A Power Statement We Should Be Ashamed Of
November 17, 2010: Ramesh Must Review Sending Elephants To Turkmenistan; We Must Rethink Why So Many Animals And Birds Locked Up In Zoos.
The 2010 vision statement of the Central Zoo Authority says that zoos “will have healthy animals in eco-system based naturalistic enclosures, supportive to in-situ conservation with competent and contented staff, good educational and interpretive facilities, support of the people and be self-sufficient."
I do not know how many zoos in India fit that description. But Turkmenistan’s Ashbagat zoo surely does not. The authorities have revamped the zoo last month but the past experience was appalling. From what I have read about this facility, the management seemed to have little regard for the wellbeing of its animals. The enclosures had tin roofs in a temperature range of 46 to -5 degree celcius. The cages were almost never cleaned. Population monitoring was considered a luxury.
Not a place you would fancy visiting after a good meal. But your government, responding to a diplomatic request, has agreed to send two elephants to this desert. Since gifting wild animals is no more legal, the jumbos will be sent under an exchange programme.
Since elephants have been designated as national heritage animal, one would have thought their welfare would figure above petty diplomatic interests. Not too long back in 2005, the government eventually dumped a similar proposal to send an elephant to Armenia’s Yerevan zoo, infamous for its high elephant mortality. Then we sent two young elephants from Jaldapara to Japan’s Okinawa zoo in 2007. Three years on, the duo remains chronically depressed and difficult to control (read frequently tortured).
But these precedents seemed to have taught us nothing. If lack of understanding of the issue prompted Jairam Ramesh to sentence two elephants to a lifetime of misery, he still has time for a rethink. After all, he supported the proposed Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare, an initiative at the United Nations, earlier this year.
Of course, the conditions of most zoos at home are not any better. Since 1992, the CZA has evaluated 347 zoos, out of which 164 have been recognized and 183 refused recognition. Out of these 183, 92 have been closed down and their animals relocated suitably. The future of the remaining 91 derecognized zoos is currently under review. So far, only 34 zoos have their master plans approved by the CZA.
That brings us to the larger question: do we really need zoos? Yes, distressed animals deserve some dignity and a home. Also, captive breeding programmes may offer certain species a second, however thin, chance. But, surely, the thousands and lakhs of creatures confined in zoos world over are not all rescued specimens nor are they there to facilitate some breeding opportunity or other. For example, why on earth India should have more than 36,000 animals and birds in zoos?
Perhaps, Professor Randy Malamud was correct in his bold Reading Zoos: “What people see inside the zoo cage is a symbol of our power to capture and control other aspects of the world. They see what was once a marvellous, vibrant, sentient creature, full of instincts and emotions and passions and life force, reduced to a spectacle, a prisoner, a trophy of our conquest of the natural world. They see a celebration of the human power to displace and reconfigure an animal’s life for our own amusement and supposed edification.”
If that appears too strong an opinion, sample some amazing data from Craig Redmond of Captive Animals’ Protection Society. Take elephants, for example. A government-funded study by Bristol University scientists in 2008 looked at all 77 elephants in UK zoos, concluding ‘there was a welfare problem for every elephant’. They spent 83% of their time indoors and 54% of them showed repeated obsessive performance of apparently purposeless activity. So prevalent are degenerative foot and leg problems in captive elephants, caused in part by hard flooring and the inability to walk far, that only 16% of them could even walk normally.
Redmond punctured the myth that animals in zoos live longer than their wild counterparts. Some 40% of lion cubs in zoos die before one month of age – in the wild only 30% of cubs are thought to die before they are six months old and at least a third of those deaths are due to factors which are absent in zoos, like predation. Elephants in the wild live up to three times longer than those in zoos; even those born in logging camps have lower mortality rates.
Redmond also pointed out how many conservation scientists criticised captive breeding as a diversion from the reasons for a species’ decline. As one paper in Conservation Biology put it, captive breeding programmes give ‘a false impression that a species is safe so that destruction of habitat and wild populations can proceed’.
What about education, though? David Hancocks, a zoo veteran who worked across continents, dismissed the idea: “If zoos were as effective as they claim to be, surely after so many millions of visits by so many millions of children over so many decades we would have a society that was very knowledgeable of, concerned about and enthusiastically supportive of wildlife conservation. I strongly suspect that much of what is learned at the zoo, especially subconsciously, is in fact detrimental to the development of supportive and considerate attitudes towards wild habitat conservation.”
But do not we at least get to see species that we would never have otherwise? Malamud has a completely different take on this: “What’s most amazing about, say, a giraffe or a panda, is that a person like me who lives in Georgia, is not supposed to see these animals. They just don’t belong here. Making these fascinating creatures so easily available greatly diminishes their real beauty, their authentic existence. Secondly, zoos teach us that habitat, environment or ecosystem is not very important. Why bother trying to protect the environment when we can just scoop up all the interesting animals who live in it and put them on display? Naturalistic education should, on the contrary, teach us in the strongest possible terms that our awareness of living beings must be inextricably connected with their contexts, their life-spaces.”
I have been to better zoos and met rare dedicated managers. But I have been to many more zoos that made me cringe and puke. So I dare agree with Redmond that zoos infringe on the basic needs of animals in order to benefit the secondary desires (amusement or enlightenment) of humans.
Those who cannot imagine a world without zoos, rest assured. Zoos are not going to disappear overnight. But please do not forget to petition the friendly minister against shifting those jumbos to Ashbagat, and slip in a line or two demanding radical zoo reforms. The American Heritage Dictionary may define the word zoo as “a place or situation marked by rampant confusion or disorder” but let us all agree that animals deserve a choice outside frying pans or fire.
Source: Jay Mazoomdaar, The Bengal Post.