The debate over zoos

Animal deaths or injuries at zoos often result in renewed debate among the public about whether animals should be held in captivity. Recently, the deaths of 40 cownose stingrays at the Calgary Zoo and the escape of a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo that caused the death of one visitor stirred up more questions on whether animals should be kept in zoos.

Are zoos an anachronism from a time before the internet and Animal Planet?

Animal deaths or injuries at zoos often result in renewed debate about whether wild animals should be kept in captivity. Recently, the deaths of over 40 cownose stingrays at the Calgary Zoo and the death of a visitor at the San Francisco Zoo stirred up more questions on whether animals should be kept for public viewing.

While the institutions often tout their educational programs as one of the many reasons for people, and especially children, to visit, saying they can learn a great deal about animals from zoos, Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck Canada, a national wild animal protection charity, disputes this argument. 

"The menagerie-style zoo, like Toronto and Calgary, emerged in the 19th century in Paris and London and Berlin. This concept emerged at a time when there was no international travel, there was no internet, there was limited access to books for most people, there was no television, there was no Discovery Channel."

"All of the media that allow us to learn about things today did not exist when this concept arose, yet the concept has stayed pretty much the same."

Laidlaw says the research doesn't support the zoos' claims that exhibiting animals is necessarily educational.

"We've challenged zoos for a very long time to produce evidence that a casual visitor who goes to the zoo, which comprises 90 per cent of the people who attend zoos, learns anything by looking at animals in cages," says the Zoocheck official.

But Bill Peters, national director of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), a non-profit zoo accreditation organization, says such research does exist, and it shows that people learn in a different way when the animals they're studying are right in front of them.

"Where they're in the presence of animals, it's not the same as seeing them in a book or seeing them on television," says Peters. "There is a very different kind of emotional bond or connection created and that facilitates in the delivery and the assimilation of information." CAZA has 25 member zoos and aquariums across the country, and Peters says CAZA's accreditation requirements have special emphasis on education.

"We require that our member facilities deliver structured, formalized educational programs about the animals they keep, the habitat issues associated with those animals, and the conservation issues associated with them," he says.

"We don't look at this as simply an entertainment business to make money. What we are doing is acquainting Canadians and other visitors with the realities of the natural world, with what is happening to the animals, some of the threats and the issues with respect to the long-term survival of those animals," says Peters.

But Laidlaw says the public's interest in an animal isn't related to being able to see it in captivity. Baleen whales, such as the blue whale, for example, have never been shown in aquariums, but enjoy popularity in nearly every culture on Earth.

"There's a group of animals that every single child anywhere in the world knows all about. Many children even know their Latin names. They know what they ate, they know where they lived and everything, and they've never been kept in a zoo. In fact, no human has ever seen them. And that's the dinosaurs," Laidlaw says.

"This whole idea that in order to educate people, or educate children, specifically, that you need animals down the street is a very Western commercialized approach to education," he says.

Conservation programs

But zoos insist that their conservation projects have helped endangered and threatened species from around the world. Peters says CAZA's members are required to engage in programs of conservation and research.

"Many of our members participate actively in species survival programs which deal with breeding and ultimate reintroduction, where that is possible, of species that are either threatened or endangered in various parts of the world," Peters says.

But Laidlaw says there's "a lot of conservation myth about zoos." He says the notion of breeding animals in captivity and releasing them is "in the process of being debunked. Most of it has already been debunked."

"It's a last-ditch strategy. You do not breed critically endangered species for release in a public zoo. They make a miniscule contribution in that regard," says Laidlaw.

Zoocheck has been critical in particular of the Calgary Zoo's gorilla breeding program. The program celebrated the birth of a gorilla in May 2008, but four gorillas died at the zoo in just one year, from August 2006 to August 2008.

"If that's how zoos operate, then the animals they're trying to save are on the fast-track to extinction," says Laidlaw.

The Calgary Zoo defends its gorilla program, however, saying gorillas in captivity have a better survival rate than those in the wild.

Zoocheck also objects to the catching of animals from the wild to replenish zoo populations, saying the practice is antithetical to conservation. Peters says wild catching is not a common practice for zoos, but it is acceptable in certain circumstances.

Laidlaw admits that some zoos have better records than others in their conservation programs, such as B.C.'s Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre, which offers only limited public viewing on guided tours, and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey in the Channel Islands, which devotes 40 per cent of its gross income to conservation.

When zoo visitors and animals interact

Zoocheck also has concerns about exhibits that allow zoo visitors to come into contact with the animals, as was the case with the stingrays in Calgary. The security of the animals is one concern, Laidlaw says, citing a study that showed that fish in touch tanks show signs of injury and stress-related behaviour.

Laidlaw says Zoocheck also objects to the removal of the rays' venomous barbs so that they can be safely touched.

"When you take an animal and physically modify it in order that you can have paying customers play with them, that to us is unacceptable. It's just absurd," said Laidlaw.

Peters says CAZA has specific rules about physical alteration of animals in zoos and the removal of anything that would be fundamental to the well-being of the animal is not permitted. He says the removal of the rays' barbs is acceptable because it's akin to trimming one's fingernails.

"There are requirements with respect to how humans and animals can interact. One of the requirements we have is ... that there be fully qualified, trained staff present at all times during the exhibition of the animals or when visitors are present. And there are requirements, in the case of stingrays, with respect to hand-washing facilities," says Peters.

Peters adds that exhibits which allow visitors to physically interact with the animals are vital to zoos' education programs.

"What we are doing is taking advantage of the emotional impact, the psychological impact that that kind of contact has on visitors, especially young visitors, to then provide them with relevant information about that particular animal and how humans can behave in order to make sure those animals survive and thrive," says Peters.

But Laidlaw says any benefit to the zoos' education program can't outweigh the difficulties the animals may face in such exhibits.

"If you want to interact with [wildlife], do it from a distance," he says. "Respect their lives and their needs, and don't create this one-sided relationship where you benefit, but it's to the detriment of the animals."