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Zoochotic: Is Keeping Wild Animals in Captivity Crazy?

From Animal Issues, Volume 39 Number 1, Spring 2008

Published 03/31/08
By Adam M. Roberts, Senior Vice President

On Christmas Day 2007, a 4-year-old Siberian tiger called Tatiana escaped her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo, fatally mauling 17-year-old Carlos Sousa, Jr. and injuring two other men, brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal. The story instantly made international headlines and commentators from all backgrounds took to the airwaves to offer hypotheses of how such a dreadful tragedy could have occurred.

Sadly, this was not an unexpected tragedy. A year prior to the deadly December incident, Tatiana injured a zookeeper at the zoo during a regular publicly viewed feeding.

Do wild animals belong in captivity in America? In a word, no. Caging wild animals in perpetuity — isolated from their natural habitat, deprived of freedom, and without psychological, environmental, and social enrichment — is inhumane. There is no conclusive educational benefit to keeping wild animals in captivity, and our collective focus must be the conservation of species in the wild.

Is Your Zoo “Safe”?

The San Francisco Zoo, like more than 200 other similar institutions in America, is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This represents a mere 10 percent of the total number of similar facilities in America, which are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but not accredited by the zoo industry.

AZA accreditation standards with respect to public safety mandate: “Institutions maintaining potentially dangerous animals (sharks, whales, tigers, bears, etc.) must have appropriate safety procedures in place to prevent attacks and injuries by these animals.” Clearly this was not the case in San Francisco.

Furthermore, popular press refers to the AZA recommendation that wall height in tiger enclosures be 16.4 feet high (5 meters). In fact, the 1994 Tiger Species Survival Program Husbandry Manual, according to AZA CEO Jim Maddy, suggests a minimum wall height of 5 meters (16.4 feet) for a tiger exhibit. “This suggestion is not a standard of [AZA] accreditation,” Maddy acknowledged. “AZA’s mandatory accreditation standards state: ‘All animal exhibits and holding areas must be secured to prevent unintentional egress.’”

After the death of a zoo visitor by an animal in an AZA-accredited facility, one might expect an industry-wide evaluation of standards at accredited facilities to ensure the highest level of animal welfare and public safety.

The AZA reaction was, to the contrary, one of self-defense rather than self-evaluation. Mr. Maddy issued a statement on December 26 declaring, “AZA-accredited zoos are safe. Until this incident, there had not been a visitor fatality resulting from an animal escape at an AZA-accredited zoo.”

Pay close attention to two words in that carefully constructed public relations proclamation: “fatality” and “escape.” No visitors have been killed at AZA-accredited zoos after an animal escaped. What does that comment hide? Statistics compiled by Born Free USA united with API identify 12 human injuries and 2 deaths at AZA facilities since 2000 — from incidents with big cats alone! These numbers increase almost fourfold when including roadside zoos and people owning exotic animals as pets. This doesn’t even factor in escapes without incident.

Want to get the real picture? Consider the following samples of what has occurred nationwide in the past few years:

  • A zookeeper is attacked and critically injured by a 5-year-old Sumatran tiger at the San Antonio Zoo.
  • A zookeeper at the Denver Zoo dies after a jaguar mauls her in the doorway of his exhibit. The jaguar is shot dead.
  • A 19-year-old lion attacks a zoo worker at the Birmingham Zoo.
  • A zookeeper at the Sacramento Zoo is attacked by a Sumatran tiger at feeding time.
  • A zookeeper at Busch Gardens in Florida has her arm ripped off while she is giving her family a private tour.
  • A lion at the National Zoo kills a woman who manages to enter the lion’s unnatural den.
  • A tiger at the Miami Metrozoo kills a keeper when the keeper opens the door to the tiger’s cage.

This is merely a random sampling of incident reports. Now re-read Mr. Maddy’s claim about fatal animal escapes. Technically correct? Perhaps. But do you feel safe at or near your local zoo?

Keep Wildlife in the Wild

In captivity, animals are kept in unnatural surroundings, in artificial physical and (often) social environments with little mental and physical stimulation. What is the educational benefit of seeing an animal exhibited in such a way that is dramatically removed from reality in the wild? The AZA’s own examination acknowledges that “Little to no systematic research has been conducted on the impact of visits to zoos and aquariums on visitor conservation knowledge, awareness, affect, or behavior.” Zoo visitors spend at best minutes — but often just seconds — at an exhibit glancing at an animal. Perhaps there is some signage on the cage; perhaps it is more than a few bullet points. This is not educational. This is entertainment; and dubious entertainment at that.

And what of conservation? Tens of millions of dollars can be spent altering enclosures — with little practical effect for the animals. But that same money invested in conservation in the wild places where animals live naturally would reap benefits for years to come. Ten million dollars invested in anti-poaching efforts around Mount Kenya, for instance, could fund vital, life-saving conservation initiatives into the next century! In an American urban zoo that’s maybe a single, modest animal enclosure. Put the money into the wild ... that’s real conservation.

Born Free USA united with API has urged a detailed federal examination of animal welfare and public safety conditions at all American zoos. We have sent letters to the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture demanding an in-depth examination of current oversight at this nation’s zoos, with the ultimate goal of determining what specific immediate and long-term steps need to be taken to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare and to prevent another harmful human/animal interaction from ever occurring again.

Specifically, we hope to attain an immediate safety review for all facilities; an analysis of the Animal Welfare Act to identify specific areas where deficiencies exist in providing the highest level of care to captive exotic species; and a thorough examination of the thousands of licensed animal exhibitors to determine which facilities should be closed down immediately based on substandard animal welfare conditions and/or heightened risk to human visitors, and which facilities should be required to implement detailed modifications to the facility in general or to specific enclosures to ensure animal welfare and public safety needs are met fully and in order to achieve license approval.

The Future Is Ours

Ironically, wild tigers are rapidly disappearing from the planet. A century ago as many as 100,000 wild tigers roamed across their natural range. Now, an estimated 3,000 cling perilously to existence. We should not live in a world where more tigers are held in private hands in America or tiger factories in China than are living freely in the wild.

You can help: We want you to help us identify those places where animal welfare is being compromised or public safety might be at risk. See our new Zoo Check campaign. Download our zoo checklist and get to work! Using the list as a guide for what to look for, visit your local zoo to fill out the form, then send the information with photos and/or video back to us (or use the online zoo checklist submission form).

We will catalogue your reports in our central database and encourage action by local or national authorities whenever needed. With your help we can bring justice to the animals in captivity across the U.S.! We will fight to improve conditions for animals currently languishing desperately on cement and behind bars. Saving them, after all, is our reason for being.

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