Last week I visited Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. It was a warm sunny day, the cherry blossoms were out in full force and throngs of people filled every corner of the zoo grounds.
Ueno Zoo is one of Japan's premier facilities and is comparable to almost any major North American zoo. Its wide pathways, tall trees, well-tended gardens, refreshment outlets around every corner and multitude of shady rest areas make Ueno Zoo a wonderful place for visitors. And that's the problem.
Like so many other zoos throughout the world, the Ueno Zoo is a people place. One would think that with a large collection of animals from the four corners of the globe the zoo would be a place for animals, but it's not. It's a place for people.
Unlike the wonderful facilities for visitors, the animal enclosures were small, bland and most of the animals were just sitting or lying around. Those that were active were often engaged in stereotypic pacing or some other abnormal behaviour.
It was obvious the zoo had made some attempt to spruce up some of the cages by adding bark chip substrates, furnishings and objects to manipulate, and I expect those things made the staff feel better, but they didn't seem to do much for the animals. The space and complexity the animals need just wasn't there.
Like most other zoos in the world, visitors noisily filed past one exhibit after another, registering one animal in their mind before moving on to the next. If the animals were inactive, many visitors didn't even stop, they just glanced toward the animals as they walked by.
As I moved through the zoo I tried to imagine what the animals felt with so many hundreds of eyes watching their every move. At a bear cage, the visitor pathway wound around the top of the exhibit allowing people to surround the animals. And there were multiple glass viewing stations at ground level as well. There was no where for the bears to get away from public view. Many other animals had it the same and some had it worse.
Studies show that many animals, ranging from lizards to gorillas, can be very stressed by being watched. That seems obvious to me. But it doesn't seem obvious to the people who build the cages and care for the animals.
Zoos have a totem pole of priorities that place the needs of visitors first, staff second and animals third. That totem pole should be flipped on its head so the needs of the animals come first, the staff second and the public third. Zoos claim they are devoted to animal wellbeing but the reality says otherwise. There needs to be a new zoo paradigm.
As I exited Ueno Zoo I couldn't help but think that a zoo is no place for animals.