Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Funds should go to conservation, not cages

Ever since I first learned about Google Alerts, I’ve been receiving dozens of links to articles about zoos on an almost daily basis. Over the past few years I’ve gotten in the habit of printing out articles about new zoo exhibits and the refurbishment of old zoo exhibits, especially if they indicate their cost.

I expect that anyone reading those articles in isolation say to themselves, “Wow, that’s a lot of money” and leave it at that. I suppose it’s a natural reaction since a great many new zoo exhibits range in price from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, certainly a lot of money to most of us. But most people don’t think about the fact that zoos all over North America and around the world are engaged in the same kinds of expensive projects as their local or regional zoos are. And when you start to add up the costs, it’s mind blowing.

Here’s just a small sample of what I’ve come across in the past week or so. The National Zoo recently opened a new elephant exhibit that cost a whopping $56 million. The Oregon Zoo plans to exceed that with their own $58 million elephant exhibit. Meanwhile the Houston Zoo will open a $28 million gorilla exhibit in 2015, while this summer the Dakota Zoo will open a small primate exhibit that, by comparison, is dirt cheap at only $750,000. As I sat down to write this blog, another one came in. The Indianapolis Zoo is planning a $30 million orangutan exhibit. Those few projects come in at a staggering $172.75 million and that’s just the tip of the proverbial “new exhibit” iceberg.

About three years ago I added up all the zoo capital projects that were featured in articles in a 1 month period. I’m sure I didn’t see them all, but what I did see added up to $1.213 billion dollars. They’d house at most a few hundred individuals representing a motley assortment of species. All in the name of conservation.

Most of the zoo promotional material that’s used to rationalize these obscenely expensive exhibits feature vague claims about how important they are to public education, conservation and how they’ll produce a positive conservation outcome that will benefit animals and their wild habitats. Of course, most of that commentary is unsubstantiated, meaningless and self-serving. The reality is that most zoos talk the talk, but when it comes down to putting their money where their mouth is, they don’t do much to help. Instead, they construct monuments to waste and pat themselves on the back for doing it.

There are thousands of conservation projects around the world that are starving for funds. They’re aimed at preserving habitat, conducting anti-poaching patrols, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, fighting the wild animal parts trade and addressing a plethora of other concerns. Pick a handful of these projects at random, look at their cost and at what they can accomplish and it becomes abundantly clear why they should be funded and not the new zoo exhibits.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How The Zoo Industry Shoots Itself In The Foot


There is a wave of apprehension at least, if not outright fear, permeating the internal communications of the zoo industry. They have created an enemy, and the enemy is us, the animal protection movement, which they have elevated to near-mythical proportions, a commanding force poised to destroy them.

I say created because instead of listening to concerns voiced by those of us who work to promote compassion for animals, they assure themselves we are villainous, ill-informed and disingenuous. That, with exceptions to be sure, is the thrust of their propaganda. They also create a narrative for themselves, to justify their own industry.

On both counts they misrepresent. If I were disposed to sell out the animal protection movement and help the zoo industry, I would urge them to do one thing above all else. But I’m willing to do that anyway because I am not the ideologue they have invented; I just care about animals. It is not zoos or keeping animals in captivity that concern me; I want to oppose the abuse of animals and work for the conservation of species. I am not saying that there isn’t a role for zoos to play in helping animals — there is, but too often it is not the one that they claim. And so I’ll call them on it, as will many of my colleagues.

The free advice? Be truthful. Put another way, don’t deceive yourself and if you do, well, don’t be disappointed, angry or resentful if we who care about animals, professionally or otherwise, expose you.

Take Bowmanville Zoo. Bowmanville is located east of Toronto, and claims to be the oldest private zoo In North America, starting in 1919 as the Cream of Barley Park, featuring recreational facilities and a small petting zoo. The late Keith Connell, who used to own it, was a classmate of my mother’s, was the importer of the first potbellied pigs into Canada, and used to keep so many camels that he laughingly called himself “the Camel King of Canada.” He and I were frequent guests on a children’s television show, 30-plus years ago, so I knew the zoo well.

It is now run by Michael Hackenberger, who claims it maintains “the largest stable of trained animals in North America” and “has become a leading supplier of animal talent to the television, movie and entertainment industry.”

“Life of Pi”? It contains scenes with a real, not computer-generated, tiger show Jonas, from Bowmanville Zoo, now dead. He had been shipped to Taiwan for the filming, but later was found to have a large hole in his diaphragm, that the liver passed through, pressing on the lungs. It was a serious congenital defect that had gone undetected until the tiger died on the operating table, well before Oscar night assured the movie’s fame. He had been taken from his mother when only about 8 grams (about 28 ounces).

Bowmanville Zoo has a single Asian elephant, who, in her fourth decade, is near the end of the lifespan for captive elephants in Canada. Hackenberger makes money renting that elephant out, but as we are increasingly aware, Canada is not kind to elephants. Too cold and damp. No matter. He would like another elephant.

So he has applied to import one from the United States. Here’s his problem. It is not legal to simply import elephants for commercial use. So the “leading supplier of animal talent to the television, movie and entertainment industry” wants the elephant for “conservation.”

Conservation? Well, the problem is that under international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), you can’t import certain endangered species, including elephants, “for primarily commercial purposes.” A great many species of wild animal and plant species have become endangered precisely because of their great commercial value. Elephants are no exception. The enormous value of the ivory in their tusks has motivated widespread slaughter. Poaching for ivory is widely recognized as one of two leading causes in precipitous declines in both Asian and African elephants. The other problem is encroachment and subsequent destruction of their habitat.

Keeping an elephant in a private zoo east of Toronto does not address either issue. Therefore, in applying for permission to import Colonel, an Asian elephant from an Oklahoma circus, Hackenberger apparently must claim that the aim is conservation. So he is proposing using the elephant to raise money “to engage and motivate the Punjabi community in the greater Toronto area to commit time and money” to Asian elephant conservation, once those needs have been identified in northwestern India. But you don’t need an elephant to do that, nor is it explained how this will prevent poaching for ivory, or habitat destruction. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund raise multi-millions without using captive animals (or, sadly, stemming the steady decline in either African or Asian elephants).

But wait, there’s more. Bowmanville Zoo also is proposing some sort of breeding, using the sperm of Colonel to inseminate a female elephant in the Calgary Zoo, through artificial insemination. But Calgary Zoo is wisely phasing out its elephants, has its own bull elephant, and Americans are as adept as Canadians at extracting and shipping elephant sperm, although why bother? An inability to breed is not the problem facing wild elephants!

Captive Asian elephants do poorly in our zoos, have high infant mortality, and the North American captive population is not self-sustaining. Data from 1962 to 2006 from North American and European studbooks show that of 349 elephant calves born in zoos, 142 died prematurely.

Zoos are desperately seeking to rationalize keeping wild animals by doing all kinds of research. For example, five elephants of two species from Bowmanville were used to determine “appropriate ibuprofen dosages for elephants.” This, it’s argued, will be useful in “pain management” when you translocate Asian elephants. Other research was into biochemical changes associated with breeding, although I repeat, wild elephants are much better at breeding than captive ones, and none of this research really has anything to do with reversing the decline in these species. It is the ivory trade that is primarily destroying them, coupled with human population growth and subsequent habitat loss.

Last May Dr. Peter Brewer, vice chair of the Zoological Association of America, endorsed moving Colonel to Bowmanville, saying, “Ongoing reproductive research planned with the University of Pretoria and Trent University will continue to elucidate captive and wild strategies for the enhancement of elephant populations.”

That’s the kind of things zoos love to say to justify what clearly appears to be simply a commercial transaction. We know, full well and with vast documentation contained in a plethora of reports and studies, exactly why elephants are endangered. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to breed. Wild elephants are good at that, and when left alone, survive quite well. So when the zoo community seeks to fool us, seeks to suggest that anything new we learn as a result of some bit of enhanced understanding of elephant hormones will invariably enhance conservation, don’t blame us for pointing out just how ridiculous and self-serving that really is.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA