Why have zoos?
To me a zoo is any place where a wild animal is kept and maintained in confinement. So by this definition it would include Safari Parks, Aquariums, Oceanariums, Sanctuaries, Bird Parks and others...and of course zoos (Zoological Gardens). My opinion is shared by several dictionary definitions.
The earliest of zoo animals were probably cattle, sheep, goats, wolves, camels and similar which were wild and eventually domesticated and evolved into the 'farm' animals we are familiar with today. Some such species like the elephant have never become truly domesticated and so are on the fringe.
Early man had many ideas about the creatures with whom he shared his environment. Whilst some were looked on as food others were attributed with 'God' like or magical properties. It is likely that the first true 'zoo' animals were these. For example Bears held long time in pits where they were fed or worshipped.
Snow Leopard in Zurich Zoo
Kings, Rulers, Emperors in China, Egypt and South America maintained zoos. These were collections of 'curiosities' and as likely to keep unusual people of other races and cultures as they were to keep animals. As the world became smaller the countries ruler would present animals from his own country as gift to another.
The oldest recognised zoo today is Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Schönbrunn Zoo) in Austria and was established in 1752 around animals which were presented to the ruler.
Zoos have progressed a long way since those times till today their reason for being has complely changed.
I should say at this point that there are 'good' zoos and 'bad' zoos and some of the bad ones are truly awful. They need a helping hand or closing down. I have visited many zoos and it seems to me that the bad ones are bad due to ignorance or cultural differences. No-one is out to be cruel or unkind. It is simply because they really know no better. This became very clear to me when I visited a zoo in the Philippines where the collection was scattered with inspiring messages of the like of:
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it's animals are treated". - Mahatma Ghandi
There were dozens of similar messages. The owners truly believed this was the garden of Eden and yet it was an awful place...though I admit I have seen far worse. It is the moral duty of the 'good' zoos of the world to lead the way, to inspire and guide these collections to the proper path.
Golden Lion Tamarin
Happily the picture is changing and there are more 'good' zoos today than ever before and whilst these continue to improve, legal requirements mean that more come aboard each year. Most good zoos today are members of organisations like WAZA, EAZA, BIAZA, SEAZA, AZA, ARAZPA, PAAZAP, CAZA and similar. These strive to maintain standards within zoos, exchange information through cooperation improve on what they have. ZooNews Digest is amongst many publications which strives to keep zoo staff the world over updated on events and activities.
Any zoo which is not a member of one of the above or similar organisations is not a good zoo. It is not good because it has opted out or has been disallowed because it fails to meet the requirements of a good zoo. Be extremely sceptical if they give any other reason.
Even within the 'good' zoo barrel there are a few rotten apples. These are collections where money speaks louder than words and corruption is the norm. It is only a matter of time before these are weeded out.
So why have zoos today? If there were no zoos it would be necessary to invent them. Zoos fill a variety of roles but primarily Education, Conservation, Research and, yes, Entertainment.
The good zoo today fills these roles and more. The anti-zoo brigade have an entirely incorrect or mixed up view as to what zoos are all about and would be well advised to read The World Zoo Conservation Strategy before commenting for forming an opinion.
Zoos are not prisons guarded by cruel jailers. They are safe animal homes where the animals recieve the very best of care and love. The wild on the other hand IS cruel. Animals do suffer. They are injured and die lingering painful deaths. They starve. They are shot, poisoned and forced out of their homes. That said animals DO belong in the wild and 99% of zoo personell would say that in a perfect world that this would be best. But it is not a perfect world and the wild is shrinking. Soon there will be no where for animals to go.
The anti-zoos argue that people should watch animals on TV and donate to preserving wild habitat. TV lacks the impact of real animals so zoos play a role there and people are more likely to donate if they see the real thing. Zoos collect money for 'wild' projects. They pay to preserve and protect wild environments.
Zoos are about conservation and breeding programmes. The anti-zoos argue that zoos very rarely if ever return animals to the wild. Why should they? If the problems in the wild still exist it would be cruel and senseless to put animals back to an uncertain fate. Breeding programmes should be looked at long term...very long term. In terms of hundreds of years. The idea is that managed genetically viable populations are maintained so that they could be put back should it be safe to do so at some future date.
Zoos very rarely take animals from the wild. I would estimate that in excess of 80% of animals kept in good zoos were born there as were their parents, grandparents and beyond. They know no different. They have no 'wild' memory. Of the others the majority will have been captive for many years. Many years longer than they would have lived if they had remained in the wild. Many people have misconcieved ideas about zoos.
Zoos care about their animals. Anti-zoos get the idea that animals in the wild are 'free'. They are not. They are confined within an invisible barrier known as a 'territory'.
A wild territory is the animals home. It lives within it. A territory's size is determined by food. Less food needs a bigger territory. More food needs smaller. Territories need protecting, they need to be fought over. They are stressful to maintain. Within a zoo the territory is shrunk to a size within which the animal feels comfortable and all amenties are available including health care. Good zoos have an active enrichment programme which is designed to keep the animals mind active.
Zoos are about Education. Good zoos have an education department or at the very least an education officer. Zoos teach. Visitors learn and therefore respect animals and the wild. Whereas huge numbers of schools visit zoos for education purposes the majority go for a day out. Zoo education needs to be given slyly. it needs to be enjoyable. They need to learn without realising it. No-one wants to go back to school.
Zoos are about Entertainment. Shows can be fun and educational. There should be no need to poke or prod. Animals can be trained to perform natural behaviours and steer well away from the circus acts of old. There are some excellent shows out there.
The make up of the average zoo visitor changes the world over. Zoos are non sexist, non religious, non pornographic, non political. They can be relaxing places to visit, to meet friends, have a good day out and learn more of the wonderful creatures with which we share our planet.
There should be more zoos not less. We need more zoos.
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