We shouldnt let animals die in entertainment venues. Urban zoos where we could view wildlife through VR would reinforce the conservation message
It really is a damning report. Of more than 1,500 animals kept at Cumbrias South Lakes Safari zoo between December 2013 and September 2016, 486 were found to have died. Emaciation, hypothermia, accidental electrocution, gastrointestinal infections, a decomposing squirrel monkey found behind a radiator, two dead snow leopards. At the same time, the zoo was hit with a 255,000 fine for health and safety breaches after one of its keepers was mauled by a Sumatran tiger.
Next Monday we shall find out whether Barrow in Furness borough council is going to renew the zoos licence. Meanwhile animal rights activists, wildlife conservationists and pro-zoo campaigners will watch from the wings, ready to renew that perennial debate: are zoos worth it? Are they worth the fuss? Do they really help save animals in the wild? Is there more they can do?
In the past decade I have seen the best of zoos, I think. I have seen zoos mobilise conservation work in the far reaches of the world to save species few people had ever thought worth the bother. I have seen zoo staff hand-rearing threatened spiders, and I have released the creatures progeny into the wild with my own two hands. I have worked with zoo scientists who collect and analyse garden frogs and birds day in, day out, monitoring the spread of non-native diseases across Britain.
But I have also had the kind of moments that I suspect you have had when visiting zoos with children. Moments when I have seen my kids go face to face with a playful chimp on the other side of the glass, and become startled at the likeness between them. Moments when I have locked eyes with a captive gorilla and seen sadness or worse, utter contempt. An intense, dark, loathing stare as it sat looking at me from an artificially-lit wet room while the rain fell outside. A zoological breaking of the fourth wall.
As long as wild apes are saved, perhaps the captivity of this creature is worth it, we think before carrying on to the next exhibit.
Many of our best zoos (particularly those associated with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) have boundless energy for the conservation cause. They offer educational workshops for schools and families. Their displays and literature are carefully considered. They captive-breed animals with immense consideration and expertise, building up stock for (sadly infrequent) release back into the wild. Zoo staff care, in most cases, deeply for their collections.
But are care and a commitment to conservation enough on their own? Do they justify the existence of zoos? Time is, after all, running out. Just last week we learned that one in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that this will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless we find better and more effective ways to save them. Although the zoo model has changed a great deal since the days of chimps tea parties and punters riding the exhibits, it is still fundamentally a place where people pay to look at animals. Could zoos evolve in a new direction before it is too late?
What might a utopian zoo look like? I find myself imagining urban zoos that use augmented reality, where visitors marvel at computer-generated creatures like mammoths from the past, and compare their fate with those of modern-day threatened species. Zoos without fences, where tigers and polar bears and other simulated creatures walk among the people. Zoos in cities in which visitors put on VR goggles and watch herds of migrating wildebeest in Africa. Zoos with live feeds on big screens that show minute-by-minute footage of the wild treasures of the deepest Amazon. Zoos where urban nature has infilled the exhibits of old, where former penguin ponds become great crested newt ponds. A world where Be a keeper for the day schemes are replaced by Be an elephant ranger for a day schemes, where zoo visitors in Regents Park fly remote-controlled drones over elephants and rhinos in Africa, protecting them from poachers.
You can laugh, but whats so bad about ideas like these? They involve no captivity. There are no animals to feed and otherwise look after. The conservation message would come across far louder and clearer. No: people want to see live animals! The purists will grumble. But do zoo animals live and breathe and reproduce like wild animals? Im no longer sure.
Innovation should be a hallmark of the modern zoo, not overstretched collections where well-intentioned curators let innocent animals die, the hopes of their species miscommunicated to an often indifferent public.
For, if the report into South Lakes Safari zoo shows us anything, it is the staggering amounts of suffering that can occur in zoos that are run at over capacity, even with good intentions. It is right that we put them regularly in the spotlight. If conservation really is the rallying cry of the best zoos then they must express it in new and creative ways. Those zoos that cant keep up will die, their collections taken over, rehomed or worse. Survival of the fittest not of the animals but of those organisations and people who are supposed to be caring for them.