Why I'll Never Be A Zoo Mom
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Brenda Shoss, KinshipCircle.org

Domination at the expense of another’s well-being is not the sort of lesson I want to teach my son.

Soccer mom. Backstage mom. No problem. But the day my son inevitably pleads, “Mommy, can I go on the zoo field trip?” the answer will be no.

I want my son to see the animals. Just not at a zoo, where wild creatures devolve to abstract still lifes tossed into an urban panorama. But how do you tell a child, crumpled permission slip in hand, “You cannot go to the zoo with your classmates?”

“Mommy, puh-lease!”

The “effa-lants” my three-year-old adores roam 20 to 50 miles everyday. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) lets members stock elephants in one-fortieth of an acre of yard space per animal. A generic polar bear exhibit is one-millionth the scope of a polar bear’s 31,000 sq. mile wilderness domain.

A 2003 Oxford University study published in the journal Nature lists polar bears, lions, tigers, cheetahs and other large carnivores as lousy candidates for captivity. "It could be that...some species find roaming pleasurable," states research biologist Dr. Georgia Mason. "They might be designed in such a way that roaming makes their central nervous system develop properly."

Many restrained animals resort to stereotypies, the neurotic repetition of gestures such as pacing, swaying, head-bobbing or bar-biting. In captivity, polar bears pace 25% of the time and wide-ranging animals experience a 65% rise in infant deaths. On the other hand, Dr. Mason claims animals with relatively limited natural ranges appear to cope with confinement.

Cope for what purpose? “What is denied by zoo apologists is that the animals are there almost exclusively as entertainment,” writes the Animal Protection Institute’s Barry Kent MacKay in When Zoos Tell Lies. “Whether the goal is to make profits or to enhance pleasure of residents and tourists, it is argued that people learn about animals by visiting zoos.”

The Education Excuse

Zoo education is often “miseducation,” as MacKay, an ornithological expert, observed at the Sacramento Zoo. Most of the zoo’s bird collection, situated around a pseudo Lake Maracaibo (the real lake is in Venezuela), does not even exist in that part of the world.

“Implying [these birds are] native to Lake Maracaibo is like saying the polar bear can be found in Michigan, since both polar bears and Lake Michigan are in North America. You are closer to polar bears in the wild if you visit downtown Milwaukee than you are close to southern screamers if you paddle around the shores of Lake Maracaibo,” MacKay writes.

Still, there must be some educational value in glimpsing a real creature who will never scamper through your backyard. In fact, conservation efforts for dolphins and other cetaceans stem primarily from the public’s contact with captive specimens, according to a zoo spokesperson who spoke at a symposium Mackay attended.

If captivity enables people to recognize dolphins as perceptive, social beings, “are we morally justified in keeping them in captivity?” MacKay asked.

“No,” the speaker responded, “I don’t think it’s justified.”

Unnatural Habitats & Premature Death

In April 2004 Maybelle became the second elephant to die at the San Francisco Zoo. Her sudden demise followed the slaughter of Calle, a 38-year-old Asian elephant with prolonged infirmities due to insufficient exercise and social interaction.

In the wild, female elephants retain lifelong ties with their mothers. Males remain in the herd until 10 to 15 years of age. Within the secluded confines of a zoo, elephants often succumb to zoochosis, a type of psychological distress. An estimated 50% endure chronic arthritis and foot abscesses from endless hours upon concrete or hardened dirt and sand.

At least 90 wild-caught African elephants have prematurely expired in North American displays over the last 14 years. “Their requirements are so substantial—it is probably beyond the capabilities of most zoos to even begin to resolve them,” notes David Hancocks, past director of Woodland Park Zoo.

Impossible care demands and regulatory loopholes can spell disaster for the animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees zoos, but lacks official criterion to train, test and license the animal handlers who work at zoos. The USDA could not investigate a string of suspect deaths at the Smithsonian’s respected National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. because the zoo is an autonomous federal entity.

In January 2003 a pygmy hippopotamus was discovered dead at the National Zoo. The 600-pound female’s untimely death marked the latest of eight fatalities within several months. During the same month, two red pandas were poisoned with ingested rat pellets left in their yard. In late 2002, zookeepers euthanized a cheetah and bobcat with kidney disease and a lion was found dead in his pen as a result of excess blood and fluid in his lungs. Within one week, a gray seal and giraffe died from digestive disorders.

In March 2004, National Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman announced her resignation after an impartial review denounced the zoo’s care, pest control, record-keeping and oversight practices.

Intimidation-Style Training

Some accredited zoos hire circus-type trainers to subordinate animals with chains, assault instruments such as bullhooks, and food/water deprivation. The AZA does not ask member zoos to switch to “protected contact,” a more lenient disciplinary format.

Several years ago, the Oregon Zoo’s Fred Marion came to work intoxicated. Bellowing profanities, he battered a 6-year-old elephant’s head, legs, tail, ears and shoulder with an ankus hook. Marion also twisted the sharp hook inside Rose-Tu’s anus until the sodomized elephant screamed. Rose-Tu suffered 176 puncture wounds, bacterial abscesses, and extreme trauma around her anal opening.

Zoo personnel had reprimanded Marion for past episodes of alcohol inspired violence against elephants. Eventually they fired him. But the USDA never cited the Oregon Zoo for its lack of investigative or punitive measures. Since animal handlers do not need a USDA permit, Marion is free to seek employment elsewhere.

The Conservation Cover-Up

In the summer of 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the San Diego Zoo and Lowry Park Zoological Garden permits to import 11 African elephants from the 74,130-acre Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland.

Though members of the Save Wild Elephants Coalition filed an emergency appeal—arguing the import violated the Endangered Species Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Flora and Fauna, and the National Environmental Policy Act—the breeding age 12-year-olds were taken from their savannah homeland to reside in small lots in San Diego and Tampa.

The zoos’ rationale? Conservation. Rather than address habitat preservation or poaching, the zoos told a media-ready tale about rescuing the elephants from authorities set to cull the “overpopulated” 36-member herd. Breeding babies was the more likely motive. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says “heavily marketed newborns can easily bring in an additional 30,000 visitors. Some of the Swaziland elephants selected for export may have already been pregnant.”

“Rarely does the presence of any zoo animal have the slightest thing to do with effective conservation that will lead to restoration of depleted wild populations,” the API’s MacKay writes in Captive Breeding: To What Purpose?

MacKay believes captive breeding programs can support conservation if they follow a Species Survival Plan (SSP) that releases animals back into the wild. More often, breeding zoos cash in with a profitable mix of baby animals and eager zoo-goers. Waving the banner, “Species Protection!” the majority do not register their animals in SSPs and evade all formal scrutiny of their conservation projects.

Where Do Surplus Animals Wind-up?

Some zoos volume-produce animals to sell to trophy-hunt ranches, “exotic pet” dealers, unaccredited “roadside” zoos, game farms, and other underground operators. Scant laws exist to safeguard exotic (even endangered) species from the lucrative black market.

At canned hunt facilities hunters pay to shoot, bow-hunt or spear captive-bred animals accustomed to human contact. Often anticipating a meal, these staked, caged or fenced-in animals are easily killed at close range. To preserve their “trophy” hunters aim for the body, leaving wounded animals to slowly bleed to death.

Retirement perks for the elderly may include transfer to another zoo or performance venue. After years of servitude, a Lowry Park Zoo elephant was dispatched to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Life for the less cuddly or hardy rarely concludes at a free-range sanctuary.

Purists contend animals don’t belong in zoos any more than we belong wandering the woods naked. But proximity is seductive.

To educate and amuse ourselves, we are willing to strip animals of their freedom. Nope. I’ll never be a zoo mom. Domination at the expense of another’s well-being is not the sort of lesson I want to teach my son.

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