanzees and elephants in New York since 2013."

A habeas corpus petition is a way of raising questions about the legality of a person's detention. 

Schneider explains, "So what we do is come to courts and say, hey, you know, you care about autonomy that's related to habeas corpus and protecting this right to bodily liberty. But hey, science now shows us that humans are not the only beings in the world who have autonomy and who value their own bodily liberty, their own freedom. So we take all that, put that together and in a lot of ways, use very kind of old arguments, tested arguments and try to have them be applied to something rather novel, which is expanding rights beyond just our species."

The Non-Human Rights Project believes that many non-human animals shouldn't be detained in a zoo without having a lawyer.  Schneider has been representing an elephant called Happy, who in 2006 made history as the first elephant to pass a crucial intelligence test - being able to recognize herself in a mirror. Despite her name, she was dubbed the Brancusi's Loneliest Elephant by the New York Times because she lives in total isolation away from all the zoo's other elephants . 

Schneider is fighting for her to be moved to a sanctuary. Although the case was dismissed by the Bronx Supreme Court in February, Schneider is still  very upbeat about the whole exercise because they are currently appealing that decision. 

"This is the first time that the highest court chose to take up our case, that's absolutely no guarantee that they're going to rule in our favor. But it does open up a window that the court could, for the first time, choose to do that, which would be, of course, huge for Happy and huge for the idea generally that an elephant can have legal rights. But of course, you know, the zoo is not wanting to let Happy go. There have been a number of elephants who have died at the zoo. Of course, they live and die at the zoo, and some of them have died in their 20s, 30s and 40s… they get depressed and stressed and bored…they can live into their 70s or sometimes even older in sanctuaries and in their own environments in the wild."

Elephants thrive in the wild and live much longer than those in captivity. /William Steel / Solent News

Elephants thrive in the wild and live much longer than those in captivity. /William Steel / Solent News

However, those responsible for Happy's care at The Bronx Zoo are not convinced that Happy needs to be 'rescued'. Jim Breheny, Director of the Bronx Zoo and EVP of Zoos & Aquarium at the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement.

"The Bronx Zoo takes excellent care of Happy and will continue to do so, along with all animals here at the zoo. Her well-being is assured by our dedicated staff and all the expertise they bring in providing excellent care for her for more than 40 years... all decisions regarding the health and welfare of the animals at the Bronx Zoo will continue to be made by our animal care experts who know them best. At this time, the veterinarians, keepers, and curators at the Bronx Zoo believe it is best for Happy to remain in familiar surroundings with the people she knows, relies on and trusts. We continually assess Happy's situation and will make decisions based on what is best for her as an individual."

Dr Gladys Kalema is a wildlife expert in Uganda. /Joe Anne McArthur/ Conservation Through Public health (CTPH)

Dr Gladys Kalema is a wildlife expert in Uganda. /Joe Anne McArthur/ Conservation Through Public health (CTPH)

What can sanctuaries offer?

Dr Gladys Kalema is a wildlife expert working with gorillas and other wildlife in Uganda. She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of a grassroots NGO based in Uganda that promotes conservation by enabling people to coexist with gorillas and other wildlife. She also believes in the importance of young people seeing animals and connecting with them. 

"The biggest customers are Ugandan children," she explains. "They are the most people that come to visit and they are just so fascinated because the only time they're going to see an elephant or a rhino is when they go to a zoo ...and then they'll appreciate it and they will want to protect it later, because that's the whole theory of it". 

So she believes If visitors are taught about the threat to animals and the whole ecology surrounding them then the access to animals is justified. Exposure is also inspiring the next generation of vets and zoologists as Kalema points out.

"This helped train people like me who going to go out and treat these same animals in the wild. We get a lot of experience treating them in captivity, which helps us to treat them in the wild. So that was the letter that I wrote to the vet record because I felt very strongly about that. But however, not all zoos have a useful purpose, it depends on their ethics, what their focus is because a lot of people see zoos as entertainment centers. And I think they are important to educate people about the species and its habitats."

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