The most common accusation levelled against zoos
is one of cruelty. Is it cruel to keep animals in a zoo?
In the United Kingdom, The RSPCA, guardian of Britains
conscience in these matters, is ambivalent in its attitude towards zoos.
Officially it is neither pro-zoo, nor anti-zoo. Instead it claims to support good zoos and
to oppose bad ones. Most zoo visitors are similarly even-minded about the issue. And yet
the question is valid nonetheless. Is it possible that we have somehow become inured to
the concept of animal captivity, in the same way perhaps as two centuries ago we might
have accepted the concept of slavery, or as the Romans accepted the principle of human
sacrifice as entertainment? Will future generations look back upon our own as barbaric
because of our treatment of zoo animals?
Like so many of the issues that surround zoos, a lot depends
upon your assessment of the extremes. Who, for example, would take offence at the sight of
a well-fed native pony grazing in an acre field? Few people would see cruelty there. Yet
who would not feel sorry for a tiger in a circus trailer, endlessly pacing before the
bars. By understanding that there is a spectrum of possible conditions of captivity from
national parks to battery pigs, and by appreciating that we all have a threshold beyond
which we will point the finger and say 'that is cruel' - we can begin to delimit the types
of zoos that we can accept. Of course there will be those will condemn even the captive
moorland pony, and for them no zoo will ever meet with their satisfaction. There is
nothing wrong with this attitude. It is a perfectly rational point of view, and those that
hold it are genuine animal lovers with a real concern for animal welfare.
But most zoo keepers are genuine animal lovers too. They believe
that animals in their charge are contented and as 'happy' as their wild relations.
Certainly zoo animals do tend to live longer lives, to feed better, and to suffer from
fewer parasites or diseases. They live without the fear of predation; they live without
famine. And the freedom, that they also live without, is seen by people like Gerald
Durrell as a purely human construct, largely irrelevant to the day to day lives of
So how should we determine whether a zoo enclosure is cruel or
not? Zoologists can try to assess how similar the behaviour of a captive animal is to a
wild animal of the same species - but it does not necessarily follow that, for example, a
wolf that sleeps all day in a zoo cage is less happy than a hungry wild wolf whose time is
spent searching for food. Similarly it may be unreasonable to assume that animals are
happiest in an environment that mimics their own wild habitat. John Knowles of Marwell Zoo
theorises that animals like the scimitar-horned oryx, which normally pick out a meagre
existence in the semi-desert scrubland of the Sahara, do so not because they choose or
enjoy this harsh environment, but because they have been forced to the fringes by species
better equipped to out-compete them elsewhere. According to this theory the scimitar-homed
oryx should be in heaven among the lush meadows of Hampshire - as indeed they seem to be.
The lions at zoos like Chester in the North of England are offered the option every winter
day of centrally heated accommodation, or the chill winds of Cheshire. They virtually
always choose to brave the elements, even preferring ice and snow to the warmth indoors a
reminder perhaps that altlf6ugh we think of lions as tropical animals, they once roamed
throughout Europe, and their current range is directly due to human intervention.
For the visitor, trying to assess cruelty is made all the more
difficult because we do not always know, and cannot always see, what becomes of the
animals at night when all the people have gone home. Very often this is when the real
process of confinement takes place. Many zoo enclosures are designed primarily for daytime
occupation, with the primary design requirement of the sleeping quarters being to separate
animals and keep them from physical harfn until the keepers return in the morning.
For years zoos have responded to accusations of cruelty by adopting a defensive
attitude. They have used a 'we know best' approach, lecturing their visitors in an attempt
to persuade us all to accept their definitions of what is cruel and what is not. But,
Canute-like, the tide has begun to engulf them. Public attitudes have changed faster than
zoo cages. Cages that were hailed as liberating and progressive ten years ago are now seen
by visitors as unacceptable. This is undoubtedly frustrating for the zoos, but if they are
to survive they will have to understand that the customer is always right. They will have
to learn to measure public attitudes and to keep their collections one step ahead of the
moving window of public opinion. And in the end zoos ought to be prepared to accept that
there may be species (like the dolphin perhaps, or the polar bear) for whom they cannot
realistically recreate the fundamentals of life. If they wish to avoid accusations of
cruelty then they will need to put their money where it can best be used, to help species
that can best benefit with the best regard to welfare