In defence of captivity

JUNE 21 ― Back to back human-wildlife encounters shocked the world in the past two weeks. Regrettably, these animals, like many others in the past, paid the ultimate price: their lives.

Oddly enough, the reason these interactions made international headlines was not because they occurred deep in the wilderness or at the edges of human and wildlife cohabitation, but because they took place in the apparent safety of zoo enclosures.

In the Santiago Zoo, Chile, two African lions mauled a suicidal man who tried to feed himself to them. Only about a week later, a Western lowland mountain gorilla named Harambe handled a young boy who fell into its enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio.

Arguably these incidents were caused by human error: the former by a mentally unstable person; the latter, lackadaisical parenting or poor enclosure design. Yet at the end of the day, members from two charismatic species were shot dead.

No, I am not advocating for the potential loss in human life to occur. Although sometimes unfair, human lives have always been assigned a higher value.

The issue here is that such interactions are still very possible. Forgive me for being snide but apparently animals are now not safe from us even in the facilities that ironically were meant to provide a secure environment for research and education.

Safe environment?

But how could they be? In zoos, every aspect of an animal’s life is controlled by their zookeepers. From their diets to their daily routines, all right down to whom they mate with. Should we then abolish the idea of animal captivity? And why?

The establishment of such facilities is arguably a form of Nature commodification. By keeping individuals of certain species in captivity, Nature is divided into discrete units that can then be traded, bought or sold in a figurative market.

This has been happening for a long time, with many zoos around the world establishing breeding programmes to allow for animal mobility. These individuals and the babies that follow are then included in the exhibits to increase revenue from visitors.

The most apt example of this commodification has to be the Giant panda. Once successfully breeding them in captivity, China has been gifting pandas to countries that they want to do business with since the 1950s.

Having a pair of Giant pandas in your national zoo is desirable as it is a sign of warm relations with a world economic powerhouse. This panda diplomacy policy has since been converted into 10-year loans with annual fees of up to US$1 million (RM4.06 million).

Aside from this, keeping rare and exotic species in captivity creates a spectacle for the human eye. This spectacular Nature can then be marketed as “must-have” experiences for further monetary gain. The animal show is born!

Animal trainers focus their entire careers on trying to get wildlife to perform better, more outstanding tricks to satisfy the consumer. The methods used to achieve that, however, can sometimes be questionable.

 A role to play

Critical theory aside, I personally believe that zoos have a role to play in modern-day conservation. First of all, the establishment of such facilities has been instrumental in efforts to educate the people about wildlife; be it about general characteristics like physiology and distribution to more pressing issues like its conservation status and threats to wild populations.

Indeed for many, a visit to the zoo is possibly their first encounter with non-humans. I argue that these experiences will be able captivate attention from a young age and subsequently spark an interest in the natural world. Children exposed to such an enriching experience grow up to be adults who are more sensitive to the plight of wildlife and environment at large.

Besides that, the modern-day zoo has adapted and moved beyond just keeping animals as exhibits or putting them on show. Larger zoos have now established charity arms that give out research grants for conservation especially to individuals working in developing countries where expertise and funds are few and far between.

These grants come from ticket sales and donors who visit the zoos. A good example of such a programme is the EDGE of Existence fellowship by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) that trains and provides funds for young conservationists working on the world’s most evolutionary distinct and globally endangered (EDGE) species. Personally, I see the captivity of certain wildlife as sacrificial to the benefit of their kin in the wild.

The prevention of extinction through captive or what biologists call ex-situ breeding is by far the most concrete example of what zoos can offer to the world as compared to the previous two arguments.

There have been many species that have been brought back from the brink of a true extinction with intervention from zoos. Take the Arabian Oryx for example. The last wild specimen was shot in 1972 but reintroduction from captive bred herds in the Phoenix zoo and several private collections meant that they stood a fighting chance to re-establish themselves in pre-existing ranges.

Today, there are about 1,000 individuals in the wild leading to the upgrade in conservation status from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered” ― a major win for conservation. Other species that have been successfully reintroduced from captive populations in the last century include the Pere David’s deer and Przewalski’s horse.

Better governance required

As a young conservationist, I have struggled with this issue many a time; constantly posing captivity related questions to my peers and mentors. And through often lengthy and fiery discussions, I have come to the conclusion that keeping animals in captivity has a net positive effect on the survivability of wildlife at large; even more so now, with the world facing intense anthropogenic duress.

The challenge then is to ensure captive facilities are better governed. Because it is not uncommon to encounter reports of mismanaged zoos. So we need to apply the highest standards. Among them include policies to control the number of licenses given, ensuring a sustainable financing plan prior to operations, promotion of captive breeding and so on. Zoos are at risk of becoming mere cash machines oblivious to the plight of wild populations without strict regulations and enforcement.

It is naïve to think that no species will go extinct in our lifetime. Hence conservation efforts to prevent them from that fate is proof of our species’ altruistic nature. To do so by completely ignoring viable solutions offered by zoos, however, is blatant hypocrisy.

* This article was written by an Associate Editor from CEKU, the editorial arm of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC).

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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