Newsletter - Animal Writes © sm
1 September 1999 Issue

By [email protected]

Transcribed from ARO chat of 8/29/99

Zoos are nothing more than prisons: holding cells that imprison innocent "convicts" who did nothing more than spark the attention in someone who felt the need to steal that animal away from its natural environment in order to display that animal, usually for material gain, by feeding off the curiosity of this society.

Zoos are perhaps one of the most misunderstood targets of animal rights activists. Concerned people have many unanswered questions surrounding zoos and why they are or are not good for the animals. This article will present the most common questions and then some down-to-earth, true answers. Not the answers you would hear from the zoos because, let's face it, they don't want you to hear the truth. Otherwise, you wouldn't be there spending your money.

Question #1: Isn't one of the main objectives of zoos to educate humans so that we may further understand particular species?

This idea is one of the most commonly misunderstood conceptions regarding zoos.

Labels identifying the name of the species, what he or she eats, and the natural range of the animal fall very short of any real education.

While most zoos claim that they provide a habitat for their animals that is as close to their natural habitat as possible, this is not so. Because the animals are not provided with their true living conditions, it is not only impossible to observe them engaging in natural behavior, but we often witness abnormal, psychotic behavior, known as zoochosis. This sickness is marked by symptoms such as pacing, neck twisting, head bobbing, biting of cage bars, and other repetitive behaviors. I'm sure we've all witnessed this unfortunate situation at one point or another.

The wings of birds may be clipped so that they can no longer fly. Little water is granted to animals that are aquatic by nature. Animals are found either individually or in pairs, whereas in the wild, they would be traveling in large herds or with families. Organized feeding and breeding schedules replace natural hunting and reproductive behaviors. Mental stimulation and/or physical exercise is replaced by cramped confined quarters with very little to no privacy at all. How could one not go insane in an environment like this?

Zoochosis is not restricted to a few, less than ideal zoos. As a matter of fact, a global study found zoochosis to be rampant in incarcerated animals all over the planet. Over 50% of the zoos around the globe are in bad conditions.

How can anyone examine these "wild" animals and claim to have been educated by the experience? If anything, they've been educated in the effects of cruelty on suppressed animals. They've also been taught that it is permissible to force an animal into captivity, wearied, confined, lonesome, and thousands of miles away from home.

As far as education, spectators are rarely in search of education themselves. Rather than attempting to understand the animal at hand, most visitors merely spend a few minutes at an exhibit, seeking entertainment above all else.

In order to truly understand and gain wisdom about wild animals, it is imperative that we observe them in their natural habitat, uninhibited from human intervention. We can achieve this by various media presentations including nature documentaries, specials on public television networks and cable channels, magazines such as National Geographic, and public libraries. These outlets are extremely successful in presenting factual information on animals and their natural habitats, without damaging the individual lives of the animals involved.

Question #2: Don't zoos help contribute to the preservation of certain species?

This is perhaps the most disturbing and highly inaccurate statement regarding zoos.

Humans have been extremely successful in eliminating many of the natural habitats of wild animals, as well as wiping out or nearly wiping out entire species of animals through such activities as hunting. It is true that many species are in need of rehabilitation. But, when do human attempts at rehabilitation go too far? How much are we to intervene into the natural lives of these already destroyed animals without further infringing on their well-being?

It appears as though zoos are going too far, even if their intentions are otherwise.

First of all, as far as protecting species from extinction, most zoos often fall in favor of those animals that will attract the most attention, and therefore financial gains, to their facilities. In this light, more attractive or popular species are favored as opposed to those species that are less popular. In addition, most species that reside in zoos are not even endangered in the first place.

Second of all, the collection of animals required to maintain an adequate gene pool is too large for nearly all zoos to maintain. As a result, a significant amount of inbreeding occurs within these rehabilitation programs. The end result is that animals are born highly susceptible to disease; they have significant amounts of birth defects and mutations. In addition, these animals often end up so weak that they would never be able to successfully survive in the wild, without human intervention.

Some zoos with inadequate numbers of animals even go so far as to steal additional animals away from the wild in order to supplement their breeding programs. Is this a contradiction to the supposed goal or what? In effect, these zoos organize an additional net depletion on wild inhabitants.

Another closely controlled secret is that the purpose of most zoos' exploration in the field of wild animal rehabilitation is to find means in which they can successfully breed and sustain more animals in captivity…not in the wild! If zoos were to no longer operate, neither would the need for their studies.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to ever emancipate an enslaved animal into the wild. Human intervention has created animals that are virtually incapable of taking care of themselves in their natural habitats. Their instincts have been erased and would need to be re-learned, if they ever even had the opportunity to acknowledge them in the first place.

What of all the babies who are born in zoos? Perhaps the dirtiest secret within the zoo community is what happens to these babies. Many of the animals that are bred are forced to endure these actions for no other means than for the zoo to gain economic compensation through the sale of the babies.

In fact, the sale of "surplus" zoo animals represents a multibillion-dollar-a-year exotic species marketplace. These animals are sold, given, or auctioned away to dealers. These animals include both threatened and endangered species! Some end up as pets. Others end up in roadside zoos, mostly unaccredited functions. The less fortunate are sold to fenced hunting ranches where they are used in canned hunts, encased and killed for their meat, pelts, and hides. As a matter of fact, this market is so sodden with some species that lions and tigers are actually worth more dead than they are alive.

Statistically speaking, from 1992 through mid-1998, approximately 1,000 exotic animals per year were sold, traded, donated or loaned by zoos to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unidentified individuals, or unaccredited zoos and game farms.

Most of these animals are purchased by professional dealers who often breed them in order to create yet additional animals for the trade. If zoos weren't making the animals available, these dealers would have never had a business.

In addition, we now have to worry about the significant amount of "wild" animals that roam free within residential properties in the United States and around the world. Animals in private hands pose an increasing threat to public safety, as we know it. As if we didn't have enough to worry about these days.

Question #3: Aren't the animals guaranteed protection under the law? What about the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)?

The fact of the matter is, while the AWA requires that animal exhibitors be licensed with the USDA, only minimal standards of animal care are enforced. Zoos are required to be inspected by the USDA once a year. However, the USDA has openly admitted that they do not have the manpower to "ensure the humane care and treatment of animals…as required by the act." As a matter of fact, some zoos have more than successfully passed USDA inspection, only to later be found by humane groups to have numerous violations.

Unfortunately, the larger the zoo and the more vast the number and variety of species contained within the zoo, the more financially strapped the zoo is to provide quality care. In fact, the majority of zoos around the world actually operate at a loss. More often than not, profits are considered above all else, including the well being of the animals.

As far as the trafficking of animals, few laws exist in this arena. At this point in time, zoos are pretty much responsible for regulating themselves. Pretty scary, huh?

What you can do!

Don't patronize a zoo unless you are there to do research in order to help promote better conditions. If so, it is imperative that you educate yourself on the laws and guidelines surrounding the AWA, as well as your state laws. Inspect the exhibits for violations. Be alert for any signs of poor health in the animals themselves. Certain indications include listlessness, sores, lameness, missing hair, or self-mutilation. Take note of sanitation, food and water availability, and cage size. If possible, document your experience through photographs or video footage. If you do witness possible violations, try to persuade a reputable veterinarian to accompany you to the zoo in order to verify your findings. If it appears as though you have a case, contact your local humane officer or animal warden and the sector office of USDA, which enforces the AWA. Insist that the animals be examined and the conditions improved.

In conclusion, the only true means to save endangered species is to restore their natural habitats and successfully eliminate the means by which humans continue to kill the animals. Groups like the International Primate Protection League, the Born Free Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, and other groups that exist in order to preserve habitats are more worthy of our support than zoos. In addition, there are non-profit sanctuaries such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society that seek to rescue and care for exotic animals without selling or breeding.

Says Virginia McKenna, star of the classic movie Born Free, "This is not conservation and surely it is not education. No, it is 'entertainment.' Not comedy, however, but tragedy."

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