Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters
Why zoos are in crisis
Dec. 15, 2009 Margaret Wente The Globe and Mail
Three weeks ago, Tara, the matriarch of the fast-dwindling elephant herd at the Toronto Zoo, was found dying in her enclosure. Staff tried to get her back on her feet, but she never got up. She was 41.
Zoo-raised elephants don't do very well. They're prone to arthritis, lameness, tuberculosis, herpes, infanticide, behavioural disturbances, obesity and infertility. They die younger than wild elephants, and are not self-sustaining in captivity. “Bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability,” says Georgia Mason, an expert on animal behaviour at the University of Guelph.
At the Edmonton Valley Zoo, activists are demanding that the lone remaining elephant, Lucy, be sent somewhere she can have company. Her companion, Samantha, was shipped off to a breeding program in 2007. Elephants are highly social and suffer in isolation. Lucy also has arthritis and respiratory problems.
The Calgary Zoo has problems too. Accidents, illness and human error have recently killed off a capybara (a type of large rodent), 41 cownose rays, two baby elephants, a hippopotamus and some gorillas. Although the director says these incidents are unrelated, outside experts have been called in to investigate.
The trouble with zoos is as old as zoos themselves. What's good for the box office isn't always good for the animals. In the age of Animal Planet and heightened awareness over animal welfare, it's time to ask: What are zoos good for any more?
The first public zoo was at Paris's Jardin des Plantes, founded in 1793. In the early days, zoos aimed to have as many specimens as possible, because there was no other way for ordinary people to see them. Until 50 years ago, most zoos were menageries, with many species crammed into small spaces. The science of animal behaviour changed that.
Now, zoos are designed to show animals in something resembling their natural habitat. They developed agendas to promote conservation and protect endangered species. They set up international programs to breed captive lions, tigers and elephants, so they wouldn't have to take replacements from the wild. They also got incredibly expensive to run.
“We created these monsters, and so where do we find the operating money?” asks Peter Karsten, who ran the Calgary Zoo in the 1970s and '80s.
All zoos rely on public subsidies, and all face increasing competition for the public's dollars. They are caught between warring philosophies and factions. On one side are business types, many zookeepers and, in Toronto's case, city councillors, who believe elephants, tigers and borrowed Chinese pandas are essential to attract crowds and revenue. On the other side are scientists and animal activists who point out that despite our best efforts, certain species probably will never thrive in zoos.
“Why would you build a zoo in a northern climate to exhibit tropical animals?” asks Mr. Karsten. When he ran the Calgary Zoo, he got rid of the costly and out-of-place tigers, baboons and elephants in order to focus on cold-climate and native species, which were also cheaper to maintain. After he left, the exotica were brought back. In 2004, an infant elephant was rejected by her mother and died of an overwhelming infection; in 2007, another elephant died of a serious virus.
The Toronto Zoo has also faced turmoil at the top. Its board is dominated by city councillors, who are not known for their animal expertise or their fiscal prudence. (They have refused the city's request for across-the-board budget cuts.) Board chair Raymond Cho says he's determined to rebuild the elephant exhibit, which is now down to three elderly females.
Mr. Karsten doesn't think that's such a good idea. “Values change,” he says. “The bar is higher now, and the public is more informed.” We now know that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling, and that the emotional attachments they form with one another may rival our own. They don't belong in zoos any more than we do.
December 9, 2016 What’s killing the animals at the Calgary Zoo?
Comment: Many consider zoos to be prisons for animals and as society’s attitudes evolve, the ethical debate has intensified, with more and more people calling for the closure of these exhibits. Animal welfare and exploitation is a hot topic nowadays. It certainly doesn’t seem to be in the best interests of the animals to be held captive and news stories like this has the public staying away and demanding politicians take a leadership role on this issue.
Facts About Zoos -
claim that they are "arks" which can preserve species whose habitat has been
destroyed, or which were wiped out in the wild for other reasons (such as
hunting). They suggest that they can maintain the species in captivity until
the cause of the creature's extirpation is remedied, and then successfully
re-introduce the animals to the wild, resulting in a healthy, self-sustaining
population. While many zoos claim to be concerned for the general well-being of
the animals who live within their confines, zoos remain little more than prisons
for those who have committed no crime except that of being of the wrong species.
Zoos tell us and our children that it is acceptable to keep animals in
captivity, leading lives of boredom in settings that bear almost no resemblance
to their natural homes. But modern zoos tell us that all this is important for
the preservation of species. Zoos often defend their existence against
challenges from the Animal Rights movement on these grounds.
like marine mammals, many bird species and so on, are extremely difficult to
breed in captivity. Pandas, which have been the sustained focus of captive
breeding efforts for several decades in zoos around the world, are notoriously
difficult to breed in captivity. With such species, the zoos, by taking animals
from the wild to supply their breeding programs, constitute a net drain on wild
Even if these
problems can be overcome, there are still difficulties with the process of
re-introduction. Problems such as human imprinting, the need to teach animals
to fly, hunt, build dens, and raise their young are serious obstacles, and must
be solved individually for each species. There is a small limit to the number
of species the global network of zoos can preserve under even the most
optimistic assumptions. Profound constraints are imposed by the lack of space
in zoos, their limited financial resources, and the requirement that viable gene
pools of each species be preserved. Few zoos, for instance, ever keep more than
two individuals of large mammal species. The need to preserve scores or
hundreds of a particular species would be beyond the resources of even the
largest zoos, and even the whole world zoo community would be hard-pressed to
preserve even a few dozen species in this manner.
Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos
By: Derrick Jensen (2007)
counter most books being written about zoos that present zoos favorably, never
questioning their very existence, activist Jenkins and photographer Karen
Tweedy-Holmes produce their examination of what zoos are and what their effect
is on their animal inmates and the human animals who observe them. Jensen writes
in a deliberately polemical style, challenging the reader with language that is
in turn sarcastic and poetic but always urgent and angry. A zoo is a nightmare
taking shape in concrete and steel. Tweedy-Holmes' photos, in stark black and
white, are views of animals in obvious incarceration--bars or mesh often obscure
the view; cement-formed pools, rocks, ledges, or walls predominate; doors,
walls, and buildings hint at unnatural enclosures; and the animals are all
obviously captive. Captions give the species and where they are found in the
wild, though not which zoo is illustrated (a photographer's note at the end
lists them). A good choice for presenting the other side in the moral debate
about zoos. Nancy Bent
"This sensitive and thought-provoking volume by ecological activist and author
Jensen (A Language Older Than Words) and photographer Tweedy-Holmes raises more
questions than it answers but compels nonetheless. Are we our brother's keeper?
And, if so, just who (or what) is our brother? The book is not about conditions
in which animals are held captive; instead, it explores the question of why
animals are held captive at all as Jensen examines the who, what, and why of
animal captivity, balancing the historical facts with his own strong personal
experiences and beliefs. There is little tolerance for differing views, and in
this aspect, this work fits the publisher's aim of "creating unique voices on
behalf of those who are unseen, ignored or disregarded by society." Its strength
and objectivity comes from Tweedy-Holmes's photographs that depict animals as
contained, confined, and imprisoned. Shot at some of the finest zoos in the
world, these pictures do not exhibit or exploit an animal's sufferings or even
display them in degrading conditions. Tweedy-Holmes simply allows viewers to
form their own conclusions. A beautifully constructed if polemical work, this
text is recommended for large public and academic animal rights collections." --
From the Publisher
This book was turned down by numerous commercial publishers. Because we have all been taught for decades--for our entire lifetimes--that zoos are good and necessary places, making a case otherwise is not a popular, or "marketable," stand. And so it falls to a small, non-profit organization to send this voice out into the world.
Although many of the animals in this book are mammals--those animals in whom, looking into their eyes, we can recognize suffering--it bears remembering that zoos hold captive all manner of species, and that each and every one of these animals suffers in his or her own unique way, even if we can't readily see it.
And, although many zoos would tell us that their "habitats" for the animals have been greatly improved throughout the years, and that some of the photos in this book are not reflective of that, know that there are zoos and aquariums from one end of this country to the other (and in other countries) with horrible conditions, holding animals who suffer tremendously. In any case, the only important question is not the quality of the conditions in which they are held captive, but whether they should be held captive at all.
For more information on the massive underground trade in "exotic" animals, we recommend the amazing book, Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, by Alan Green, published by the Center for Public Integrity. You will never look at zoos in the same way again.
We send you our thanks for considering Thought to Exist in the Wild. We are working to distribute it widely, and to get it on the shelves of public and university libraries where inquiring minds can be presented with an alternative view of zoos.
September 30, 2013 Goodbye Toronto Zoo elephants
October 20, 2013 Toronto Zoo elephants arrive at California sanctuary
December 22, 2015 PETA accuses Bowmanville Zoo owner of abusing Siberian tiger
February 11, 2014 They Shoot Giraffes Don't They? Why Marius's Death Is No Surprise
Ringling Brothers Will Stand Trial for Elephant Abuse; Bolivia bans use of animals in circuses, UK bill stalls; CA cities take action, bullhooks banned, Ringling to end elephant acts 2018; date's moved ahead to 2016