Volume 92, Issue 24

Friday, October 16, 1998

arresting developments


Spending a lifetime behind bars

Graphic by Brahm Wiseman

By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

Remember all those class trips to the zoo when you were in elementary school? Every kid loves watching the animals and making faces at them from behind the safety of the bars. It always seems a happy, shiny place to be – Simon and Garfunkel even wrote a song about it.

It may be a happy place for people who visit the zoo, but for the animals held captive there, it may be a whole different story. There are many zoos which go to great lengths to ensure they meet the physical, psychological and social needs of the animals but, unfortunately, there are many more which do not.

"For the most part, the needs of animals are fully met, but there are good zoos and bad zoos," says Toby Styles, executive director of marketing and communications at the Metro Toronto Zoo.

Most of the better zoos go to great lengths to ensure the needs of animals are met and their zoo environment comes as close to their natural environment as possible.

"Mostly what's done is enrichment to keep as much variety in their lives as possible," says Colin Springette, curator at Storybook Gardens. "In the wild they are stimulated by hunting – in a pen they get bored so you have to stimulate them. There are all sorts of different ways for it. We make them work for their food, like give a seal a fish frozen into a block of ice," he explains.

Created centuries ago as private entertainment for rich nobility and royals, zoos have grown into hugely popular entertainment centres for the general public. Today there are nearly 6,000 zoos in North America, ranging from small, privately-owned places to ones of international renown, such as the San Diego Zoo and the Metro Toronto Zoo.

"Zoos put things back," Springette says. "You can reintroduce animals into the wild. For example, the California Condor was almost extinct, but then it was bred in captivity by zoos and re-released in the wild and continued to populate the area. Last year they took the bald eagle off the endangered species list. This would never have happened if it weren't for zoos."

Springette also points out zoos help raise awareness of animals and make people feel more inclined to help out when there is a need for funds. Everyone is accustomed to seeing animals on television, but the experience of seeing them close up may inspire a whole new appreciation for the animals and their role within the ecosystem.

However, according to a study of zoo visitors done in 1989, this is not necessarily the case, explains Rob Laidlaw, a director at Zoocheck Canada.

"In the review, they found that there was no shift in attitudes of people after their visit, as the zoos propose. The second result was that any appreciation of animals as part of an ecosystem decreased. The last thing was that people didn't want to learn about the animals because that seemed like work and they didn't go to the zoo to work," Laidlaw says.

Zoocheck is an advocacy organization which promotes awareness for the proper treatment of animals in captivity, more specifically in zoos, circuses, aquariums and exotic pets. One of the problems with ensuring the proper care of animals in zoos is there is no legislation regarding zoos. Anyone can open a zoo and no one monitors the treatment of the animals, Laidlaw says.

"In Canada, jurisdiction regarding animals lies with the provinces – there's nothing in Ontario. We have the worst zoos in the country," Laidlaw says. "Provincial [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] acts on the issue are enforced by local or provincial humane societies. We have humane societies across the country that refuse to deal with zoos."

Although zoos are a great entertainment centre for the public, most animal rights groups are opposed to keeping animals in captivity for entertainment purposes and strongly advocate the proper treatment of the animals if they are to be kept.

"We don't believe that animals should be kept in captivity for human entertainment," says Jackie Barnes, one of the directors for the Animal Alliance. "Zoos believe in preservation and we believe in conservation. The interests of the animals often become subservient to the interests of humans," she adds.

Often, zoos can't afford or don't know how to give animals the proper care to keep them physically and psychologically healthy. Patrons of the zoo don't recognize signs of stress or unhappiness in the animals but the signs are there and to the trained eye, it is apparent many of these animals are under much stress, Laidlaw says.

"Psychological problems manifest themselves in a variety of ways," Laidlaw says. "The most obvious is pacing, but there are all kinds of other ways that the public wouldn't recognize. It's stereotypic behaviours – mechanical, meaningless repetitive movement that becomes habitual and they can't stop. This kind of behaviour occurs in animals in the wild."

The stress can result from all kinds of problems, such as space constrictions, proximity to other animals and living conditions which are too far removed from what the animal's natural environment would provide.

"These animals are placed in situations that they never experience in the wild and as a result they suffer," Laidlaw says. "But because the animals aren't screaming out in pain, it isn't attended to."

Basically there's nothing more that animal rights groups can do than attempt to raise awareness and ensure animals are living under the best possible conditions if they have to be kept in captivity. For example, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is not opposed to zoos in principle, but only approve of zoos which maintain all the animals needs and contribute to maintaining species, says Shelagh MacDonald, program director of the CFHS.

"Efforts should be made to come as close as possible to how their lives would be if they lived in the wild. The animals' needs should not be compromised by economical factors," MacDonald says. "We are not in favour of zoos, only accepting of them. Ideally, I don't think anyone could argue that it's not best for an animal to live in its natural environment."

To Contact The Focus Department: gazette.focus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998