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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

How Zoos Defeat Their Own Propaganda: Part 1

Friendly Advice from the Perceived Enemy

Published 09/06/13

In theory, the more reputable zoos and I have the same goals: to conserve wildlife, to protect animals, and to educate the public about the wonders of nature. Yeah, right.

But, most zoos aim to merely entertain the public, with success measured by numbers of people through the gate. At my own Toronto Zoo, for species after species, “education” consists of a sign giving English, French, and scientific name of the species and what continent it can be found on, in the wild. But, even when signs are more informative, they are seldom read—and, regardless of what one wants to believe, the little research that has been done indicates that, even when good information about animals is provided, people learn very little. (I admit, too, that I’m distressed by how “simplified” zoos make the natural world seem: a topic I’ll chat about one day.)

But, zoos can still breed endangered animals, thus serving conservation needs. Right?

There’s certainly a role for captive breeding and release programs, which have shown nascent success in saving some species, such as scimitar-horned oryx, California condors, and black-footed ferrets. However, such endeavors don’t require zoos. In fact, to succeed, most must be done away from the public scrutiny: so much a part of the zoo experience. The oryx are maintained in remote, huge compounds in their African homeland, and it is the threat of poaching—not an inability to breed—that most threatens them. The concept of captive breeding and release is not to condition animals born in captivity to the presence of humans, as happens in zoos—but to try to keep them and their experiences as natural as possible, even preventing them from seeing humans (let alone being on public display).

Zoos blur that fact and play the “conservation card” to an absurd degree, even to the detriment of real conservation. An egregious example just came to light when the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) recently published a list of the ten species most “reliant for survival on zoos.” Shamefully, they said of the critically endangered San Martin titi monkey, that zoos “…are vital partners in the only conservation initiative working to protect this species.”

Huh? The monkeys aren’t even kept in zoos. What threatens them in the tiny part of Peru where they occur is hunting and deforestation, both being fought locally by conservation groups, which are working hard with minuscule budgets compared to those of European and North American zoos. BIAZA may send money, but to essentially claim that such conservation groups don’t even exist actually hurts the fundraising of the conservationists working to protect the monkeys.

The threats to nearly all of these species are “habitat loss and hunting,” which zoos don’t address by virtue of being zoos. They may teach visitors that forests are under threat in Madagascar, but someone standing in front of a sign in a zoo does not stop that. Zoo visitors don’t arm themselves and stand between gorillas and poachers. The zoos’ effectual contribution comes from “in situ” funding—funding directed to the locations where these species naturally occur—and it forms a diminutive, if any, part of the zoo’s expenditures. Our own Toronto Zoo spent millions “upgrading” the gorilla exhibit, although gorillas are still kept away from vegetation in an environment that is a tiny fraction of one percent as richly varied and interesting to them as their native habitat—and none of this, in any way, helps gorillas. There is no way that they are ever going to be sent home. The only vegetation they might reach is protected by an electrified wire. Yes, the public is told that they are threatened by the bush meat trade and deforestation (by a mural showing trees being cut down). But, oh, how much difference those millions would have made had they been spent on real conservation, in Africa, where the fate of the species will be decided, and where there is a huge need for funding.

Zoos discredit themselves when they mislead the public. Next week: elephants and zoos.

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