Should zoos become extinct?

by Mark Brazil

Though I prefer seeing animals in the wild, I confess to being intrigued by zoos. I’m certainly not alone in my interest, as the long and varied history of zoological institutions shows.

The first recorded instance of a zoo — or, at least, a private collection of animals — dates from the Ancient Egyptian period. As public attractions, zoos first became popular in a big way in the 19th century. By the 1990s, 120 million visits were being made to them each year in the United States alone — more than to all professional major sports games. And although visitor numbers have stagnated in recent years (according to some sources, attendance figures at Japan’s zoos have halved since the late 1980s) zoos are still big business.

But moneymaking aside, what are zoos actually for?

Initially known as zoological gardens, akin to botanical gardens, the first zoos were merely collections of exotic species assembled for the diversion of visitors. Sad to say, too many zoos still resemble their 19th-century ancestors, being mere living showcases with limited educational potential and non-existent conservation value, as animals are still taken from the wild to stock them.

Idealists conceive of the modern zoo as an educational facility that also performs valuable conservation work, and certainly there are flagship zoos around the world that have taken up these twin challenges. One of the first was the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, on the British island of that name, where naturalist Gerald Durrell did pioneering work. A number of other zoos have since followed the example of JWPT — but is it really conservation unless those animals are eventually returned to the wild?

A leaky Ark

The notion that the zoo is a storehouse of biological diversity, a kind of modern Noah’s Ark available for restocking natural habitats, is frankly fanciful. Truth is, the resources of zoos are extremely limited. London Zoo, for example, houses only about 900 animal species — a large number, but one which pales beside the estimated 30 to 100 million species worldwide.

There are more than 1,000 zoos worldwide; between them they support perhaps no more than 1 to 2 million individuals. Looking at these figures from the standpoint of conservation — a breeding population of 250-500 individuals is considered necessary to sustain a healthy captive population — it is clear that the world’s zoos could between them support no more than 2,000 or so species.

In order to have any real conservational impact, zoos would be required to devote their limited space entirely to threatened species — an unrealistic expectation. And making the odds worse is the fact that zoos enjoy only limited success in captive breeding.

Choosing time

Given the long list of endangered species worldwide that urgently need help, why do so many zoos show the same familiar African species: elephant, giraffe, lion? None of these species needs to be confined in captivity to protect them. Indeed large mammals in zoos are frequently condemned to lives of deprivation and suffering — witness the demeaning sight of the giant anteater above — with clear symptoms of boredom and stress quite commonly apparent.

Do these animals need to be there? What possible rationale is there for so many zoos to show the same species?

Large mammals require considerable space. When zoos can’t provide it, social animals live solitary lives in captivity. How often have you seen an elephant herd in a zoo? The area taken up housing an elephant in unnatural solitude could provide habitat for a whole colony of smaller creatures. At Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, one enclosure, a fraction the size of an elephant’s compound, holds a family of meerkats that fascinates visitors with its ceaseless antics.

Yet even when captive animals live in sociable groups, in well-thought-out habitats, what is there for them to do, removed as they are from the challenges of survival in the wild? And what enjoyment can visitors derive from watching listless penned animals?

One highlight for many zoo visitors is feeding time, as a visit to Vancouver’s wildly popular sea otter enclosure reveals. Perhaps one reason for this is that the onlookers indulge themselves in the illusion that they are seeing authentic animal behavior — passive captives become active predators once again.

At Frankfurt Zoo (where I’d gone to check out the famous nocturnal house), I found myself entranced by the rather more authentic activity of a leaf-cutter ant colony. Ants were trailing back and forth in a bewildering commotion that just demanded to be watched, while not far off motionless reptiles hardly evoked a glance from glazed-eyed visitors.

One creative and wonderful solution to boredom on the part of both zoo animals and spectators is to be found at JWPT. Adjacent to a large outdoor enclosure housing a gorilla family is a play area with signs encouraging children to use it — “The gorillas like to be amused,” says one sign.

The mating game

If zoos offer a spectacle of only mixed interest to the human visitor, do they at least bring tangible benefits to their animal inhabitants? Asia’s Przewalski’s horse and America’s black-footed ferret are examples of a clutch of species once more living in the wild only because they were maintained in captivity. They are living proof that this intensive and radical form of wildlife management can work.

There are times when extinction becomes inevitable without such extreme intervention. However, reintroducing animals to the wild is a tough proposition.

The initial step is to provide animals with an “enriched environment” — one that mimics the creature’s natural habitat. Even this first base is beyond the reach of many zoos, according to a recent survey conducted in Japan which found that 25 percent of zoos didn’t even bother practicing environmental enrichment. Of those that did, 64 percent failed to evaluate whether their techniques actually worked or not in terms of encouraging a wider range of natural behaviors.

Those behaviors equip the animal to recognize and respond appropriately to food sources, territorial requirements, potential breeding sites and mates, or potential predators. Captive-bred South American tamarins, for example, do not learn that certain snakes and frogs are poisonous, while black-footed ferrets, instinctively able to stalk and catch prey, must learn to kill. Successful captive breeding is merely a first step that must be followed by equipping animals with behaviors appropriate for life in the wild.

Until the 1960s, zoological institutions engaged in captive breeding almost in a spirit of academic competition, but as the biodiversity crisis became more apparent during the ’70s and ’80s, some zoos shifted their sights to breeding endangered species — with the ultimate goal of release into the wild.

The achievements of such programs, however, are limited. For example, in Britain (comparable statistics are not available for Japan), just 5 percent of the taxa (species or subspecies) held in zoos are listed as endangered. Fewer than 1 percent of taxa are both endangered and have been reintroduced.

The economics of captive breeding is an entire subject in itself, but suffice it to say that many zoos may have an ulterior motive in promoting it as the way to protect endangered species — after all, they need paying visitors.

Unfortunately, though, this approach may simply serve to divert public attention away from the bigger conservation picture (loss of natural habitat) and to the financial realities.

The truth is, the costs of captive breeding are many times greater than the costs of conservation in the wild. It has been estimated that maintaining a rhino in a zoo costs about three times as much as protecting one in the wild. What’s more, by conserving an animal in its natural habitat, many other species occurring in the same area are also protected for free — there are no such conservation side-benefits in zoos. The message here is that there is no substitute for protecting a species in its natural habitat.

Who’s really at risk?

Zoo-bred animals face a number of heredity- and health-related problems. Over time, as natural selection is replaced by captive selection, the result is likely to be individuals more suited to life in captivity than survival in the wild. The reduced genetic variability resulting from captive breeding makes species particularly vulnerable to disease and reproductive defects.

It’s not only the animals that are at risk, though. Born Free’s Zoo Check survey, conducted in 2000, found evidence of physical contact between visitors and animals at 60 percent of the zoos inspected, and estimated that a million such contacts occur each year, risking the potentially lethal transfer of zoonoses — infectious diseases transferred between vertebrate species. Give that a thought the next time you head for a petting zoo with your children.

Where from here?

For all the possible risks, zoos and aquariums around the world still attract more than 600 million visits each year. Though these institutions are patently incapable of fulfilling their claimed role as a wildlife ark, their continued popularity with the public indicates one direction in which their attention could be effectively channeled: toward environmental education.

It is open to question what effect such a shift might have on the traditional attraction of zoos — the display of live animals. Art galleries hold many of their treasures in vaults, displaying only a portion of their collection at any one time. Is this an option for zoos?

Another alternative is to rethink the species exhibited. Instead of the usual parade of African animals, why not showcase species that are less exotic but more easily accommodated in an enriched habitat that gives full rein to their fascinating array of natural behaviors? Creatures such as ants, bees or a meerkat clan would provide educational entertainment for the fee-paying public, and perhaps stimulate a greater understanding of the need for the conservation of wild species in their natural habitat.

One thing is for certain: The evidence of the last 50 years suggests that, in their traditional format, zoos have done little to support endangered species and to maintain biodiversity. Isn’t it time to rethink the zoo?