Some Zoo Questions
This hub was written in response to an approach from a young lady in Mexico who was researching zoos for a project. Along the way she had come across my Zoo News Digest and decided I may be worth interviewing. Whereas I was sure that there were far better candidates out there I said I would answer her questions. As it was not going to be a five minute job (I remain a one fingered typist) I thought I may turn the questions and answers into a hub.
1/Can you please describe your current and previous work with zoos?
My current work with zoos is almost exclusively through Zoo News Digest, ZooNews Digest, Zoo Biology and my Zoo Hubs. I advise and help out (when possible) where asked. I am available as a zoo consultant but probably due in part to my age and my outspokenness on certain zoo related issues job offers are few and far between.
I started work in zoos in 1968 and was continuously employed till 2002 when I decided to go walkabout and see a bit of the world. During that time I have visited numerous zoos in many countries. I have advised and criticised and continue to do so.
I am currently working as Curator of Penguins, Ski Dubai, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Whilst I was working I did so as keeper, head keeper, assistant curator and curator. I liked all roles. I was curator of five zoos, elephant keeper in some, reptile keeper, cat keeper and more. My expertise is varied and widespread.
Steller's Sea Eagle
2/ Can you detail your viewpoints on zoos and animals in captivity?
The catchphrase is "in a perfect world there would be no zoos". I agree with that but would add that in today's world we need zoos but 'there should be no exploitative, purely commercial, non conservation zoos'.
The other catchphrase is "if zoos had never been invented there would be an urgent need to do so now". There is too. We need more zoos. not less but we want REAL zoos. Good zoos.
The whole problem is that there are good zoos and bad zoos. The average zoo visitor is unable to distinguish between the good and the bad. Sadly some of the 'more than average' zoo visitors are unable to distinguish between the two either. Herein lies the problem. Popular zoos with a strong financial backing will look better, will be more glitzy and really pull in the visitors. If there are clean toilets, good food and a few shows then the visitors will go home happy and believe whatever hype they have been fed. If the zoo can offer an 'experience' with a bit of a difference then people are fooled also and the more important the fool is then even more people are taken in. I could give the names of numerous places but will stick to mentioning just three, Bangkok Safari World, The Tiger Temple and Sri Racha Tiger Zoo. All three of these places are very popular. All three are very bad in their own special way but the average zoo visitor cannot or will not see this.
People see things differently. There is a report on the internet by the Asian Animal Protection Network. In theory these people are anti-zoo. It is interesting to note that they have visited several zoos which I have visited. Keep in mind that I am PRO zoo:
They say about Bali Marine and Safari Park: "In contrast with the above Bali Zoo, this zoo is remarkably good. The owners have learned well from their first two Safari Parks"
They say about Taman Safari Indonesia: "Having said that, this is one of the best zoos anywhere"
I disagree and say: Taman Safari Indonesia
They say about Singapore Zoo: "Animals are maltreated - though more discreetly than in other zoos. The cruelty is just as prevalent and pervasive, the attitudes are the same - just more cleverly and sophisticatedly concealed."
I disagree and say: Singapore Zoo
I have little doubt that some of the criticisms they make of some of the collections they report on may be true but they assume too much. This sort of reporting is produced by someone who knows a bit about animals, who cares but sadly knows nothing at all about zoos.
Animals in bad zoos suffer. There is no argument to it. They suffer. In some of these bad zoos the animals may well be loved and cared for. They are not maintained with intentional cruelty but simply because of the ignorance of the zoo proprietor. Such zoos may be city owned as is Manila Zoo or commericial as the Residence Inn Zoo.
In a good zoo the majority of animals will have been born there. They have no wish to escape because they have no concept of freedom. Good zoos will provide for their physical and mental well being. It is worth reading Zoo Misconceptions, The Perfect Zoo Enclosure and Zoo Territories to get a grip on what is a very big subject.
I have no problems with animals in captivity in good zoos. I do have immense problems with animals in bad zoos.
European Eagle Owl
I think that I should give an example of a good zoo. Not the biggest or the best but a good zoo that I am very familiar with because I worked there for twenty years. The Welsh Mountain Zoo. I choose the Welsh Mountain because it gets slandered in some zoo forums by people who should know better but don't. They judge zoos by rarity or number of animals or the 'biggest' this or most 'glitzy' that. The Welsh Mountain Zoo is quite simply good for all the right reasons.
Education: The Welsh Mountain Zoo has a full time education officer and a dedicated team of volunteers. They provide lectures and tours within the zoo as well as outside. This is an active and lively department. It is no afterthought and was not forced upon the zoo by licensing requirements. The education department was already strong and functioning prior to 1982. The signage has always been basic but effective.
Conservation : The zoo is an active participant in all official breeding programmes which exist for the species it holds. This is now a requirement under British Zoo legislation but the Welsh Mountain was a member already. It was not forced upon them. The zoo behaves as it should under such a breeding programme which may mean not breeding as requested. Perhaps using contraceptives or same sex groups.
Research: The zoo has never been big enough or affluent enough to have it's own research department but its relationship with the University of Wales amongst others has meant that numerous research projects have been carried out within the zoo. I daresay there must be well over a hundred listed. The zoo continues both to host and be involved as best as budgets will allow.
Edutainment: The Welsh Mountain Zoo was the first zoo within the UK to do flying displays with Birds of Prey. The quality of displays has gone up and down over the years but the educational output whilst entertaining visitors has not. The same may be said for the Sealion Show and Chimpanzee Encounter. The zoo entertains and educates. Unlike some collections the zoo does not have amusements but does have an excellent adventure playground for kids to work off steam at the start or finish of their visit.
Staff: The staff of the Welsh Mountain Zoo are a dedicated team who genuinely care about the work that they are doing. They also cherish the animals which they are managing. All the full time keeping staff are fully qualified animal keepers with many years of experience under their belts or are trainees training to become the same. Staff are always polite and helpful to visitors, even the most awkward ones. Although the zoo is fairly small it should be noted that one past issue of 'Ratel' the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers journal that all of the articles had been written by current or past staff members of the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Very few ex staff from the zoo would have anything bad to say about the place. Staff move on to improve themselves rather than out of some sense of disatisfaction. Some ex Welsh Mountain Zoo staff have gone elsewhere and returned to work years later. Some of these as many as two times.
Training: The zoo has through various local and government training schemes provided a venue for teaching young people to become zoo keepers. As a small zoo it means trainees get the opportunity to work with all species. Cameradrie is such that trainees and experienced staff both work and socialise together. I believe the training given and received is second to none. Ex Welsh Mountain Zoo staff are employed in several UK zoos, some in very prominent roles. Others have gone on to other fields of animal care.
Management: The Directors of the Welsh Mountain Zoo have played and do play important roles within the fields of zoos and local tourism. Both are looked upon as wise heads in a crisis and are certainly very knowledgeable within their fields of expertise. I cannot say that in my time within the zoo that we did not have disagreements and sometimes major ones but in the end it was for the wellbeing of the zoo that we agreed to disagree and many years later I left the zoo feeling nothing but respect for my employers.
Ring tailed Lemur
3/ Where do you get the information for the zoo news digest? What sort of people or organizations subscribe to Zoo News Digest?
The opinion in Zoo News Digest comes from my own experiences and knowledge of zoos which I have built up over the years. The information I get from the internet using a variety of search engines. I also read newspapers and I also have a few people who send me articles of interest from time to time. I don't encourage this because it is so easy to get repeats.
The majority of subscribers to Zoo News Digest are zoo staff. They range from trainee keeper right the way up to zoo director. They are of course nearly all English speaking as it is the medium I work in though I know some do use translate packages. Those outside of the zoo industry include students and animal lovers. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) there is a fair sprinkling of anti-zoo subscribers too. These are the more thoughtful ones who actually read.
At my last count the ZooNews Digest mail out went to people in some 600+ zoos in over 100 countries.
4/ How did you get started writing zoo news digest? What inspired you to go into a career in zoos?
This is really two questions so I will answer the second half first. I had always liked animals. We always had cats, dogs, fish, horses and even a monkey for a time. I grew up in Kuwait when the world was very different from today. As kids we would trek into the desert to catch snakes, lizards, beetles and small mammals. I always had a sort of mini zoo at home. I never ever really gave a thought to what I would do when I left school or college for that matter. A multitude of ideas passed through my head but animals never figured at all.
When I did eventually start work it was in the oil industry. Nothing executive. I was a roustabout, at the very bottom end of the scale. High paying very hard dirty and dangerous work. I did not so much mind the work and if someone had actually explained to me exactly what it is I was doing when we were drilling for oil I might actually have a made a go of it and turned it into a career. Such thoughts were quickly shoved out of my mind when I became the target of a butch homosexual. I was not into that sort of thing. I liked women. At the same time I had a girlfriend back in the UK and I was missing her. So I did a runner.
Back in the UK things were none too jolly especially when my girlfriend informed me that she was pregnant and that the baby was not mine.
I was still at a loss for what I should do for work. The Employment people suggested that I speak to a someone in careers guidance. It was an interesting experience. They put me through IQ tests which, to my delight, showed I was well up in the upper half of the university bracket. Then they asked dozens of questions. I don't actually recollect any animal questions at all. At the end of it all they said that I would probably do well working in Forestry or Zoo Keeping. I had never thought of either but thought I would give Zoo Keeping a bash. I spent the next week in the library reading everything I could about zoos (and there was not a lot). I then applied for one zoo, got an interview, got a job and started the next week. I loved the work from day one (1968) and have never wanted to do anything else since.
The start of Zoo News Digest was a bit of an accident. You can read the How and Why HERE
5/ Do you believe all zoos are created equal? meaning, should some zoos be considered “better” than others? Do you have any personal experience pertaining to zoos on either side of the spectrum?
No all zoos are not created equal. There are definite bad zoos which range down to horrific such as Batturaden Zoo in Indonesia up to the excellent Sharjah Wildlife Breeding Centre in the United Arab Emirates.
I have never knowingly worked in a bad zoo. I have worked in zoos where there were things I percieved as bad which I set out to correct from the inside. Some of the zoos I have worked in were lacking in so very many ways but I have been in the business a long time now and the whole spectrum has changed as has the way of thinking.
The first zoo I managed as curator and general manager was Stanley Zoo in County Durham (now closed). This was then owned by Associated Pleasure Parks and later Scotia Investments. Both parent companies were openly commercial and saw animals as cash and not living creatures. This was not how I thought and nor was it the way any of the 'animal people' thought. We tried very hard to do a good job of work with poor tools. If I saw Stanley Zoo today I would have called it bad to poor. Times have changed. Along the way I have learned a lot.
I did work in the Sharjah Wildlife Breeding Centre for a while and so was lucky enough to see both sides of the coin. As a visitor and as an employee. Sharjah was and is excellent. It does not mean it always will be. Changes in management or funding could reverse what I now percieve.
6/ Can you please describe some of the benefits of zoos that you have experienced in your career working with zoos?
When I first started work in zoos nobody talked about conservation, research, education. It existed of course within the big Zoological Societies around the world and within the UK at places like London, Bristol, Edinburgh and one or two others. Everyone else was in it for the money (I am talking zoo owners and consortiums here). The biggest benefits today then are that this has all changed. Some are still in it for the money of course but they now have to do the other things too.
Zoos today do so much for the protection of animals within the wild. It is a marriage of ex-situ and in-situ research which benefits the animals big time.
7/ What would you say to zealous animal rights activists who view all zoos as prisons, and that all animals in captivity should be freed?
I would ask them to read this article and the links reading off from it... only they won't. Zealous animal rights activists have a faith that is almost religious. They cannot or are unable to consider that there may be another point of view. Their minds are made up and they will not be swayed from their blinkered point of view.
The animal rights people are not alone in such fanatical fervour. When I wrote Craig Busch and Zion Wildlife Gardens and the Tiger Temple I came under sustained attack from a similar type of indoctrinated people. Such hero worship and zeal means they are happy enough to comment and attack without actually reading what is there in front of their eyes.
One of the cruelest things one could do to captive animals is to release them into the wild. The animal rights activists see the wild as freedom. It is not. If you read zoo territory it will go some way towards explaining this. Lets not forget that wild is not just shrinking... it is actually disappearing! The mission of good zoos today is not to breed and release but to maintain genetically viable captive populations to reintroduce at some magical day in the unforeseen future. Zoo staff in good zoos care.
And the animal rights activists? You may recall in the past the deliberate mass release of mink from mink farms in the UK. Mink are not native to the UK. The unfortunate animals had not a clue initially and were run over by cars, some starved and others made an impact on the local wildlife by killing it. Some of the mink were recaptured.
What happened next? The animal rights activists released the mink again! Such people do not really care about animals at all. They have a tunnel viewed mission and that is their focus.
8/ Is there any other pertinent information that you think would be beneficial to my research on the ethics of zoos, specifically the benefits of zoos?
I believe the most important thing to remember when writing about zoos is to remember not to put them all into the same 'box'. All zoos are not the same, all zoo keepers are not the same. You must try to see beyond the hype. Bigger is not necessarily better and a degree does not necessarily a keeper make.
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