Bad Zoo News Can't Be Contained


Keeping animals captive for pleasure, profit or curiosity is a human tradition going back as far as Ancient Egypt. But what kind of tradition is it? Do zoos deserve a public-relations makeover to be firmly embraced within an eco-conscious outlook on the natural world – or are they a relic of unhappier times?

This is the question currently fueling many column inches, following the release of a report by the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looking at 4,500 female elephants in zoos. The statistics could hardly be more damning:

PhotobucketIn the wild, female African elephants frequently live beyond 50 years old: in captivity, the average age is just 19.

PhotobucketBaby elephants born in captivity have a much lower chance of survival – over 50% don’t make it past the age of 1.

PhotobucketApproximately four-fifths of captive elephants suffer from foot problems.

In summary, the report suggests that being born in captivity actually reduces an elephant’s chances of survival.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, the RSPCA voiced their disgust to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It’s important to note that both these organizations funded the research – and on behalf of BIAZA, Dr Miranda Stevenson of Edinburgh Zoo promised the research would be used to improve animal husbandry. (A particular problem is the death rate of newborns: this is why the average life expectancy is so shockingly low).

Praising or condemning all zoos together is something of an injustice. Nevertheless, a pattern emerges. Zoos have always prided themselves on providing a service for their animals: a life safe from predators, a stable habitat, a steady supply of food and consequently, more relaxation time than they could enjoy in the wild. This has been promoted as very much a good thing.

In contrast, the DEFRA report now points to obesity as a major problem for captive elephants. Without enough physical or mental challenge, their bodies and minds suffer – exactly like those of the creatures looking after them.

Should we treat animals in zoos the way we’ve been treating ourselves?

Image: Tambako the Jaguar

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.