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Zoo deaths: 'In the wild, gorillas don't eat their own vomit and pull out their hair in frustration'

Even in the best circumstances, it’s impossible for zoos to meet all the unique needs of the various species they hold captive, writes Elisa Allen.

Elisa Allen PETA

ZOOS BEGAN AS menageries where the rich could see the living exotic “spoils” of wars in foreign lands. Now they’re simply animal prisons.

The justification many zoos give for their existence in the 21st century is that they protect animals and conserve endangered species.

But the recent reports that more than 100 animals have died at Dublin Zoo in a two-year period should serve as an urgent wake-up call and prompt us to re-evaluate the role these institutions play in today’s society.

Among the 109 animals to die at the zoo during the 24-month period were three scimitar-horned oryxes, three Humboldt penguins, a pair of red-tipped mangabeys, two Rothschild’s giraffes, two wild African hunting dogs, an African spurred tortoise, a southern white rhinoceros, and a red panda, all of whom were from endangered or vulnerable species.

Captive-bred animals are rarely released into wild

If ever there were truth to the adage that “zoos put the con in conservation” by trying to hoodwink the public into believing that the salvation of endangered species lies in warehousing these sensitive animals, then surely this is it.

There’s a commonly held misconception that zoos are reintroducing animals into their native habitats. In reality, most zoos have no involvement of any kind with any reintroduction programmes.

This means that captive-bred species that do face extinction – including elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers, chimpanzees, and pandas – are rarely, if ever, released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations.

And while zoos spend millions on keeping animals confined, natural habitats are destroyed and animals are killed, as there’s insufficient funding for their protection.

Cages won’t stop extinction

Dublin city stock Source: Niall Carson

When ZSL London Zoo spent £5.3 million on a new gorilla enclosure, the chief consultant to the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership said that he was uneasy at the discrepancy between lavish spending at zoos and the scarcity of resources available for conserving threatened species in the wild:

Five million pounds for three gorillas when national parks are seeing that number killed every day for want of some Land Rovers and trained men and anti-poaching patrols.

The simple fact is that the same amount of money a zoo spends on buying or breeding and housing “exotic” animals could benefit so many more in the wild.

And if Dublin Zoo were serious about helping endangered species, it would ask the public to donate to schemes that target the root causes of extinction and endangerment of animals all over the world – habitat destruction and poaching – because all the cages in the world won’t save animals from becoming extinct.

Diminished existence depresses zoo animals

Captivity takes its toll, and animals in zoos often go insane from the frustration of their diminished existence – while visitors leave without having learned anything meaningful about animals’ natural behaviour, intelligence, or beauty.

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There’s nothing dignified or inspiring about seeing depressed, despondent animals.

In the wild, gorillas don’t eat their own vomit and pull out their hair in frustration. Free polar bears don’t pace back and forth constantly on concrete.

Captive animals’ typical forms of neurotic behaviour – such as bar-biting, self-mutilation, pacing, and rocking – are unheard of among their wild relatives. Just as we wouldn’t go to a prison to learn about typical human society, it makes no sense to observe imprisoned animals in order to learn about them.

Wildlife documentaries mean we don’t need to incarcerate animals

Today, we have entire television channels dedicated to showing wildlife documentaries. We no longer have any excuse for keeping intelligent, social animals incarcerated and denying them everything that’s natural and important to them.

Because, at the end of the day, the paying public can go home, but these animals are stuck as living exhibits and crowd-pulling attractions until the day they die in captivity, a world away from where they truly belong.

Elisa Allen is Director of PETA UK.

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About the author:

Elisa Allen  / PETA

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