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Lions, Eagles and Owls: What Are Zoos Teaching Us About Them?

Published 02/27/12

Ash died suddenly and violently in front of many onlookers, including children. “It was over in seconds,” one woman reportedly stated. “People were horrified. Women and children were screaming. My little boy was in tears.”

Ash was 9 years old and her death seemed to amuse some other folks, according to letters to the editor in response to the news reports.

And what did we learn? The death did happen at a facility that, we are told, is educational.

(Artwork by Barry Kent MacKay)

Ash was a barn owl, and her death occurred on Jan. 28, 2012, at Colchester Zoo, in England, where she lived and brutally died. It happened as she was being flown as part of a falconry exhibit. According to subsequent reports, the hapless bird flew into a window, landed on a ledge in the African lion enclosure, where, dazed, she was subsequently batted down to the floor of the cage by one of the lions. The other proceeded to eat her.

(Artwork by Barry Kent MacKay)

It was not unlike a similar incident in June 2008 when a magnificent golden eagle was being flown as part of a zoo’s falconry display, this one at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in British Columbia. The 4-year-old eagle was harassed by a flock of crows. Crows often will “mob” large raptors. According to media reports, the golden eagle landed on the ground in the lion enclosure, about 100 meters from where the falconry display took place. Two lionesses snuck up on the eagle, but their attack missed. The eagle flew, but did so straight into the jaws of a lunging third lioness. As was true of the demise of Ash, the attack on the eagle, identified as a “star performer” in the zoo’s raptor show, was over in moments.

Zoos feel under attack from increasingly vocal critics of the idea of keeping animals who are wild by nature in captivity — often, as is the case with such species as African lions, barn owls and golden eagles, in quarters that are a tiny fraction of the space utilized by their wild counterparts. Studies of animal behavior increasingly show that animals are not merely instinctively induced automatons unthinkingly reacting to various stimuli. They can think, have emotions and display stress as a result of confinement and boredom inherent to many zoo situations.

As a result, zoos seek to provide increased benign stimuli, called “enrichment,” for captive animals, while claiming that there are solid reasons we can support the incarceration of wild animals. The dominate theme is that zoos serve two socially desirable functions: conservation and education.

The conservation function is supposedly twofold. One, the public learns to appreciate endangered species by virtue of seeing them in zoos, and as a result of such appreciation, takes steps to save them. And, two, captive breeding assures that the species won’t go extinct.

(Artwork by Barry Kent MacKay)

I would challenge both contentions, and certainly whatever risks faced by barn owls, golden eagles and African lions (of which only the later would, arguably, qualify as currently endangered), they are not resolved by putting them in zoos. The number of species whose slide into extinction has been reversed certainly include some who have benefitted from captive breeding and release programs, but those programs did not require zoo infrastructure, and indeed, often occurred outside of zoos and involved species that would be quite unfamiliar to most zoo visitors. Even those that did involve zoos, such as the Mauritius pink pigeon, involved one or only a few zoos. Ask 100 American zoo visitors what they know about the Mauritius pink pigeon and you will get at least 99.99 blank stares or shrugs of the shoulders. (But we’ll help educate you: go here.).

It is the contention that zoos educate that I’d especially challenge, and such incidents as Ash’s demise serve to illustrate my point.

An essential part of every animal’s life is feeding. The range of the African lion, greatly diminished since historical times (a point I make because zoos usually don’t — there’s no reason for this essay not to be a little educative) overlaps that of barn owls. Lions (the term “African” being misleading; lions are also found in India, the last of a once-extensive Eurasian distribution; they once even lived in southern Europe, although not in the past 2,000 years) are opportunistic carnivores, so their natural prey might include the odd owl, as well as other birds right up to the size of ostriches (the biggest of all living bird species), and mammals ranging in size from mice to elephants, and including reptiles and fish, and at times even large insects.

Let me quote the lion’s feeding technique from a recent source, “Handbook of Mammals of the World, Vol. 1,” chief editors Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2009: “Individual differences in prey selection and killing techniques are discernible in different prides in the same area, indicating that learning plays a strong role in the lion’s hunting behavior; i.e. hunting of the brown fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) on the Namibian coast.”

Did you get that? Different prides (essentially family groupings) of lions will use different methods of killing prey, depending on what is available where they live, and an example that is given is the way in which lions on the desert coast of Namibia have learned to eat fur seals. Some zoos may say that in signs, although I don’t recall ever seeing it, but most zoo visitors don’t read signs. Researchers have tracked the amount of time that visitors spend reading signs, and it’s very brief, with most zoo visitors pretty well avoiding reading more than the name of the animal, at most, and that is pretty well all that many zoos will tell you about many species.

And zoos don’t educate their human visitors about how lions obtain food, and no wonder: The handbook continues, “Lions do not take account of wind direction when stalking prey; however, they will often try to cut prey off by running ahead of it. Speeds of 46 to 60 kilometers per hour may be achieved in a rush for up to a few hundred meters (usually not more than 100 to 200 meters). The attack is delivered to the rump or shoulders, with the weight of the lions often bringing the prey to the ground. Sometimes the prey’s neck is broken in falling. As soon as the prey is down it is seized by the throat or muzzle to effect strangulation. The lions feed at the site of the kill or drag it to the nearest cover. The belly is ripped open and the stomach and intestines pulled out.”

That is, emphatically, not what people go to zoos to see, nor could they, since by definition the zoo confines the lion, thus would confine the prey and create an artificial circumstance, which, of course, already pertains to zoo-kept lions. In the wild, attempts by lions to capture prey are only successful perhaps one time out of three, and sometimes the lions are injured in the process, such injury potentially being fatal as there is no way for them to be medically treated.

What, within a herd of ungulates, is captured by lions is a function of a multiplicity of interrelated factors that are the stuff of evolution, with predators and prey co-evolving through time. Too successful and the prey would be wiped out, to the detriment of the predator, but not successful enough and the predator becomes extinct, anyway. The resulting dynamic is what makes species evolve in the first instance, and it is missing from zoos. Not only does it not happen, it cannot. It requires all the diverse elements of the real world, in which predator and prey also interact with other species, diseases, parasites, weather, accidents, topography and events from cosmic to minutia that form a diversity that compares to a zoo enclosure as the number of sand grains in the Kalahari Desert compares to those in a child’s sandbox.

“Disgusting!!!” wrote one person, using the name “wearebeingwatched,” responding to the news story about Ash’s abrupt demise. “What did that owl ever do poor thing. What I want to know is why did the keepers not step in and stop the lions?”

Clearly, whatever number of lions “wearebeingwatched” has seen in whatever number of zoos, she or he is hopelessly uneducated as to lions’ feeding behavior to think keepers could “step in and stop the lions.” And of course, while the barn owl had done nothing to “deserve” death, neither had the animals who are routinely fed to the lions, or, for that matter, those who had been fed to the barn owl herself, before her death. Barn owls are also predators, although zoos are more likely to feed them mice or culled baby chicks than the horses or cows that normally are fed to the big cats.

There was the usual bantering among the e-mails responding to the story before the delightfully named “Squidward Tenticals” said, “Well done to Colchester Zoo for showing the reality of life to the crying women and children. How did they you (sic) think they hunt in the wild?”

That is the question. The answer might well be that they didn’t know by virtue of seeing lions, or owls, fed in zoos. Lions in the wild may eat carrion at times, but that’s all they eat in zoos, but for the odd wild animal entering their pens, or accidents such as those that terminated the lives of the barn owl in England or the golden eagle in Vancouver.

Or for that matter there was the baby binturong — big-eyed, super-cute whiskered little creatures — who was torn apart by two lions at the Chessington World of Adventure, a zoo in Surrey, England, a year earlier. For the children looking on in horror I don’t know what the lesson was — binturongs don’t live where lions live the wild, so aren’t “natural” prey. Presumably one does not have to see one animal tear up a baby binturong to know that the former is a predator.

Some quick questions: Lots of zoos have binturongs. Name two countries of the many where they might be found in the wild. We don’t know as much about their habits as we should, but we have a good idea of what they eat in the wild. What would that be? They belong to the family of animals known technically as Viverridae, or Viverrids; name one other species of Viverid.

If you are a naturalist, or a mammalogist, you may have had little difficulty with these very simple questions. It’s not as if I asked complex questions about breeding biology or anatomy or what have you — just basic stuff. But if you stumbled over one or another answer, and have visited any zoo in which there was a binturong on display, clearly you learned very little, if anything, about binturongs. I’d be willing to guess that many who have seen these animals in zoos don’t even remember specifically what they look like.

It’s not that zoos can’t educate. Those, myself included, who are fascinated by animals will certainly enrich our thirst for knowledge by virtue of at least some of what we’ve seen in zoos, although I must admit that precisely because of my interest in animals, I tend to get depressed by many aspects of my zoo visits. That’s because I can recognize certain conditions of stress.

Last winter I visited the Toronto Zoo with an educator who wanted to get my impressions of zoo animals. We paused at the exhibit of the Sumatran tigers. The Sumatran tiger is a subspecies of tiger native, as its name implies, to the island of Sumatra, where it is considered to be critically endangered, with maybe a few hundred wild animals left. To again quote the “Handbook of Mammals of the World, Vol. 1,” “Tiger populations have declined over many parts of Asia because of illegal hunting, commercial trade in tiger bone and derivatives, a declining prey base, and loss and degradation of habitat. ...The problem is being attacked on many fronts, including threats of sanctions against countries that do not control trade in tiger parts, establishing protected reserves, training and deployment of anti-poaching teams, identification of critical conservation units, working with traditional Chinese medical practitioners to find alternatives to tiger parts, public education campaigns deploring the use of tiger parts, habitat restoration projects, economic incentives to locals, development of suitable survey and monitoring methods, and initiation of baseline ecological research projects.”

It was hard to see how these animals were contributing to any of that, or how any zoo visitors were. We knew that this was an endangered species, but we weren’t involved in any effective conservation initiative. The city that owns the zoo was complaining about the cost to the public coffers, and looking to sell it. As for the tigers, “That’s stereotypic behavior, isn’t it?” asked my companion, as the Sumatran tiger paced up and down. I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be pointing out my concerns, but the fact is, I had seen that tiger so often, even pointed my camera exactly where it would step into focus as it steadily paced, so predictable was this stress-induced behavior that I was inured. I was taking it for granted.

A week later the younger, male Sumatran tiger lunged at the throat of the older female and crushed her trachea, killing her. Editorials exonerated the zoo on the grounds that such things happen, but that’s the point — they happen because the zoo is not the wild, it is not a place where animals choose their own mates, or have room to avoid those who might endanger them. Yes, the mortality of all animals, captive or wild, is 100 percent, but I don’t think the attack was the educational moment claimed by zoo apologists. We learn nothing of value from it, if we at least don’t learn that zoos are not the solution to endangerment they so vociferously claim to be.

It was also at the Toronto Zoo where, a few months earlier, a female polar bear killed one of three prematurely born cubs. The two were quickly removed, one died, the other survived. But at the time it was reported that polar bear males are known to kill their young in the wild. Yes, they are, but not the moms. That’s what I mean by mis-teaching. In fact, it is rare for a male to kill a young bear, and usually happens when food is scare. Food is increasingly scarce for polar bears as a result of global warming, but I don’t see how zoos are stopping that!

Zoos entertain. They rarely teach much, and much of what they teach is simply wrong or misleading. They have options, but I think it requires a revolution in thinking, a move away from putting animals in cages with signs they hope folks will read, and using technological advances to create interactive, truly educational scenarios that may or may not involve live animals. We have moved some distance from the old menagerie style of 19th and early 20th century zoos where animals were simply stockpiled, behind bars, to be gawked at, but that paradigm still dictates the underlying premise that somehow, by putting a live animal in front of a zoo visitor, education and conservation occur.

Ash’s death in the lion’s den was not a good teaching moment for anyone. She deserved better. So did the lions. They still do.

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