Hardship of Captive Elephants
May Point to an End for All Zoos
A report about elephants living in zoos in England is reviving the argument against keeping not just the great beasts but all wild animals in captivity. The discussion is going on for quite some time now and both sides seemed to have valid arguments in their favor. Lately, though, there’s growing evidence that the practice ultimately causes more harm than good to the animals.
Despite the greatly improved conditions of living for captive animals created in the past 40 years, we seem to be approaching the inevitable moment when zoos, as we know them, will altogether cease to exist, and efforts at preservation of wild species will be focused on their original habitat.
A report by the U.K.’s government’s advisory committee this week endorsed previous research pointing to severe welfare problems with the estimated 70 elephants currently being kept in England, ranging from obesity to obsessive behavior. It was greeted with criticism by the RSPCA, though, for stopping short of recommending an end for all confinement.
There’re two major arguments in favor of the existence of zoos, and an infinitude of reasons why they no longer make much sense. Preservation is often invoked, for the majority of wild animals’ natural habitats is under threat of extinction either because of the expansion of neighboring human populations, the threat of warfare, or lack of resources by the states where they are located.
The other argument is education. Generations of children wouldn’t have had the exposure and almost direct contact with real living animals hadn’t been for the spreading of zoos throughout the world in the 20 Century. Zoos also represented an enormous improvement from the time when circuses were the only vehicles for showcasing wild animals to poor populations.
It’s undeniable that human presence, either by the way of natural community grow, or more lethally, through escalation of local warfare, will be always harmful to natural habitats and the animals that live in them. But resources required to relocate, feed and keep such animals in zoos are equivalent to building ways to protect them, if not right at their place of birth, at least in nearby reservation parks.
Such pragmatic approach, however complex and demanding, is still preferable than the complete artificial way of exposing such magnificent creatures to city smog and noise pollution, and forced, uninterrupted exposure to prying eyes that the animals are subjected once in the confines of a zoo.
Keeping them relatively free is also how evolution built them to be. Animals need to hunt for food, not being fed. If we can’t at least minimally reproduce such conditions, we might as well come up with another solution, rather than literally package them for entertainment purposes, however well meaningful they may be.
Children all over the world today are much more familiar with wild life, or what’s left of it, than even 50 years ago. And if poverty is preventing them from being educated and technologically informed about the wonders of the natural world, that’s an approach infinitely more effective to pursue.
Another factor that conspires against any pious view of “conservatism” is its complete alienation of our own relationship with all animals, not just the wild ones. In other words, talk about educating children on the importance of preserving animals becomes rather flaky, if we’re not willing to discuss why sometimes it’s Ok to preserve them, and sometimes it’s Ok to eat them.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If we start with the elephants in England, we’ll have a leg to stand on everywhere else. It’s time to do the grown-up thing and start phasing out zoos worldwide. This world is still vast and there’re a lot of other things we can use to educate and entertain our children about it. The display of living, breathing creatures should be no longer part of them.