Do you zoo?

By Sonja Nikcevic

I’ll come right out and say it – I love zoos. And because of this, I’ve been to my fair share, local, foreign, big and small. But it’s only recently that I became fully aware of the raging zoo debate. Is it ethical to claim we love animals and then keep them locked, caged and bolted up? Although many might scream ‘No!” right off the bat, there is a lot to be taken into consideration. I won’t pretend I have an answer, or actively take a side, but I also do not plan on stopping my zoo trips anytime soon. If nothing else, I need to keep up with the ‘raging’ debate’, don’t I?

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The consumerism side is an obvious one. Zoos are a vast industry that attract more than 700 million visitors a year worldwide. Just in the US, zoos and aquariums rake in and annual $16 billion. Why stop, or even question something so profitable?

But let’s look at the bright side of the debate first, shall we? In the last two decades, we as a society have become super aware of anything that might be even slightly politically incorrect or harming. To minorities, majorities, women, men, our bodies, our children, our food – you name it, somebody is out to protect it and its rights. My ironic tone gives away the fact that I think this is going too far. One obvious upside though, is that new issues have come into the spotlight, and created competition in the capitalist world we live in. As animal rights became more and more prominent, zoos have been forced to contend with each other on how their animals are treated and who has the more realistic habitats. The greatest profiteers from this are the animals themselves. Many cages and bars have given way to more realistic enclosures and zoos worldwide (the ones with the money to do so obviously) are doing everything they can to make human-animal interaction more intimate, while giving animals the space they need. These same zoos are spending more and more of their annual revenue on conservation and breeding programs, disease studies and mass education of endangered species.

One positive example of how these aren’t just empty promises is the South China tiger, which, due to intensive conservation programs worldwide, now exists only in zoos, a large percentage of which will be experimentally released into the wild over time. Captive tigers overall are flourishing, with 15,000 to 20,000 worldwide, outnumbering their wild relatives five to one. This is due to the astounding amount of tigers that are still hunted for their pelts in both Asia and Africa, and zoos –the ones doing it right – do seem like the better place to be.

Onwards with the conservation side. A zoo owner interviewed for a documentary trailer Zoo Revolution, said what I firmly believe to be true “We’ll only protect what we love, and we’ll only love what we know.” Aside from the fact that anyone can become entranced with an animal at a zoo and decide to start their own NGO to help save it, it’s the children that really count. We are the ones responsible for raising whole new generations of conservationists, marine biologists and animal experts. These professions, like many others, are born out of passion, and passion isn’t always easy to muster up from documentaries and picture books.

Now, many will argue (these guys in particular) that none of the above is important, because the basic animal right is the right to freedom. Money spent on breeding and conservation in zoos, can just as easily be diverted to programs in the wild, and if zoos were to be shut down altogether, there would be much more money to go around. All of this is true, but I’m going to quote the Simpsons on this one – “Think of the children!!!”

Just recently I went to Belgrade Zoo, and came across a little boy, walking behind his group of friends, with a serious look on his face and a notebook in hand. I couldn’t resist sneaking a look, and right there, in scraggly eight-year old handwriting, were the names and features of all the animals he’d seen so far, and a checklist of the ones yet to be seen. I also witnessed the elation  when he saw the white tiger, and the proud check that came with it.

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So, hate zoos or love them – promise me one thing – that you’ll take your kids to them.

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