Breeding Endangered Species: Should We be Giving Pandas Viagra?

pandas

Cute, cuddly and hooked on Viagra? What are zoos doing to pandas? Should we even be breeding endangered species destined to live in captivity?

One-sixth of the world’s endangered panda population lives in captivity (approximate numbers put the total population in the wild and in captivity at about 2,000). A recent article in the New Yorker looked at the difficulty zoos and sanctuaries have in breeding pandas—creatures notoriously fickle when it comes to sex, and with short fertility windows to boot. Just a half-century ago, it was believed to be impossible to breed captive pandas. Success has come though, but not without extreme and bizarre efforts. Some zoos have introduced “panda porn”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and in some cases, they’re giving males Viagra, in attempts to encourage mating.

If there’s one argument zoos and aquariums routinely make over keeping captive animals, it’s that they’re employing state-of-the-art breeding techniques to perpetuate some of the world’s most beloved endangered species, like pandas. But that’s only kind of true.

While captive breeding can lead to offspring of threatened or endangered species, many of those animals often stay in captivity as well. Reintroduction is costly and often fails. A tiger, panda or orca born in captivity may certainly look the part, but she lacks the resume we seek in wild animals. Behaviors are abnormal; the animals can suffer from depression and diseases not seen in the wild. And on the ethical front it certainly opens up a dialogue: What do we gain by keeping fuzzy prisoners in unnatural environments? Should more efforts be put on wild animal conservation in their natural habitats than in captive breeding efforts?

In China, some pandas are being bred in sanctuary settings like those in Wolong and Shangdong, where they’re kept from human contact (handlers don panda suits…seriously) so that babies can be introduced into the wild, while maintaining a (valuable) fear of humans. The programs have been successful in replenishing regional panda populations, but only slightly. Reintroduction to the wild is not as simple as opening a cage; an animal bred in captivity is more often than not, significantly unequipped for handling freedom.

Drawing crowds at places like the National Zoo in Washington D.C. or San Diego’s Zoo, particularly when breeding methods are successful, thriving captive animal breeding perpetuates captivity, keeping zoos and aquariums profit-driven focused first and foremost. More wild swaths of habitat are deforested to build factories to make the stuffed pandas, killer whales and polar bears that the zoos and aquariums hope you’ll purchase on your way out.

Pixar’s recent decision to change the ending of the forthcoming film “Finding Dory” (the sequel to “Finding Nemo”) was inspired by the film “Blackfish“, a documentary that highlights the unimaginable life of captive orcas SeaWorld has been holding prisoner for decades. “Dory’s” director made the decision to change the ending so as not make a film that would be looked back on in 50 years as politically incorrect and insulting.

Africa’s black rhinoceros was recently declared extinct from the wild. Credit can go to poaching as well as insufficient conservation efforts. There was little media attention over the loss of one of the world’s most unique and awe-inspiring creatures. Perhaps that’s because nearly 300 though, are still alive in captivity. Like the panda, mating in captivity is difficult for the rhino. Mothers often reject their young. Formulating a rhino-milk knock-off isn’t easy. Babies develop health issues, which, along with the other sacrifices captivity requires, create behavioral issues we can’t fully even understand as most zookeepers have never observed these animals in their natural habitat.

If humans are able to stop destroying environments other creatures have called home for at least as long as we’ve been here, perhaps some of these other species have a chance to survive. And without the exploitative breeding methods that erode their natural majesty. But for those species where it’s just a matter of time, at what point do we acknowledge that we’ve erased suitable environments for these animals to thrive and just let them die-off as gracefully as possible?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Adrien Sifre Photography

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