Enough Dancing Bears, Already

Patrick Barkham’s editorial in the Guardian does not sufficiently consider the occasional good that a zoo can do for the charismatic felines, but my sentiments are generally the same as those he expresses here:

The Zoological Society of London is an august, enlightened charity, which carries out wonderful scientific work. London Zoo, created in 1826 as a rebuke to the cruel and squalid menageries of the day, makes the most of its limited space on the edge of Regent’s Park. So why on earth is it caging tigers? Does it really believe it is important conservation work?

Had the cub survived, it would have endured a long and pleasure-free life stalking the 2,500sqm of its enclosure. A female tiger’s territory in the wild depends on availability of prey, but the smallest are 10sqkm – the equivalent of at least 4,000 of London Zoo’s fancy new tiger “territories” (note this clever euphemism for cage).

No big cat species has ever been taken from zoos and successfully and sustainably reintroduced into the wild. It simply does not work. And the most successful captive breeding and wild release programmes for other animals are in-country, close to where the species naturally live.

Keeping giant pandas in European zoos is an even more distressing vanity project. Edinburgh is paying around £600,000 each year to rent Tian Tian and male panda Yang Guang from China. That money might fund a useful conservation programme in the wild. And if captive-breeding of pandas is the best solution, those skills are found in China. If these pricey pandas ever rear healthy cubs in Edinburgh Zoo, I’ll dance naked down the Royal Mile. Which would be about as disturbing a sight as seeing the pandas in their Edinburgh enclosure, which Born Free’s Will Travers describes as like “a male urinal”.

Knowing they cannot credibly claim they are saving species, ark-like, to return to the wild, most zoos resort to making vague arguments that their big beasts are charismatic ambassadors for their species. But zoos hugely overplay the educational qualities of a nice family day out. Dale Marcellini, a curator at Washington DC’s National Zoo, found that visitors on average spent one minute with the lions and less than eight seconds per snake, concluding that most people treated exhibits “like wallpaper”.

Tigers and giant pandas are kept in zoos for one reason only, and the clue is in the words “star attraction”. Zoos are in the entertainment business, these beasts are box office gold, and they guarantee a flow of visitors into their cafes and gift shops. There is no place in a modern zoo for large mammals, or birds, who naturally live in large territories. There is no need, either.

I have young children and what inspires them most is close encounters with real animals. They get more pleasure from visiting a petting farm where they can hold a guinea pig or a spider, than watching a listless leopard in the corner of a cage. My most vivid childhood memory is not of the mentally ill tiger who once stalked up and down a tiny patch of grass in its old quarters at London Zoo – I’ve tried to erase that disturbing image from my mind – but of the snowy owls, otters and badgers at a local wildlife park.

Most zoos would be every bit as inspirational if they devoted their talents and energy to enabling young people to directly encounter small creatures, and made the most of the smaller mammals, reptiles, insects and birds that exist more happily in a confined space. But they are too scared to quit their addiction to big beasts, even in an era when everyone loves a meerkat.

Read the whole editorial here.

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