Talk to the Animals

Zoologist and animal behaviour expert, Sally Hibbard, is interested in the relationship between people and their pets. She’s a fan of frogs, scared of spiders and can be seen spotting stick insects.

Talk to the Animals: Are zoos good or evil?

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There are arguments for and against keeping animals in enclosures. 
Photo / Thinkstock
There are arguments for and against keeping animals in enclosures. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm often asked if I work in a zoo. There seems to be a perception that if you have studied zoology you must therefore work in a zoo. I did actually consider it once and spent a day taking the job for a test drive, shadowing the keepers. I remember being challenged to lift a bag of pony pellets that quite possibly weighed more than I do and being a little underwhelmed at the reality of 'behind the scenes'. Most memorable was a rather touching experience holding the black leathery hand of a Siamang gibbon as we inspected each other through the wire.

Debate is ongoing as to the value of zoos and there are certainly both good and bad examples around the world. The main arguments for and against are:

For:
Zoos are actively involved in conservation through inter-zoo breeding programs and work with wild populations.
Education about biodiversity, habitat protection and conservation is provided by zoos on site and in schools.
Zoo animals are advocates for those in the wild and inspire people to care about threatened wildlife.

Against:
People do not have the right to deprive animals of their freedom. Zoo animals suffer confinement related stress.
Animals in zoos are primarily for entertainment.
Conservation work is limited in zoos with minimal wild re-introductions.

New Zealand and Australian zoos are represented by an industry body, the Zoo and Aquarium Association. The ZAA oversees member zoos, upholding welfare standards and providing support as well as coordinating inter-zoo breeding programs.

I asked the organisation's executive director, Chris Hibbard, (incidentally, my big brother) how zoo visitors might recognize a 'good' zoo and he responded with something of a checklist:

Good educational signage
Opportunities to get involved
Opportunities to interact with staff and ask questions
Animals in good condition
Enclosures clean and options for animals to display natural behaviors
Evidence of involvement in conservation programs

I asked Chris what zoos might look like going into the future.

"Zoos are going to be increasingly focused on helping people understand how they can support wildlife conservation through everyday actions such as consumer purchases and other lifestyle choices. I think we will see zoos branching out with increased work in the field being managed alongside work within the zoo as a single program."

Modern zoos have replaced bars and concrete with larger more natural enclosures that give visitors a better idea of how the animal lives. Improvements in animal welfare include a focus on environmental enrichment, providing items and opportunities that allow animals to behave as they would in the wild. Local conservation successes include the hatching and rearing of brown Kiwi for release, and maintaining insurance populations of Tasmanian Devil in the face of devastating disease in the wild.

One of the enduring criticisms of zoos is that some species are kept purely for display value rather than contributing to conservation. These are often 'drawcard species', traditional zoo animals like elephants that don't breed well in captivity but are deemed necessary for gate sales. Would a zoo visit hold the same appeal to visitors if it featured mostly local fauna - which in our case is often of the small brown and timid variety?

Like many, I was somewhat disturbed by Copenhagen Zoo publicly carving up a 'surplus' giraffe and feeding it to the lions.

Read more: Copenhagen zoo kills giraffe, feeds it to lion

Admittedly, had it been a nondescript antelope, it would not be so newsworthy; however a large iconic animal, named Marius no less, predictably caused quite a stir. This is a case of bad management resulting in unwanted animals and the subsequent dilemma of what to do with them. In no way do I condone this incident but I do wonder whether those outraged that an animal was bred just to be killed and fed to another thought twice before tucking into their next steak.

What do you think about zoos? Do you have any thoughts about the Copenhagen Zoo incident?

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