The safest place for an animal is its natural habitat – not a zoo
Talking of campaigns by our charity to phase out the keeping of animals in captivity, Dartmoor zoo owner Ben Mee says: “Actually, I can see their point; I don’t particularly like looking at animals behind wire either” (Battle for survival, 31 August). He then adds the usual caveat: “But, as a zoo director, I understand that it is absolutely essential that we keep them there.”
Are zoos really essential? Ben talks about them “protecting as many endangered species as possible”. Yet of the 51 mammal and bird species at his zoo only seven are classed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Zoos claim to be safer places for animals than their natural habitats. Mee questions whether it is “fair” to reintroduce a jaguar, because of not only the dwindling rainforest but also the impact “on the people who live and farm there”. This view is highly dangerous for conservation, and many field scientists consider captive breeding to give a false impression that species are safe and that natural habitats don’t need protecting. I can only hope Mee was joking when he suggested building “biospheres on the moon, stocked with tigers, safe from poaching”.
Despite its claims, Dartmoor zoo itself has been responsible for killing animals – deer, as a result of “overpopulation”, and a wolf who was ostracised by the pack, for example. More sinister is the line pushed by international zoo bodies that hybrid animals should be killed – such as three tiger cubs at a German zoo recently – because they use resources that could be spent on pure-bred animals. The Mee family bought the zoo without any prior experience, so not surprisingly Ben found it “harder than I thought” – so hard that its operating company has gone into liquidation despite a TV deal and a planned Hollywood film. Let’s hope they haven’t started a trend for wealthy people with no experience to buy ailing zoos – Anna Ryder Richardson followed in their footsteps by getting a TV series based on her buying a zoo in Wales.
Mee talks about the alleged good work of members of the zoo-trade body, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (Biaza). Twice in the past year, we in the Captive Animals’ Protection Society have exposed the practices of member zoos. One had a tiger-breeding programme with the owner of the country’s most controversial animal circus. The other was locking lions inside for up to 18 hours a day. Biaza revoked membership of the zoo connected to a circus but not the one keeping lions confined in a building that, according to government inspectors, had “no visible environmental enrichment” and “clear signs of substantial fighting”. So how can Mee say we have “some of the highest standards of husbandry anywhere in the world”?
We need to urgently recognise that conservation means the protection and restoration of natural habitats, not keeping animals in cages. If we phase out zoos, and end captive breeding, resources can be used to protect habitats for the benefit of all fauna and flora.