Following the Paper Trail: Exposing the Trade of Exotic Animals
Interview with Alan Green
Green is a professional journalist who spent four years researching and writing
the extraordinary book Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare
and Exotic Species published last year by PublicAffairs. Green recently spoke
with Catherine Clyne
explaining the intricacies of the animal trade—where they come from and where
they end up.
How would you describe
Animal Underworld to people who are not familiar with the book?
Animal Underworld is
about the laundering of exotic species and I mean that almost in the way that
drug money is laundered from one bank to another. What I learned and what I try
to document in the book is that exotic species are moved from place to place to
place. You can think of it as if they are relayed, being handed off from one
person to another, kind of shunted through this pipeline in hopes of making them
disappear. They start their lives in what we think of as legitimate
institutions—such as zoos or university research laboratories—and when those
animals are no longer necessary or wanted, when there are too many in the
collection, those so-called "surplus" animals have to be moved out. And there’s
a system that’s been developed to move those animals out and sell them, resell
them, sell them again, move them on down the line; so ultimately the paper trail
disappears and everyone along the line has deniability if it becomes known that
an animal has ended up in a bad place.
If we see for example a
canned hunt (or private hunting preserve) and someone shooting exotic animals in
a cage; if we see animals ending up in a basement cage in horrendous conditions:
everyone along the line can say "well those weren’t my animals," and in most
cases no one will be able to prove where the animals came from. Animal
Underworld is an attempt to document how those animals are indeed moved through
a system—where they start their lives and where they end up—and to show with
real paperwork how this kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell system works and how
everyone plays this game with a wink and a nod: "Here take my animal, move it
along down the line," so that ultimately no one will be able to point a finger
and say "Aha! You’re doing bad things with your animals!"
Can you give an
example of a paper trail?
Papers must be filed,
typically in the state Department of Agriculture, that chronicle the movement of
animals from one state to another. Let’s say I run a roadside zoo in
Virginia, and I get animals in
the spring and close in the fall because I’m a seasonal operation. If I want to
send animals to an auction, say, in Ohio, I need to file paperwork with the
Virginia Department of Agriculture that shows I’m sending those animals out of
state. So there is a paper trail. The trick is to figure out whether people are
indeed filing the required paperwork and then to find it all. What we find is
that in perhaps 85 percent of cases people aren’t in fact filing those
So animals are moved in
the middle of the night—in trucks with no documentation—and people are selling
animals behind the scenes (perhaps at an auction) so there’s no record of the
transaction. But in at least some cases records do exist and I try to follow the
trail from point A to B to C so that I can say with certainty: "Here’s where an
animal started its life, here’s where it went to, here’s where it was sold, and
here’s who was buying at those auctions." For the first time I’m able to reveal
the system by which all these animals are being moved from place to place.
There are many levels of
record keeping. They may be at different federal agencies, for example, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, state and local agencies, police agencies—it’s all a
matter of getting and piecing them all together, hoping that you can figure out
the truth about individual animals as they move during their lives from perhaps
dozens of venues until, in many cases, a bad fate awaits them at the end of
Were you able to track
the life of an individual animal?
When I set out to do
this project, my hope was that I’d be able to chronicle the movement of one
animal from its birth to its death. Through all the paperwork I collected I was
actually able to do that in the case of a reindeer. He was born on a game farm
in the Yukon in Canada, then sold at an exotic animal auction in Missouri, and
was bought by an elderly couple who raised reindeer along with other animals on
their game farm in Iowa.
The reindeer was named
Honker by this couple. When the husband died, caring for the animals became too
hard for his wife so she sold Honker and the other animals. She resold Honker at
the same auction in
Missouri where he had been
bought a few years earlier. Honker was bought by a game farmer in Wisconsin. Ten
days later a client flew in from Indiana and shot Honker and, in the same day,
shot two other animals—a white tailed deer and a mule deer. The records were
falsified to make it look as if he shot three white tailed deer. Honker was then
brought to a local taxidermist.
It turns out that the guy
who shot Honker was an official supporter of Safari Club International, an
organization that claims to abhor canned hunts because they don’t encourage
fair-chase hunting. Ironically, Honker ended up as a trophy in this guy’s house
Indiana. That was what happened.
But finding the records, linking them to show that this was Honker was the
proverbial needle in a haystack.
Do zoos have a role in
the trade of exotic animals in the
If you look at the front-end of
the pipeline through which animals are sent, zoos are indeed there. Zoos have
been among the greatest providers of animals to the exotic animal trade. There
are a huge number of tigers in private hands in the U.S. being bred like beagles
by dealers who find ready places to sell them: That’s the legacy of zoos. They
don’t sell tigers anymore because they know people are watching.
So now we are seeing
other species on the market instead. Zoos have a huge so-called surplus problem.
They have nowhere to send the surplus animals so they dump them on dealers who
re-sell them. So zoos, even though they’ll dispute it, are in fact at the head
end of the pipeline because they don’t want to breed responsibly and are always
looking for new species to replace the ones that the public has grown tired of.
Zoos are creating ready markets for new batches of animals that become big in
What do you mean by
example, are a big pull at zoos. Zoos have what they refer to as "charismatic
megafauna." These are the flagship species, the animals that are a great draw.
People don’t go to the zoo to see the miniature hippo or the Père David’s deer.
They go to see the panda and the giraffes and just about any kind of baby. Zoos
are by and large a baby factory because that’s what brings people through the
Zoos have master plans
for collections. A classic example is the National Zoo, which has determined as
part of its master plan that they’ll have three giraffes: two adults—a male and
a female—and one baby born every two years. Each time a baby giraffe is born
every TV station in
Washington does a story, which
in turn brings out the public in huge numbers. But with the new baby, there are
now four giraffes because a baby was born two years earlier. All of a sudden
that two year old giraffe is shunted to the background. Two years earlier an
adoring public was standing there pointing at that spindly-legged baby giraffe,
but now what are they going to do with it? The zoo will say "well we can’t keep
it." If it’s a male, daddy is going to fight with it; if it’s a female, daddy is
going to want to breed with it, so we better get that two year old out of here.
I would call that
irresponsible breeding because the zoo knows that they will have to get rid of
that giraffe and they know—because history tells them so—that there is no good
place to send it. At any given moment, when they try to find a home for that
unwanted giraffe, there are probably going to be 50 or so AZA [American Zoo and
Aquarium Association—the self-regulating organization of accredited zoos] zoos
that are also looking for a home for their unwanted giraffes. As an AZA
accredited zoo they are saying: "We are a cut above. We are members of an elite
club. We trust other members of this club to be good trading partners and so we
can entrust our animals to these zoos with great comfort."
But there are a lot of
giraffes in search of homes and very few zoos that are looking for them. Where
are they going to send it? There are no takers. That means that they’re going to
have to send a giraffe outside of the club. If only accredited AZA members are
good guys, sending it outside the club more or less ensures that the standards
you believe are notable will not be met.
This isn’t pure
speculation. Early in the 1990s the National Zoo had a year old surplus giraffe
named Michael whom they entrusted to a dealer who brought him to an unaccredited
roadside zoo in central
New Jersey. Michael was paired
with an adult male giraffe—the very scenario that the National Zoo wanted to
avoid and the sort of thing they claim they will never do, because Michael would
be threatened by daddy. The adult male kicked and broke Michael’s neck, and
So the AZA zoos shirk
their responsibility. It’s expediency; we don’t want the animal, it’s not part
of our master plan, let’s get rid of it, let’s send it to a dealer and cross our
fingers that it never comes back to haunt us.
What would you say is
the public’s involvement in the continuation of this trade of surplus animals?
I would say that by
and large, the public is in total ignorance. When the public comes out to see a
new-born, everyone is goo-goo eyed over the baby, and I admit there is a great
allure about baby animals. Before I started doing this research I was just as
ignorant. If one day, the zoo has six zebras and next time you go back there are
five, who would know? No one counts. With the new babies, people never ask:
"where did the other animals go?" because if you think about it, why should we?
We have entrusted people
who work at the zoo to do right by us; they are the ones who care for the
animals on a daily basis. When you go to the zoo everything at least looks good;
you don’t see abuse. Concrete and steel are changing to what looks like a
natural habitat. Certainly, fake trees are not the same as real trees in the
wild, but the illusion is powerful and we feel comforted that they are trying to
do right by the animals. If you talk to zoo keepers they do indeed care about
the welfare of the animals and work hard to care for them.
If we ever ask the
question "Hey mister, wasn’t there another giraffe here? Where did it go?", "It
went to another zoo," "Well, OK, that sounds good enough to me." Most AZA zoos
are municipally funded, certainly they are not taking our tax dollars and doing
bad things, are they? So there’s a kind of trust going on. I would say that once
the public finds out about this phenomenon, if they don’t take steps to force
the zoos to change, then the public is equally culpable.
The whole exotic animal
trade is like a pyramid. At the top there are a small number of institutions—for
the most part reputable—that have a lot of animals that flow to the bottom, to
auctions, dealers, canned hunts, roadside zoos, etc. If you cut off the flow
from the top of the pyramid, from AZA zoos and universities, you can cut off the
industry. If you cut off access to surplus animals, it will reverse the
The public can make that
choice. If indeed the problem is that it’s a baby game and there is only room
for a fixed number of species, will the public be willing to put up with a birth
every four, six or eight years to ensure that the two year old doesn’t get sent
to a bad place? Is the public willing to spend money for a retirement facility
for animals that are off exhibit? Is the public going to decide they want some
combination? "Well, we don’t want to pay more money, but we don’t want the
animals sent to bad places." So are we willing to approve humane euthanasia to
ensure that animals don’t go to dealers and possibly end up in bad situations? A
lot of people can’t deal with the idea of euthanasia.
If zoos and other
establishments are unwilling to change, the public should demand disclosure of
where surplus animals are going. As a matter of public record, these
institutions will be forced to disclose what they are doing. Once you embarrass
these institutions by exposing their involvement in the trading of endangered
animals—when they know that everyone is watching—they won’t be so cavalier.
What was the greatest
shock and/or disappointment that you had while doing this project?
The most troubling
revelation was that I realized that no matter who trumpets how much they care,
they’re all in it together. That isn’t to say that all AZA members don’t
care—some have taken steps to change. But all reputable zoos are doing business
with disreputable zoos and dealers—which they ridicule. They are hypocrites. If
you look at the pipeline, as the animals move further and further down there are
any number of terrible places they can end up.
The greatest shock for me
was to see how the animals become product or fodder. At the auctions, for
example, it’s as if people are selling carpets. No one knows anything about the
animals. They become nameless, walked anonymously through the display ring like
replaceable cogs in money-making ventures. Everyone seems to be capitalizing.
Even those who own exotic
pets think that what they’re doing is "good" for endangered species—chaining a
tiger to a pipe in the basement. They think they’re conservationists. But these
animals will never be repatriated into the wild and they’re not doing them any
good. It’s a pet-of-the-month club that is fueled by American fickleness. We
have not thought through the consequences.
Baby Lions for Sale!
USDA, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, has nearly 17 pages of
regulations pertaining to the handling and transportation of dogs and cats, but
the care of snow leopards and other wild animals is dismissed in just seven
pages. And the exotic species are guaranteed much less protection: Domestic
kittens, for example, can’t be sold in commerce until they’re two months old and
fully weaned, but a day-old lion may be carted to an auction and sold to the
highest bidder. What’s more, government prosecutors, as a rule, have virtually
no interest in protecting these animals. Given a choice between pursuing a
drug-trafficking case or an animal-permit violation, prosecutors rarely opt for
Visions of Primates -
Interview with Dale Peterson (see below: bushmeat)
Telling it Like it is: A View From a Former Zoo Staffer
By Richard H.
still serve to entertain the public, providing basic family amusement for their
visitors. Despite the pronouncements of the AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium
Association, the self-regulating organization of accredited zoos) about
conservation, research, and education, there is little hard evidence to prove
that zoos do any more than entertain.
There is one basic premise that must be taken into account when looking at the
whole zoo issue. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture licenses more than
1,800 exhibitors of wild animals. AZA-accredited facilities make up no more than
10 percent of this group. It is misleading to say that the relatively few AZA
facilities represent the actual state of zoos in the U.S.
Even within that 180-member group, the varying quality of exhibits and care is
incredible and sometimes appalling. Accreditation by the AZA does not guarantee
a consistent level of quality among zoos.
AZA and AZA-accredited zoos have held themselves up to the public as the norm,
or the reality of zoos. This is far from the case. The norm is the underfunded
municipal zoo, or the roadside attraction, or the private collection that is
open to the public. The small handful of high-end zoos that may in fact engage
in conservation programs benefiting wild animals in the field are not typical of
American zoos; they are the rare exception. When you look closely at the actual
participation of the majority of accredited zoos in "conservation", what you are
likely to find are donations of crayons and coloring books or used reptile cages
to zoos abroad, or sponsorship of keeper training courses. Such minor activities
are then called cooperative efforts in conservation and education. Sounds great,
Another highly touted conservation effort are the SSPs (Species Survival
Programs). If a zoo simply exhibits surplus males or retired breeders of an SSP
species, it is thereby said to be participating in the "conservation" of that
species. It is situations like these that make people and organizations
skeptical about the claims of the AZA and its member zoos. Much effort goes into
marketing and public relations, for the purpose of laying a veneer of science
and education on what is basically the business of buying, displaying, breeding,
and selling exotic animals.
Zoos won’t Disappear, so...
Zoos are not going to disappear. The animals in them are not, in general,
candidates for release, and in many cases there is no habitat to use as
reintroduction areas. Zoos must become the centers of education about animals
and their role in the environment that they claim to be. They must stop the
frivolous production of animals that will later be unwanted by them and disposed
of without a care. They should accept that some species (including marine
mammals, polar bears, great apes and elephants) are unsuitable display animals
whose physical and mental needs cannot be met in captivity, and fundamentally
change the way those animals are kept. Zoos should make the commitment to
phasing out their captive populations for display and redirecting their funds
and expertise to the conservation of wild populations and their natural
It is only public pressure that will change zoos. Visitors need to focus on the
bottom line issue of any zoo: animal care. Forget the hype about conservation,
and the Christmas light extravaganza, and the boa constrictor at the birthday
party at the zoo. Look at the animals. Are cages large enough for what lives in
them? Do the elephants spend 16 hours a day in chains? Is the food of good
quality? Does the staff show care and compassion? Look for the commonsense
indicators of good care. If they’re not obvious, find out why. In many cases,
zoos are tax-supported. They literally belong to the public, and the public can
demand that their animals be treated correctly and humanely.
Richard H. Farinato
is Director of the Captive Wildlife Protection Program of the Humane Society of
United States. He is
a former assistant zoo director and has extensive professional experience in the
management of wild animals, including 15 years working in zoos. He now serves as
a spokesperson for the protection of captive wildlife. For information visit
www.hsus.org or call (301) 258-3150.
Zoos in Culture and Fiction
Interview with Randy Malamud
Malamud is Professor of English at Georgia State University. He is
author of several books, including The Language of Modernism (UMI, 1989) and
Where the Words are Valid: T.S. Eliot's Communities of Drama (Greenwood, 1994).
He recently spoke with
about his latest book,
Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity
(New York University Press, 1998).
My endeavor was to
present different ways to look at what is going on with zoos, to think about it
beyond just the status quo. I have two young kids and the field trip to the zoo
is set on the school’s agenda every year. Kids have birthday parties at the zoo
and so many people are going, and I think a lot of well-minded people are just
not thinking about what it means. Zoos are very established in our culture and
they are a very complex endeavor involving money and showmanship—the same
paraphernalia that surrounds
Disneyworld, amusement parks or
any other major cultural enterprise. I invoke an array of literary depictions of
animals and zoos and I link these depictions to our culture in order to reveal
what zoos say about us as people. I also touch on things like songs, cartoons
and even advertising.
You start the book
with the comment "I do not like zoos." What don’t you like about them?
There are so many
things. The smells, the sight of the animals who are clearly unhappy and mangy
and exhibiting stereotypic dysfunctional behavior. They always look sad to me.
You see all those potentially beautiful and interesting species inside the bars;
we’re slovenly and we’re gawking at them. It really makes me feel guilty about
being a member of this empowered species on the planet. Why do we do this? I
feel embarrassment, cultural awkwardness and historical guilt. Visits to the zoo
seem like a sad and wrong way for so many people to be spending their
How do you arrive at a
perspective on zoos via a study of literature?
Any individual work
of fiction or poetry is of course only one person’s point of view, so in Reading
Zoos I bring together all of these different perspectives and show how a range
of people are looking at zoos. With their aesthetic consciousness, the authors
lay bare the underpinning of zoos; what they mean and how they work.
By far, the preponderance
of literature that I studied does not romanticize zoos, they deconstruct them,
they problematize them. Novels are not representative of the spectrum of human
cultural behaviors at the zoo because most people are happy to go to zoos
whereas most novels say that zoos are tawdry, scary, voyeuristic prisons.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s
Slaughterhouse Five, two characters are kidnapped by space aliens and put in a
zoo where the aliens come to gawk at them, thinking "these are such pathetic
creatures, we are so much better than them." They watch them making love and
think that it’s weird and funny. The point that we get is that the aliens don’t
really understand them; humans are not inherently as ridiculous and stupid as
the aliens think we are. So you can carry this analogy further and say, well, we
do the same thing with the animals that we put in zoos. There’s a lot of
imperialistic braggadocio involved on the part of the people who manage to
capture another species and put them in a cage. One of the achievements of that
novel is to take us outside of ourselves. It encourages us to imagine what
others would think of us, and how it reflects on the whole construct of zoos.
the zoo is depicted as a really bad place to be and it’s the last thing that you
would want to happen to you. So it surprises me that if there is such a common
consciousness about this then why do we think the animals are any happier? Do we
Zoos are also used as
depressing or violent images to represent human situations. Doesn’t this also
say something about zoos?
Yes. For example,
Sylvia Plath has a poem called "Zookeeper’s Wife" in which she uses the zoo
scenario as a metaphor for her own distress; she is the caged animal and the
zookeeper is her tormentor. She had visited the zoo and seen animals who were
brutalized and ripped out of context and she obviously saw an appropriate symbol
for her own pain.
The Zoo Story, a play by
Edward Albee is not evidently about a zoo, but it’s called that because the
protagonist comes on to the stage and says he’s just been to the zoo, then all
this weird stuff happens. The other guy keeps asking what happened at the zoo
and he never really answers, so we have to infer that he had a bad experience
that has led him to behave very aggressively and dysfunctionally. The zoo is
used that way in a lot of the works that I’ve studied. Authors don’t usually
write whole novels about zoos; they are used as a means to an end because it’s
such a rich, imagistic bundle of things. They tend to be very dark, depressing
novels in which terrible things happens to animals and to people.
You say that although
you sympathize with the animal rights perspective, what you are concerned with
is what zoos say about people. What do you think zoos say about people?
I think they say that
we are lazy, that we have this sense of entitlement, that we want to see all
these animals but we don’t want to travel far to see them. We want them arranged
for our convenience in the zoo. People seem to think that we have this right to
rip up little pieces of the planet with animals and creatures and landscape and
arrange them into this clearly sadistic, ugly cement and metal compound. We
think of ourselves as enlightened, democratic Americans and that we would never
have this imperialistic sense of entitlement.
When the zoo was invented
in 1826, the British wanted to show themselves to be the master of the entire
world and every animal from every corner of the world was gathered there in the
heart of the Empire. I think Americans are doing the same kinds of things now.
Zoos confirm that we have this cruel, heedless, imperialistic kind of attitude.
This is what I mean when I say it embarrasses me to see these people walking
around the zoo, standing in front of the cage.
Why do zoos represent
what you describe as a "cultural danger"?
It’s really about the
lack of ecological enlightenment. Zoos are always canny about giving the public
what they want, shifting with the wind, positioning themselves to hook up with
the latest fads and beliefs. One of the things zoos are doing very prominently
now is saying that they are very "green" places, where you come to learn about
your world and the other animals and ecological consciousness. What is dangerous
about this is that when a person goes to the zoo, especially a child, they are
getting exactly the opposite message of what they should be getting. The lesson
we really need to learn is that we are very dangerous to the ecosystem. There
are a lot of disturbing messages that we should be getting in order to reform
our sensibilities. Instead, when people go to the zoo, the cultural lesson they
get is: "just by coming to the zoo, you’re obviously so very interested in the
animal world. You’re really doing good by paying your admission fee to help save
these cute furry creatures." So it palliates people’s guilt—never mind that an
ugly animal might be much more important to the ecological chain of events.
There’s a perverted
Ark sensibility. The difference
being that in the Genesis story the animals were protected for 40 days and then
put back into their habitat, whereas here there’s no place to put them back. I
think we appropriate a lot of this sort of Noah imagery: God is showing his
favor on us by giving us all these animals and the wonderful technology and
science to sustain these animals and to capture them and rip them out from
wherever they belong in the world and bring them over here. I think that the
danger of zoos has to do with the context in which we see them and the sense of
entitlement we as Americans feel—that we deserve to have these animals, to see
every animal in the world. We want to see a rhino and a panda bear and a
giraffe, though the reality of these animals’ lives is that you would never
ordinarily see them.
You also say that zoos
represent a "deadening of our sensibilities."
I’ve read some 16th
and 17th century accounts of explorers who travel half- way around the world to
see a rhinoceros and it would be for them just the most amazing thing. They
would write about it and other people would read about it and there was this
sense of tremendous imaginative exuberance in the experience of this amazing
animal that they had never seen before. I don’t think people have that anymore.
They just think: "Rhino? Oh yeah, great. I already saw a rhino last month at the
other zoo." And this is what I mean by culturally dull and deadening the
sensibilities. Animals have this inherent essence that is drugged out of them
when they are prisoners in a zoo and any potential appreciation for them is
drugged out of people when we see the animals as lowly subaltern slaves—smelly
prisoners with ratty hides who are chewing at their own body. The defense of
zoos is always "well, otherwise my kid will never see a giraffe." They’re not
seeing a giraffe, they’re not seeing an animal. People may half-heartedly
attempt to look into the eyes of an animal, but in a few seconds they move on to
the next cage, and meanwhile the animal is just stuck there.
In two novels—Turtle
Diary by Russell Hoban and
Setting Free the Bears
by John Irving—the spectators go to the zoo and decide that the only ethical
response to what they see as a horrific situation is to physically free the
animals; to take the turtles back to the ocean and let the bears out of the
cage. Although in real life that’s not literally or biologically realistic, as
an idealistic, fictitious, extremist gesture it struck me as very inspirational.
What those activist heroes are doing is freeing the animals within fiction. In a
metaphoric equivalent, there are ways in which all of us can symbolically free
the animals, basically by not going to zoos in the first place but also by
imagining them free and getting used to not thinking of them in cages.
Matter of Design
Interview with Lee Ehmke
Ehmke is the Director of Facilities and Planning at the Bronx Zoo. Formerly an
environmental law practitioner for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Ehmke
turned his energies to study environmental design and, in 1988, joined the Bronx
Zoo staff. Ehmke was lead designer and project manager of the "Congo Gorilla
Forest" exhibit, which opened at the Zoo last year. He also serves as a
consultant to parks and zoos abroad. Ehmke took time out to speak to
about his work and some philosophical zoo issues.
What is the general
philosophy behind the design of the exhibits at the
The general philosophy behind
the designs—here as in many other zoos—is to create spaces that serve the
biological and psychological needs of the animals. At the same time we
understand that zoos are for people; they introduce people to animals and get
them to care about them. The animals are representatives of habitats and where
they live in the wild.
What efforts are made
to provide the animals with a sense of natural habitat?
habitats there are two levels. Are we meeting the needs of the animals? How much
room does an animal need? We have to take into account spatial relationships. Do
they need vertical space to climb? Do they like or dislike water? Are they
social or solitary animals?
The educational and
interpretive level is for the public and creates an illusion of spaces being
like their natural habitat. The animals don’t necessarily need things to look
real—many of their needs can be satisfied without looking like the real thing.
We do a lot of research on animals in nature to find out what they need. For
example, in the Congo Rainforest exhibit there are 50-plus models of tree
species. If we’d put in jungle gyms, it would be essentially the same thing to
How does education
factor specifically into the exhibits?
Almost everything we
do has two educational components. First is affective. The feeling of the space
conveys the message that animals are part of a habitat. We want people to feel
good. The second component is cognitive—we use every method we can think of.
With the development of multimedia, there are more ways to deliver information,
with graphics, things people can touch and be interactive with.
We keep messages short
and to the point. Our emphasis is on children, many of whom come from the inner
city. But demographically, our audience is mostly adults. We are aware that we
have a diverse audience and that we need to layer information. So there’s a
primary, simple message and then people who want to learn more can probe deeper.
We don’t want the delivery mechanism to overwhelm people. In
Congo, for example, the graphic signage is kept to a minimum so that you get the
feeling that you’re in the forest and it doesn’t take away from seeing the
A study shows that people
spend between 15 to 30 seconds in front of a display. Of course, people spend
more time if there is more than one species or some activity, and if there are
larger spaces people have to look longer to see the animals
Which animals are the
most popular with visitors?
The gorillas of
course. Also bears, sea lions and big cats. The Reptile House is most popular
because it’s located in the center of the zoo and is the most heavily visited.
What is the one thing
that you hope people will walk away with after looking at a display?
There isn’t just one
thing that we hope people will think. "Isn’t that animal great or amazing or
beautiful!" would be one thing. We want people to understand that animals and
their habitat are inextricably linked, that you can’t have one without the
other. If you’re going to have gorillas in the world, you need to have
Could you tell us
about the international projects that you are involved with?
In African urban
Nairobi and Entebbe, very few
people have the ability to experience their native wildlife. They need money and
cars to get to the game reserves and parks. In Nairobi there is a major park
right outside the city. It’s like having Yellowstone National Park right outside
New York City, but with almost no public access to it. There is an orphanage for
abandoned animals nearby (kind of a roadside zoo) which was most popular with
Kenyans because of its location. With the Nairobi Safari Walk, we created
opportunities for people to walk into the park and see animals moving around.
There are classrooms for children to learn about the environment and then see
the animals. We are presenting to what is probably our most important audience,
giving a chance for them to experience and appreciate their local wildlife. It’s
the same thing with the Uganda Wildlife Center in Entebbe, which has been
Local grassroots support
for wildlife conservation happens through awareness. Most people in
Africa haven’t ever seen a lion,
for example; and for many people, their interaction with wildlife is negative
[i.e., crop destruction or attacks]. These projects encourage positive
interaction between local residents and their wildlife.
What purpose would you
say zoos serve in general?
The basic role is to
give people a positive, close-up encounter with animals, with education and
ethics shaping their experience. Some zoos are overstating their activity with
breeding programs. The real issues are the animals in the wild and the active
management of endangered species. Another role zoos can serve is as a resource
for breeding and research for possible reintroduction to the wild. The science
is important—developing the knowledge base to be used for animal care and
conservation. The reality is that most animals in the wild are in small enclaves
surrounded by people. As a species we have inserted ourselves into every corner
of the planet; our role as stewards is to manage and intervene in a positive way
to make sure that species are maintained in the wild.
What would you say to
people who feel that animals shouldn’t be kept captive at all, that no matter
what efforts are made, they are still captive, which is an unnatural existence
for wild animals? Do you sympathize with this point of view?
I sympathize to an
extent. You could make an argument for individual animals. In a well-designed
captive environment, an animal’s life in a zoo situation is easier and more
comfortable—far less stressful, painful, short and brutish than in the wild.
Most animals in the wild don’t die of old age. The idea of "free as a bird" is a
misnomer because all animals are confined by natural restraints [i.e., human
encroachment, water, desert, etc.].
I have great sympathy for
animals that are mistreated and abused. A small number of zoos are members of
the self-regulating AZA [American Zoo and Aquarium Association]. Most captive
animal collections probably shouldn’t exist. I would support legislation to
regulate them or phase them out of existence. It is unfortunate that that brush
tars the good work that many zoos are doing. Ninety nine percent of people who
work in zoos do so because they love animals and they work hard to alleviate
Do you consider
yourself to be an animal advocate?
Sure, that’s what we
do here. We advocate for animals as a species rather than as individuals. For
example, our biggest concern would be "Will there be lions in the next 100
years?" rather than caring for one individual lion—looking at the bigger
picture, a species as a whole.
Do you feel that there
are any key issues that people are not "getting" when they criticize zoos?
Some people don’t get
the notion that in order to preserve a species the rights of individual animals
may have to be compromised or secondary. People may not understand how natural
habitat works. For example, managing the population of the white-tailed deer in
the Northeast: should it be through selective culling or moving them to
sanctuaries? One could throw a natural ecosystem out of whack. A lack of
scientific understanding of natural systems can overwhelm their view of the
Do you see any common
issues where people who support zoos and people who disapprove of them can come
We’re all in groups
to support animal rights because we love animals. This differentiates us from
those who don’t. Right there we have a commonality. We share a common sense
about how animals should be treated—responsibly, with fairness and kindness.
There is common ground,
but people can take sides in rhetorical arguments. I encourage animal rights
activists to learn about the ecological and scientific background; then [they
can] evaluate whether a concern for action hinders or helps animals as a
Can you tell us about
your involvement with the reintroduction of the California condor to the wild?
In the late 1970s-80s
there were just 27 condors left in the wild. Zoos decided to bring the condors
into captivity in order to breed a population. Through management and
monitoring, they have been successfully reintroduced into the wild in
California and some parts of
Colorado—their natural habitat. Their tendency to sit on powerlines were killing
them off, and in captivity they were trained by using "mock" powerlines to teach
them that they are "bad."
We are now at the point
where we are managing nature and we have to learn to do it well. The condors are
a classic example of a successful reintroduction program, but typically, there
is no "wild" left to return animals to.
Anything else you’d
like to convey to our readers?
Come see what we do.
You may be surprised. It’s still a showplace for people but with a much broader
purpose. Zoos used to be about human domination and power over animals. Now we
are getting people to appreciate animals on their own terms.
Zoos: Myth and Reality
By Rob Laidlaw
recent years, zoos have become the target of intense public scrutiny and
criticism. In response, many have tried to repackage themselves as institutions
devoted to wildlife conservation, public education and animal welfare. But most
zoos fail to live up to their own propaganda and vast numbers of zoo animals
continue to endure lives of misery and deprivation.
Nearly every zoo, from
the smallest amateur operation to the largest professional facilities, claims to
be making important contributions to conservation, usually through participation
in endangered species captive propagation initiatives and public education
programming. The zoo world buzzword of the moment is "conservation."
Yet, with an estimated
10,000 organized zoos worldwide, representing tens of thousands of human workers
and billions of dollars in operating budgets, only a tiny percentage allocate
the resources necessary to participate in captive propagation initiatives, and
fewer still provide any real support for the in situ protection of wildlife and
their natural habitat.
So far, the record on
reintroductions to the wild is dismal. Only 16 species have established
self-sustaining populations in the wild as a result of captive breeding efforts,
and most of those programs were initiated by government wildlife agencies—not
zoos. The contribution of zoos in this regard has been minimal, and often
involves supplementing existing wild populations with a small number of
captive-born individuals who are ill-prepared for life in the wild.
As the futility of
captive breeding as a major conservation tool becomes evident to those in the
industry, many zoos are now turning to education to justify themselves. Yet, zoo
claims that they teach visitors about wildlife conservation and habitat
protection, and their contention that they motivate members of the public to
become directly involved in wildlife conservation work, doesn’t stand up to
scrutiny. The truth is that scant empirical evidence exists to prove that the
primary vehicle for education in most zoos—the animal in the cage—actually
teaches anyone anything. In fact, viewing animals in cages may be
counterproductive educationally by conveying the wrong kinds of messages to the
public. Also, the legions of conservationists that zoos should have produced, if
their claims were true, have never materialized.
But there is one
issue about which there appears to be widespread agreementæat least in
principle. So long as wild animals are kept in captivity, they ought to be
Studies have shown that
animals can suffer physically, mentally and emotionally. For this reason,
captive environments must be complex enough to compensate for the lack of
natural freedom and choice, and they must facilitate expression of natural
movement and behavior patterns. This principle has been widely espoused by the
modern zoo community in various articles, books and television documentaries.
Yet despite the best of
intentions or claims, most animals in zoos in
America are still consigned to lead miserable lives in undersized, impoverished
enclosures, both old and new, that fail to meet their biological and behavioral
needs. Many in the zoo industry will bristle at this statement and point to
numerous improvements in the zoo field. They’ll claim they’ve shifted from
menagerie-style entertainment centers where animals were displayed in barred,
sterile, biologically irrelevant cages, to kinder, gentler, more
scientifically-based kinds of institutions.
But many of the
"advances" in zoo animal housing and husbandry are superficial and provide
little benefit to the animals. For example, the many new, heavily promoted,
Arctic "art deco," polar bear exhibits that are springing up in zoos across the
continent consistently ignore the natural biology and behavior of these animals.
The artificial rockwork and hard floor surfaces typically resemble a Flintstones
movie set more than the natural Arctic ice and tundra habitat of polar bears.
These exhibits are made for the public and dupe them into believing things are
getting better. What they really achieve is more misery and deprivation.
In addition, many new
exhibits are hardly larger than the sterile, barred cages of days gone by. And
one look at the prison-like, off-display holding and service areas in most zoos,
where many animals spend a good portion of their lives, is proof of the
hypocrisy of zoo claims that things are better for the animals than they were in
Behind the Invisible
If not all is well
behind the invisible bars of North America’s more luxurious zoos, a more
transparent problem is found in the hundreds of substandard roadside zoos that
dot the continent. These amateurish operations fall far below any professional
standard and do nothing but cause misery and death to thousands of animals.
My own investigations
have revealed animals in visible distress lying unprotected from the full glare
of the hot summer sun; primates in barren cages with no opportunity to climb;
groups of black bears begging for marshmallows as they sit in stagnant moats of
excrement-filled water, scarred and wounded from fighting; nocturnal animals
kept without shade or privacy; animals without water; and the list goes on and
Many zoos, including
those that meet industry guidelines, also annually produce a predictable surplus
in animals that often end up in the hands of private collectors, animal
auctions, circuses and novelty acts, substandard zoos, and even "canned hunt"
operations where they’re shot as trophies [see Green interview].
A look at compliance with
the zoo industry’s own standards (which in the author’s view do not necessarily
constitute adequate standards) demonstrates how bad the situation really is. Of
the estimated 200 public display facilities in
only 26—slightly more than 10 percent—have been deemed to meet the standards of
the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).
In the U.S., out of the
1,800-2,000 licensed exhibitors of wild animals (which includes biomedical
research institutions, breeding facilities, small exhibitors, travelling shows,
educational programs using live animals, zoos and aquariums), about 175 are
accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), equivalent to
less than 10 percent of all facilities.
Times are changing,
with them, public attitudes. Increasingly, members of the public find the
confinement of animals in substandard conditions offensive. Zoos across the
continent are feeling the pressure. They have to accept that if wild animals are
to be kept in captivity, their needs must be met.
Are there good captive
environments where the biological and behavioral needs of animals are being
satisfied? The answer is yes. A recent Zoocheck
survey of black bear and gray wolf facilities in North America revealed a number
of outstanding exhibits where the animals displayed an extensive range of
natural movements and behaviors. But they are few and far between.
Can zoos make a useful
contribution to conservation and education? Again, the answer is yes. The
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey Zoo) in the
example, clearly shows that zoos can become leaders in conservation education
and wildlife protection. But few actually do.
I can’t understand why
the more responsible segments of the zoo industry have not come to their senses
and acknowledged the obvious—the present state of zoos is untenable. Either zoos
can voluntarily adopt humane policies and practices, push for the closure of
substandard facilities, and participate in advocating for laws to help wildlife,
or they can be dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium. It’s their
is Executive Director of Zoocheck Canada, which he helped establish in 1988. He
is a specialist in captive wildlife issues and has conducted close to 1,000 zoo,
circus and wildlife display inspections throughout
Canada and the U.S.
To learn more, visit
www.zoocheck.com or call (416) 285-1744.
The World’s Most Dangerous Species -
By Catherine Clyne
The American Zoo and
Aquarium Association, the professional organization of zoos, claims that in 1998
"over 134 million people visited member institutions; more than attend all
professional football, baseball, and basketball games combined." Whether you
believe the numbers or not, one must concede that millions of people visit
zoos—they bring their families, visit favorite animals, go on dates, or
whatever. Some learn about the animals, others may go for amusement, some a
combination of both, still others go to "commune" with fellow creatures.
Regardless of what they get out of it, people visit zoos because they’re
interested in the animals. If asked, most people will likely say that they
genuinely love the animals. Many will also say that they believe they are
helping wild animals in some way by visiting the zoo.
Opponents of zoos argue that no matter which way you look at it, the fact
remains that zoo animals are incarcerated—against their will—and such an
existence is not justifiable. By virtue of being captive, zoo animals, they
point out, do no resemble their relatives in the wild. Moreover, they warn that
by taking our families to zoos we are telling our children that it’s natural to
incarcerate creatures for our pleasure, and by doing so, we are sending the
message to zoos that we support the status quo.
Supporters of zoos say that they love the animals too, and that’s why they visit
or work there. In AZA accredited zoos, they point out, the animals are well
taken care. Everyone admits to the entertainment factor of zoos, but they argue
that zoos have changed dramatically. Today’s zoos, they say, educate the public
about animals and their natural habitat. More and more, zoos support the
conservation of wild habitat by sponsoring projects—training of zoo and park
personnel, educational programs for locals, surveys of animal populations and
offering professional consultation. In turn, visitors are informed of these
projects, making a tangible connection to the endangered areas in the world
where zoo animals originally come from.
When I was a kid, my parents took the family on trips and the itinerary
invariably included a visit to the zoo. Mostly, I loved seeing all of the
animals. The Tokyo Zoo at Ueno Park
was the last one that I visited. Tokyo has an extremely concentrated human
population and, in the early 1980s, the Ueno Zoo reflected this scarcity of
space (and probably still does). The big cats were the most disturbing: crammed
into tiny metal cages, most paced back and forth in their limited space, looking
Mohandas Gandhi observed that our treatment of animals is a reflection of our
society. Zoos are not a new phenomenon. Ancient Egyptians kept menageries with
exotic creatures from foreign lands. As a symbol of power and virility, male
royal figures were depicted in decorative art hunting exotic or even captive
animals (early canned hunts one might say). The modern zoo is a continuation of
this legacy of imperialism, established by the British empire to amuse the
public and to symbolize world domination. Modern zoos now occupy a strange
My recent visit to the Bronx Zoo was the first time that I had set foot in a zoo
in years. I went with as open a mind as anyone could have. Indeed, zoos have
changed a great deal—there is a huge effort to educate and there is more of a
connection between the animals and where they live in the wild. But it was still
disturbing. I make an effort not to be biased toward a particular species
because I feel that all creatures are worthy and in need of concern, but because
we are primates and they are so like us, it was the gorillas who had the most
profound impact. Yes, in the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, there is open space
with grass and some trees, and a few areas where they can get some privacy. But
in the wild, gorillas range over vast amounts of territory, spending most of
their time foraging for food.
Before entering the area where the gorillas are, there is an auditorium where a
short film is shown. The perilous existence of wild gorillas is well portrayed,
sending a message of conservation and environmentalism. At the film’s end, the
screen went up and...there were two gorillas sitting beyond, staring back at us
through glass. It was quite unsettling because they obviously knew the
routine—they were waiting to check out the next batch of visitors.
In the Congo Forest,
the gorillas generally looked bored; their main stimulation seemed to be the
parade of people gawking at them. Nearly all of the gorillas faced the glass.
Some displayed what I would guess is not typical gorilla behavior. One sat with
her fingers in her ears—a gesture that I sympathized with, myself being
bombarded by the cacophony from some of the educational gizmos that kids were
interacting with. I wondered if they heard that noise all day and whether it was
annoying and if they tuned it out. Another lay up against the glass. She knew
just how to manipulate people to pay attention to her, occasionally blowing a
kiss to the delight of spectators.
What constantly went through my mind was: what does a zoo need 22 captive
gorillas for? They are the "charismatic megafauna", the animals that draw the
crowds in. Most displays have just a few samples of a species, usually two of
each. If zoo animals serve as "ambassadors" of their species, as some zoos say,
what justifies incarcerating nearly two dozen gorillas? Are they the gorilla
diplomatic mission to the U.N.?
In the old ape house at the Bronx Zoo, there used to be a caption that read
something like "The world’s most dangerous species" and by it was a mirror. Not
what you’d expect from a display created in the 1950s. At the end of today’s
there is a panel depicting the primate family tree. In the African Ape branch,
there are pictures of each species including a space for Homo Sapiens, above
which is a small mirror indicating our evolutionary kinship. A poignant but very
When asked if zoos made efforts to educate the public about how our consumption
patterns directly affect the wild habitats of the megafauna we admire, the
response was basically, that zoos convey as much information as possible, but
they don’t want to overwhelm; after all, visitors come to be entertained. It is
ridiculous to think that the public can’t handle being educated about the
responsibility that is ours.
Though it may be only natural for people to shy away when bombarded with "bad"
news, the important message is getting lost in the fetal haze of trivia and
minutia. If people in affluent nations can’t pay attention to what our
over-consumptive habits are doing to the rest of the world and take
responsibility, it’s only a matter of time before disaster forces us to finally
pay attention. With approximately 50,000 species disappearing each year, we
can’t afford to be indifferent much longer.
Animals rights advocates know this and zoo supporters know this.
Environmentalists and most vegetarians all know this. Here is our common ground.
We can all work together to bring a message straight to the millions of adults,
teens and children who visit zoos every year. Zoos aren’t going anywhere soon,
but our animals, environment and fellow people are, and we can choose to use the
means that are available to work to change the situation for the better. After
all, we’re all in this because we care about the animals.
December 26, 2013
World's cruellest zoo: Shackled elephants, starving camels, 150 pelicans crammed
into one cage - and a death toll that rises daily
The heartbreak of the Surabaya animals. It still has not been shut down!! Keep
the pressure on.
The cruelty of captivity. A life of confinement and
profound despondency has become the ultimate reality of zoo animals depriving
them of their natural habitats, needs, and freedom. From psychological disorders
to poor health and reduced life spans, zoo animals are at the mercy of
incompetent managements, unsuitable living conditions, abuses, and other
mistreatment. Boycott cruelty!
Read more on our
& Ethics pages
Crisis - PASA Pan
African Sanctuary Alliance
“All animals, including
humans, have a right to lives of dignity and respect, without forced
intrusions.” Marc Bekoff
That the awful wrongs and sufferings
forced upon the innocent, helpless, faithful animal race form the blackest
chapter in the whole world's history. R. Edward Freeman