“Evolve or Perish”, true for your Zoo too!

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Zoo, noun: (a) facility which incarcerates and exploits wild animals for private profit while pretending to save them from extinction
(b) a crowded place where people behave in a disorganized or uncontrolled manner.

Recently I came across a PR announcement from a well known Zoo which was celebrating a “Gold” certification from a prestigious green tourism label. I wondered, why? Perhaps they used LED lights? A rhetorical question of course, as high level green awards should be reserved for those at the forefront of green progress rather than relics of the Roman and Colonial eras. Thus I decided to jot down a few lines:

As environmental awareness grows, families are no longer content to spend their Sundays in a crowded place reading little signs summarizing the idle animal staring back at them in the cage. Even if Zoo owners continue to care for little else than their pockets, they must accept that changing customer tastes necessitate drastic changes.

Zoos must evolve into wildlife hospitals, breeding facilities of endangered species for release, and environmental education facilities, and stop all animal performances. Virtual reality and 3D technology means that there is no need to keep live animals in cages and enclosures, they can install cameras in national parks. Ticket proceeds could directly fund conservation in situ rather than the semi-legal /illegal wildlife trade. The worst in terms of using poached animals are of course Aquaria and even ‘swim with dolphins’ facilities.

To be fair, there is some positive movement. A number of zoos already have a small section hospitalising wild animals, it’s good PR of course. Others, like the Philadelphia Zoo, try to create more ‘humane’ and natural conditions for wild animals in the form of longer, aerial, circular pathways. This is also more spectacular for visitors, of course. Most Zoos are doing away with depressing cages and opt for bigger, barless enclosures, faux-habitats with natural vegetation, moats and glass partitions. Yet all these mostly make visitors, rather than animals, feel better. A smaller number of the better quality zoos are involved in reintroduction programs of some iconic species and fund related conservation efforts. This is good for fundraising from sponsors and ESG departments. Perhaps, most importantly, even the worst zoos offer employment opportunities for environment & conservation graduates who will later go on to work in real wildlife conservation.

Granted, it is not fair to dismiss all zoos, and all that zoos do, as evil, and by dismissing them, rather than pressuring them, change may never happen. On the other hand, anyone who has looked a caged tiger in the eye can attest that all this feels very wrong. If you believe in animal rights, this is slavery, there is no other way to put it. From a more political viewpoint, zoos remain symbols of human authoritarianism and (white, male) domination over all other life forms. They are a direct legacy of the era of European imperialism, from Roman times to the 19th century.

The right path for quality zoos is to accelerate their transition to zoological & environmental education centres for the benefit of the new generations of urban children while continuing to generate much-needed funding and expertise for conservation. Modern technology already offers, and will offer far more, exciting alternatives to caged animal displays: 3D interactive displays, holograms, real-time waterhole cams, tracking collars.

Zoos can focus on reproducing and reintroducing highly endangered animals and tracking and displaying real-time, released animal progress in the wild, treating hurt wildlife, campaigning against recreational hunting and animal abuse and teaching children how to respect, rather than just fear, wildlife. They also have plenty of space for botanical gardens, for organic agriculture and permaculture exhibits (and courses) as well as for educational arcades (edutainment) and ecotravel booking centres. Each Zoo could adopt one or more specific protected areas in the global south, in cooperation with and not displacing local communities as the norm with big conservation sadly is.

Alternatively, a way for zoos to clean up their act and even make more income, is to turn their facilities into natural theme parks/ amusement parks but without real animals. It is probably impossible to release “wild” animals, accustomed to being fed as pets, into the wild, even if there was space. But at the very least, existing zoos should commit to not replacing any, non-endangered, wild animal that dies with another one and to use the empty space for alternative educational and fun uses as above. Legislation should change drastically and no new old-style zoos should be licensed, at least in countries that pride themselves about their environmental and animal rights legislation.

Last but not least, if you rightfully express indignation about animals in cages but you eat meat, especially of the mass-produced burger and nugget variety, first please consider the irony and second reduce your “real” meat intake. There is a rapidly growing variety of alternatives these days, while lab grown meat will hopefully prove healthy and also become inexpensive.

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