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Hot topic: Is it time for zoos to be banned?

A hangover of the Victorian sideshow or an integral part of wildlife conservation? We ask if zoos should be consigned to the history books along with the bearded lady

Hot topic: Is it time for zoos to be banned?
Image: Getty

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The polar bears in Winnipeg have disco poo. Their droppings look like little glitterballs.

Before anyone starts sprinkling the stuff on their cornflakes, this isn’t the hottest new beauty trend nor is it a natural phenomenon: Assiniboine Park Zoo’s keepers use coloured glitter in the bears’ feed to identify their droppings.

Why? Well, scat reveals all sorts of things about individual animals; information the keepers share with the scientific community. Many zoos conduct such studies, and also run captive breeding programmes for endangered species. However, critics say this doesn’t justify their existence.

“Zoos are prisons for animals, camouflaging their cruelty with conservation claims,” Mimi Bekhechi, director of international programmes at PETA, explains. “Animals in zoos suffer tremendously, both physically and mentally. They often display neurotic behaviour, like repetitive pacing, swaying, and bar biting. Not surprising, perhaps, considering the typical polar bear enclosure is one million times smaller than the area they would naturally roam.”

PETA isn’t alone. In April, ethical tour operator Responsible Travel — after consultation with wildlife charity Born Free Foundation — axed trips that include zoo visits. It’s the first travel company to publicly make such a move.

“Only 15% of the thousands of species held in zoos are considered ‘threatened’,” says Will Travers OBE, president of Born Free. “An even smaller proportion are part of captive breeding programmes and, of those, a tiny fraction have been released back into the wild. That’s not a record that justifies tens of millions of wild animals kept in zoos.”

PETA’s Bekhechi adds, the aim of breeding programmes is just “to produce baby animals to attract visitors.”

Some, however, argue that children benefit from zoos. “We engage huge audiences with wildlife, inspiring the conservationists of tomorrow,” argues zoological director of ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos, Professor David Field. That claim is up for debate. A 2014 study by the Society for Conservation Biology found that of over 2,800 children surveyed following visits to London Zoo, 62% showed no positive learning outcomes.

But, for every story that casts zoos in a bad light — from Vince the rhino’s poaching at Paris’ Thoiry Zoo in March; Cincinnati Zoo shooting endangered gorilla, Harambe, last year after a child fell into his enclosure; or Copenhagen Zoo killing and publicly dissecting Marius, a two-year-old giraffe in 2014 — there are heart-warming tales too.

Zoos across the US can take credit for reviving the wild Arabian oryx, golden lion tamarin and Californian condor populations, among many others. And Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo has an on-site Wildlife Hospital to save sick and injured native species.

In the age of social media, high profile culls have sparked heated debates. The shooting of Harambe the gorilla spawned the most-shared meme of 2016 and caused a hounded Cincinnati Zoo to suspend its social media accounts. When it comes to lethal force and animal welfare, at least, public opinion swiftly sides against zoos.

But whether recent events have triggered a profound shift in public consciousness is harder to quantify. Regardless of the merits or ethics of zoos, one thing’s for certain: they’re going to be around for some years yet.

Q&A

How Do I tell a zoo from a sanctuary?
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) operates an accreditation system for sanctuaries, rescue centres and rehabilitation centres. Look out for the GFAS seal of approval.

So it’s better to have ‘close encounters’ with animals in the wild, right?
Wrong! Step away from the selfie stick. Don’t be suckered into supporting companies that offer experiences like hugging a tiger, swimming with dolphins, riding elephants, or snogging a shark. These experiences are often harmful to wildlife and dangerous for you.

How do we save wildlife if not by breeding programmes?
PETA says: “People who care about protecting endangered species should donate to organisations that safeguard them in their natural habitats — if a species’ native environment has been destroyed, there’s nowhere left for the animals to go.”

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)