We all love visiting the zoo on holidays to see all the exotic animals from around the world or even get up close and personal with Australia’s native animals at various wildlife parks, such as the Phillip Island Wildlife Park, however, are we truly seeing the ‘wild’ animals or a well-trained lookalike? Sure the animals look and sound like the wild animals we see on the discovery channel, but are they the same in captivity as they are in their natural habitats?
Dr H. Hediger says, “the main biological problems of zoos can be grouped under the following headings: Space, Food and Animal-man relationship”, in the wild animals must search for shelter, hunt for food and defend their habitats from predators, yet in captivity their shelter and food are supplied and they don’t have to compete with other animals. This may sounds like the perfect life, having everything practically given to you, but at what cost? It is natural for animals to have to compete for the best, it is the survival of the fittest. So when everything is readily available, how will the behavior of these animals be impacted? If a human were to be given free accommodation, food and protection, they would likely become lazy and bored, so why not animals?
Lucy P. Birkett and Nicholas E. Newton-Fisher studied the behavior of captive, zoo-living chimpanzees and they concluded, “our overall finding was that abnormal behavior was present in all individuals across six independent groups of zoo-living chimpanzees, despite the differences between these groups in size, composition, housing etc.” these abnormal behaviors included eating faeces, rocking back and forth, excessive grooming and more. This is just one example of how captivity can effect behavior.
Most zoos and other wildlife facilities have built enclosures to suit the natural habitat of the specific animal, compared to the stone arenas they were once kept in.
These images represent the conditions in which animals have been kept in captivity (to the left an old zoo where animals are kept in cages, to the right a recent enclosure)
However, no matter how natural an enclosure may look, it is still artificial. Animals often don’t interact with other species and are exposed to humans, whether that be the keeper feeding them, or the many tourists peering at them and taking selfies. Are we exploiting them?
I was lucky enough to spend a month volunteering in South Africa, part of which included working at Emdoneni Lodge on their cat project where we built new enclosures for Cheetahs, a protective fence for a Serval cat and her newborns, as well as feeding the Cheetahs, Servals, African Wildcats and the Caracals. Here we learnt, out of the four only the Caracals were considered wild, as unlike the other three, they could not be domesticated, they became used to humans being around them, but were not hand fed or petted. Yet even though the others were still approached with caution they were considered more tame in nature.
There are many different facilities where animals are held in captivity, many of which, like Emdoneni Lodge, are designed to aid the animals, whether through rehabilitation or breeding programs, however, at what cost? We need to stop and think about the effect we are having on the animals, if we were stuck in a single enclosure for the rest of our lives, how would we both mentally and physically change? I’m not saying, let’s release every animal in captivity, I’m simply saying to take a minute and reevaluate the effects of certain conditions. For more on the different types and conditions of animal captivity see my next blog: Life Behind Bars: Prison or Sanctuary?