Zoological Parks: Educators? Conservationists? Living Museums? Entertainers?
Recent events at zoological parks around the world piqued my curiosity (yet again) in how these institutions actually serve as educators, contribute to the conservation of endangered species in the wild and how the public engages with and views the parks.
What are the purposes of zoological parks? Are they public educators? Are they conservationists? Are they living museums: future keepers of a wild past? Or are they what a consensus of our 2014 big cat conservation awareness survey revealed: another form of entertainment?
The results of our 2014 survey were, in some respects, disappointing but not unexpected. Most of the individuals ranked “education” as a purpose of zoos last. Most zoo visitors noted they did not learn anything they didn’t already know; some read the posters or placards stationed at various exhibits; some asked questions if staff was present like the physical differences among the big cats. All noted that it was a nice way to spend a day with their children but most were running from one animal exhibit to the next so any real “learning” experience is lost. Some did note that the zoos have come a long way from the old concrete cages; while others still see them as “animal prisons,” and suggest that zoos are sending the wrong message to children that animals are only here for our utility; our amusement and yet nonetheless they want their children to be able to “see” tigers, lions, leopards, and cheetahs.
But do we really need to actually “see” the big cats held in zoos or performing unnatural tricks to receive a piece of meat skewed to the end of a stick, in order to appreciate and understand their physical nature? Their role in our ecological system? Or the dire straits of their shrinking wild populations and habitats? We learn about history in school, but we don’t go back to “preserved moments in time” in order to understand history and the evolution of countries, peoples, cultures and governments. Likewise, we may in fact know more about species that no longer exist, than we do about living species struggling to survive in the wild. (Just ask any child what they know about Tyrannosaurus Rex and they will recite their last science paper to you!)
We don’t need to “see” in order to understand.
The dark side of zoological parks that most people are not aware of is the connection of captive wildcats with their wild comrades and the wildcat commercial trade industry. Cleverly created marketing decoys milled to appease the public includes: conservation programs including captive breeding for “species survival” touting genetic diversity for “reintroduction schemes” and the inevitable surplus animals all contribute to the stream of commerce in legal and illegal trade of live animals, deceased animals, their parts and products.
For example, recently a U.S. zoo applied for a permit to export two endangered “captive bred” Clouded leopards to a questionable facility being established in South America. The Clouded leopards: a male and female were bred as part of the “Species Survival Program” (SSP) a program that was created and is managed under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to make sure that the cats’ bloodlines are “pure.” However, even though recommendations are made by the AZA SSP with regard to which cats should be bred together to ensure genetic diversity, apparently there is still a problem with surplus animals. “Surplus animals” means a particular bloodline is fully represented and no current breeding with these particular cats should be conducted. Yet it occurs nonetheless. This apparently is the case with this particular zoo. Their Clouded leopards are considered “surplus” and the zoo is seeking an export permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act in order to help establish a questionable facility in South America to begin breeding captive Clouded leopards. This is precisely how wildcats bred in captivity, even under a “specialized managed program” end up in the “stream of commerce.” If the zoo is granted their permit, these Clouded leopards will leave the U.S., never to return, and will be bred in South America to populate other commercial venues. And by the way, neither U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has any oversight authority once the cats leave the U.S. it is up to the governing authorities in the destination country to oversee their welfare.
Did You Know? Clouded leopards inhabit evergreen tropical rainforests, grass land, scrub lands, and mangrove swamps, from the foothills of the Himalayas through Southeast Asia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Recent studies show the Clouded leopards of Sumatra and Borneo are genetically different than the mainland cats and may be classified as a separate species Neofelis diardi. Their population is declining due to habitat and prey loss and human persecution. Clouded Leopards are illegally hunted for their pelts; their bones are used for Asian medicinal purposes and their meat is a delicacy for the affluent Asians and tourists. Clouded leopards are listed as endangered under the ESA.*
So we breed them in captivity at a U.S. zoo which is permitted under the Endangered Species Act if the facility is granted a captive-bred wildlife permit with the “demonstrated” purpose to “promote survival of the species” in the wild, and under the presumed watchful eye of the AZA and USDA only to ship them off to South America because they were “over-bred? What?
What is the role of the AZA and the USDA? The AZA provides an “accreditation” standard for zoos. What does this mean? Another marketing tool? According to the AZA accreditation is: “an official recognition and approval of a zoo or aquarium by a group of experts. These experts, called the AZA Accreditation Commission, carefully examine each zoo or aquarium that applies for AZA membership.” AZA also notes it creates “a sense” of “public trust” by providing a “publicly recognized badge signifying excellence in, and commitment to, “such things” as animal care, conservation and education and distinguishes AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums from “roadside zoos.” A few benefits: “increases eligibility for grants; cuts red tape: exempts institutions from certain government requirements, primarily at the state level.” Most of the benefits however are focused on professional staff development. (See AZA What is Accreditation)
The AZA accreditation process is “voluntary” and is considered to be a “membership.” AZA accreditation is not required to operate a zoo facility so ultimately it is a marketing tool and is tied to receiving funding.
The USDA on the other hand regulates and enforces the Animal Welfare Act. Part of their duty is to ensure “minimum standards of care” for animal exhibitors. But more often than not, these exhibitors are unable to even meet the minimum standards of care for their animals and yet they are allowed to keep them and continue their business activities.
The bottom line? Money. In fact it is all about the money. Keep in mind as I wrestle with these ideological theories that all zoos, yes all zoos whether public or private are businesses and need to generate income but how much of that income is being spent on wild conservation initiatives or more to the point the wildcats held in the zoos?
Most of our 2014 survey commenters said that their experiences in visiting zoos, circuses, and sanctuaries did not compel them to donate to the facilities or support organizations working to protect wild animals and their habitats. And noted their spending for the day whether it was for transportation, admission fees, food, parking, and souvenirs they considered that outlay to be their “contribution,” as some stated visiting these venues is “very expensive.”
In the end, our survey takers ranked zoos as entertainment or amusement parks along with shows such as circuses or Sea World. Some however, did note that zoos are better than “roadside” attractions and certain sanctuaries that showcase their cats in small cages and are visibly neglected. And yes, the USDA oversees these facilities as well. According to the AZA, “Fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited!”
It was extremely frustrating to see the news about a disturbed young man who thought he would end his life by entering the lion exhibit at a Chilean zoo. Instead he survived and two adult lions were killed followed by the young boy who was able to enter the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo which again resulted in the killing of an endangered Silverback gorilla.
I have witnessed teen-aged girls throwing rocks at tiger cubs. A 30-something man while his two daughters watched, attempted to throw big sticks at a sleeping cheetah because as he told me when I stopped him, “we didn’t come here to see a cheetah sleep, make her do something!” And a young father, who had the “brilliant idea” to hook the front wheels of a flimsy stroller to the top railing of a cheetah exhibit and tilt it forward in order for his one-year old daughter (who was not strapped in) to see the sub-adult cheetah cubs! There is an old saying among zoo staff, perhaps no longer used, but it goes like this: “Lost children will be taken to the lion and tiger houses.” No joke “we” are prey to them!—especially young children.
We’ve created a “zoo” like atmosphere at the zoo; there is clearly a lack of respect for all the majestic beings living in museum exhibits and deprived of any “real” existence all for humans to be able to “see” them. I think the purpose is perfectly clear.
Here’s an interesting alternative—picture this: Zoological parks could install big screens (see photo of the jaguar exhibit above with a screen on either side) or for high techies they could install big cat holograms. At least for those visitors whisking their way through the zoo they will get to “see” big cats and will not be tempted to throw rocks or sticks at them; no animals will be killed, bored or discarded when they are no longer useful; visitors will be safe unless a big screen falls on them; the USDA will only have to set minimum screen requirements; and keepers of the digital technology will be safe and sound in their high tech booths.
Lisa Ann Salamat, Esq., Chief Executive Officer, WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society
WCCLAS assembled the responses to our 2014 survey in the following report:
2014 Big Cat Conservation Awareness Survey Results
Tell us about your experiences by taking our 2016 Big Cat Conservation Awareness Survey.
Interested in learning more? See: Meet Our Clients: The Wildcats,*
Journal of the WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society ~ The History and Culture of Wildcats in Captivity** and Euthanasia: A Humane Alternative? (includes an in-depth review on zoos using euthanasia to deal with surplus big cats).
You may also be interested in these recent articles:
“National Zoo review: (sleeping) tigers, (lazy) lions and amorous bears”
“In a virtual zoo, there are no animals in captivity”