“Imprisonment”. “Mental”. “Aggressive”. “Self-harming”. These are the words used to describe the life of an animal in captivity. But do excessive measures need to be taken to save the endangered species, asks Alex Hastie.[one_fourth] Words: Alex Hastie
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To adopt at WWF, click here. [/one_fourth]The air is icy and the wind bitter on this day at Marwell Zoo. For guest, George Barima, this is the first time he has been back to a zoo in 8 years after being one of many people to witness the destructive life of animal captivity. “It’s kind of like being locked up in your bedroom your entire life, isn’t it?” George asks. At 12 years of age, London Zoo was the first, and thought to be the last time George stepped into a zoo. As a man of his word he had boycotted zoos at every possible moment. “Imagine being locked up 24/7, just like prison. That’s how I see a zoo.”
“All I remember is one of the gorillas started banging on the cage and screaming. I’d never heard anything like that.” George recalls looking straight at the silverback gorilla bare his teeth to the cage. “The rangers tried to spray him with water, but it did nothing… so they used a noose to restrain him.” George places his hand tightly around his neck to indicate the strength used against the animal. As relaxed as his dress sense may be, nothing about his expression was. “They moved all of us out of the exhibit and closed it down. He wasn’t there when we got back.”
PRISON FOR PRIMATES
In truth, primates and big cats have more than 18,000 times less space in a zoo than they do in the wild. Across the UK, traditional animal behaviour has been replaced by erratic qualities by what Liz Tyson, the director of Captive Animals Protection Society, portrays as “an inevitable effect from life imprisonment”.
From four years work at CAPS and her previous extensive work with animals in the wild, she notices the “stereotypic behaviours” that are seen in zoos. “These behaviours [are] similar to what you might see with somebody who has psychological difficulties.”[one_third] [/one_third]
Immense research on animal captivity has often overlooked differences between wild and captive animals. “Big cats would spend 48% of their time pacing up and down,” says Liz, “to which zoos would say ‘well they could be waiting for food’.” By the time these stereotypical behaviours are even noticed in animals, they would be unable to survive in the wild.
Across the savannah, you will find the average African elephant walking 10 miles a day compared to a few acres. In UK zoos alone, 75% of elephants are severely overweight. Liz explains that she herself has seen the stereotypical behaviours that elephants’ represent, such as “swaying and extensive head bobbing.” Even Liz cannot hide her empathy when explaining “African elephants live more than three times as long in the wild than those that live in zoos.”
But it is in the primates that Liz sees the true damage of captivity. “Chimps and apes in captivity have been known to effectively vomit and re-eat their food. This is called R&R, regurgitation and re-ingestion.” This is nothing, compared to extreme cases, where monkeys have been known “to self-harm, by picking off their fingernails or pulling out their hair.” All that Liz can say on from this is that “surely this is a clear indication that something is seriously wrong.”[divide style=”2″]
EXTINCT OR EXIST
Tom Frost couldn’t feel more differently about animal captivity. As a park ranger at Birmingham Wildlife, Tom has seen the true benefits of zoos. “Captivity for primates is an essential way of conserving species that are struggling.” Zoos around the world have saved six endangered species of monkeys, including the blue-eyed black lemur.
The biggest concern with animal captivity is the space. Tom believes that it’s not the size the animals need, but the feel of similar surroundings. “There has to be regulations on the amount of enrichment to ensure the animals are in habitats as close to their own as possible. If food and shelter is given… they will treat the enclosure as a home rather than a prison.” The prestigious Gorilla Kingdom at ZSL London Zoo cost £5 million to build, majority of the funds being spent on importing vegetation to imitate their normal environment.
George’s story is one that many people would argue saying that this is the cause of animal captivity. However, can we be sure that the gorilla would still exist if it weren’t for zoos? With less than 900 silverback gorillas left, extreme actions must be taken to save their kind, just like every other endangered animal in the world. “Without breeding programmes, we would have lost more species than I care to imagine,” and Tom might be right.