Are Zoo Animals Happy

James Lee
• Sunday, 29 November, 2020
• 14 min read

I’ve been intending to go for months; I found that I was really curious to know what it would feel like, whether the animals would talk to me, what they might say. It makes me very uncomfortable to see any animal, or bird, caged.

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I made my way around the zoo, asking at each enclosure if they were happy, and whether there was anyone there who would like to talk to me. Where possible I ‘measured’ things like happiness, whether they liked living there, to give a clearer idea of their feelings.

‘Open skies, and unlimited space.’ I got quite teary at that, and told them I was so sorry that I couldn’t help them. Interestingly, the Blue and Yellow Macaws in the next enclosure were pretty happy.

I felt overwhelmed, that I couldn’t make their life better for them. Coincidentally, I was at the Chimp enclosure when the ‘keeper talk’ was about to start.

When I first passed them it seemed to be nap time; 2 were asleep on a log, and another was lying on its back on the ground, only a foot or so away from the fence. That struck me as odd behavior, and I suppose points towards their desensitization and habituation towards their surroundings and visitors.

And finally, I walked through the Native Birds section, and came to a More pork. It seemed a small enclosure to me, and definitely craved more space and the ability to ‘get away’.

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Overall I guess it’s not as bad as you might think… Many of the animals (e.g. all the ones I haven’t specifically mentioned), are ok, and quite a few know that they’re in the best place, are safe and well looked after. Even those that weren’t super happy said that the food and the keepers were fine.

It comes back around to whether zoos are necessary, how we can improve them, and, for me, how we can show more gratitude and respect to those animals that are ultimately there for our education and (unfortunately) entertainment… I hope that my visit did something to help the animals I spoke to.

She rode, competed, and taught Western Riding for 15 years in Scotland, then taught horse and rider bio-mechanics in New Zealand and Australia for 10 years. She’s been a full time horse and animal communicator since April 2016.

Find out more about Trisha here and sign up for her self-paced Animal Communication course here. A recent and short debate about zoos between Will Travels of the Born Free Foundation and conservation biologist Andrew Marshal l of the University of York in the UK brings many of the main issues to light.

Dr. Marshall points out that many animals need help and that zoos are good for them. There also aren't any data that show that zoos are “bad” for education or conservation although some people worry that they send the wrong message that it's okay to keep animals in cages for our own entertainment.

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However, there are data that show that the way animals are (MIS)represented in media, in this case endangered chimpanzees, can make people think they're doing just fine and really don't need our help. This distortion can hinder conservation efforts and we really also need to learn if zoos play a role in perpetuating this misinformation.

Travels argues that there really is no justification for keeping millions of animals in the approximately 10,000 zoos worldwide for which the budgets total billions of dollars. For example, to get this “reintroduction” process going, in June 2012 Damian Spinal, who took over two wildlife parks founded by his father more than 50 years ago in the Kent countryside in England, began making plans to release some animals back into the wild, beginning with 40 individuals of various species, including languors, gibbons, and black rhinos.

While Travels and Marshall disagree on different points they both agree that much more time, effort, and money must be put into conserving animals in their natural habitats and for protecting their homes. I found this debate to be a very useful and concise summary of the important issues surrounding the questions of why should zoos exist and what do they really do.

Indeed, there are plenty of data that show that zoos compromise the lives of their inhabitants in terms of promoting unnatural behavior patterns such as stereotyped pacing, self-mutilation, high levels of stress, obesity, and reductions in longevity. But, of course, claiming that animals are happy is also being anthropomorphic so the charge of anthropomorphism is vacuous.

We must do all we can to make their compromised lives as good as they can be as we work to phase out zoos. The plight of animals in entertainment has gained unprecedented public attention over the past several years, and much of the consciousness-raising has occurred by way of a particular orca whale named Cilium, known by his nickname, Tilly.

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After a number of years of being transferred from one aquarium to another, Tilly was finally acquired by SeaWorld San Diego, and became one of the star attractions and moneymakers for the theme park. The details of Tilly’s tragic life and fateful end were beautifully captured in a documentary called “Blackish” (2013).

By weaving together ethological details about the cognitive, emotional, and social lives of orcas in the wild with a catalog of the abuses and deprivations experienced by Tilly, the film leaves the viewer in no doubt that SeaWorld is a living hell for these sensitive and intelligent creatures, who go crazy and must be pumped up with psychoactive drugs like Valium to control their behavior. Further, SeaWorld has pledged to invest millions of dollars for the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals.

(And in a nod to animal welfare more broadly, it also pledged to use cage-free eggs, gestation-crate-free pork, and sustainably sourced fishes at SeaWorld venues, and offer more vegetarian and vegan options.) This is a very good beginning, and we can look forward to the day when venues like SeaWorld, including terrestrial zoos, morph into sanctuaries in which the animals lives are put first and foremost.

As the longtime animal advocate Gretchen Tyler once noted, “Cruelty can’t stand the spotlight.” She was taught to perform circus tricks such as standing on a small tub and balancing on one foot.

Audiences clapped and marveled at her skills, but they didn’t know about Billie’s miserable behind-the-scenes life as she was hauled across the country and kept chained for hours on end when she wasn’t performing. Billie suffered enormous physical and psychological trauma, but she finally got a lucky break when she was rescued and sent to a sanctuary for performing elephants in Tennessee.

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Circuses involve humiliation, punitive training techniques, and poor living conditions for captive animals. Opportunities to swim with dolphins or pet wild tiger cubs involve a loss of freedom for the animals and a disruption of their lives, for the purpose of momentary human delight.

Some zoos, particularly the thousands of roadside attractions, are shockingly mismanaged, and animals suffer from neglect, poor care, small, barren cages, and no attention to their species-specific or individual needs. In the United States, as of September 2015, there were 230 AZA-accredited zoos and an estimated 2,400 “animal exhibitors” licensed by the USDA.

AZA accreditation means that an institution has met certain standards for animal care and management, paying attention, for instance, to proper housing, nutrition, and social groupings. Yet as ethicist Keen Margot puts it, zoos are essentially “welfare arks” in which animals are collected, purportedly to save them from extinction, but where human interests are put before the interests of individual animals.

Because there was no exhibit space ready for them, two newly acquired horn bill birds were kept in a shack for seven months. Holly, one of two newly acquired red river hogs, became so malnourished she died.

A data gazelle and a kudzu both died after running into barriers in their enclosures and breaking their necks. A young Przewalski’s horse also died after he broke his neck in a cage at the zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

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“The circle of life that occurs for all living things repeats itself in zoos on a daily basis,” he said. Bennett admits, as does nearly everyone writing in the zoo -animal welfare literature, that our techniques and practices are not ideal and that animals are suffering.

This doesn’t translate seamlessly into a zoo setting, where animals are expected to live out their natural life span and where the goal is to keep them healthy, not necessarily to make them fat. And finally, zoos generally forgo common domestic animals like pigs and cows, about whose welfare we have a great deal of information, and instead hope to house exotic, endangered, or charismatic species about whose welfare in captivity we know very little to nothing.

Zoo administrators and managers simply can’t know what each of the thousands of different species of animal need and want within the captive environment. Welfare science deflects attention away from moral concerns over animal captivity, because it stays focused on immediate welfare challenges and provides a nice veneer of scientific and thus ethical acceptability to the overall endeavor.

When Bennett poses questions that might shape future discussion, she asks whether we might rethink the accepted rules of facility design “that give people more room and freedom to move than the captive animals they come to see.” This is a great question, because it exposes the irony and the fundamental insult of zoos: animals have had their basic freedoms stolen and are viewed as commodities, to feed human pockets. The basic welfare problem of zoos, and the violation that causes the most misery, is the loss of the big F, Freedom.

Attempts to provide bits and pieces of the Five Freedoms are of no consolation to an animal who has lost his most cherished possession. Zoo animals are carefully bred using studbooks and genetic analysis; social groupings are manipulated; animals are fed and watered at set times; deaths are scheduled and orchestrated by veterinarians or zoo managers; reproductive cycles are watched, sometimes controlled; birth is carefully managed; at some zoos, newborns (the core genetic inventory) are taken from their mothers and killed if not needed, or sold off, if necessary to optimize the zoo’s holdings and maximize profit.

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The one-hundred-million-odd people who visit zoos each year in the United States, for example, want to view animals who are active and engaged. Just as welfare of food animals is measured in productivity (number of eggs, liters of milk, quantity of muscle), so too is the welfare of zoo animals often measured not by how happy they are, but by how well they are serving the needs of zoo administrators and the public and how well they are generating money.

(Marc first heard the term “musical semen” used by Julie Woodier of Zoo check Canada.) All manner of animals, from chimpanzees to small rodents, are fed hormones to control ovulation and prevent pregnancies.

The downside is that many animals never get to engage in some of the most basic natural behaviors: giving birth and raising young. European zoos are less keen on denying their zoo animals these fundamental experiences, and will often allow animals to mate and bear offspring.

As Bent Holst, director of conservation for the Copenhagen Zoo, said in an interview, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible. Because their lives are fairly sedentary, animals in zoos develop some of the same diseases as overfed and under exercised humans.

Animals fed a suboptimal diet over many years can develop other nutritional problems, such as hyperparathyroidism in large cats and cholesterol granulomas in markets. Hsing-Hsing, the famous panda housed at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, had a favorite treat, which his keepers kindly provided nearly every day: the waist-expanding Starbucks blueberry muffin.

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When individuals in captivity live to be senior citizens, unique welfare problems can emerge. One study, for example, found that aged zoo animals, despite appearing healthy, often suffer from chronic health conditions, such as painful osteoarthritis, that go undiagnosed by zoo veterinary staff.

On the other hand, over the past several years, as researchers and zoo staff have become better at recognizing the welfare challenges of geriatric animals, some zoos actually spend considerable energy and resources taking care of elderly or ill animals who cannot be displayed. Thus, it is not always true that animals living for a long time is good for a zoo’s bottom line.

Animals considered unwanted, surplus, or genetically unfit are routinely killed at zoos around the country and around the world. So too is what zoo managers call “breed and cull,” where animals are allowed to reproduce, but the offspring are killed.

This attitude detracts from our commitment to positive welfare, because we fail to acknowledge that the potential for future enjoyment might be valuable to animals. As University of Guelph’s Georgia Mason notes, the diverse species held in zoos vary “in the propensities for good captive health and welfare.” Some species tend to be healthier, longer-lived, and more fecund than their wild counterparts; others survive and breed less well in captivity, and seem to suffer more psychologically.

Mason analyzed home-range size in relation to risk of developing stereotypes in zoos in several species. She found that animals with large home-ranges are at high risk of developing welfare problems in captivity.

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Polar bears in captivity have high rates of stereotypes such as repetitive pacing and route tracing. Lions have home ranges of 350–900 square kilometers; rates of stereotypes in zoos are 48 percent.

Another risk factor is what a species of animal eats and how they have evolved to procure food, and how well their natural foraging behaviors can be replicated in captivity. One of the factors that seems to protect captive animals is phenotypic plasticity, or the ability to alter behavior to suit current conditions.

Also, being sedentary and of limited range (like sloths and koalas) seems to “readopt” a species to captivity, as does being gregarious (like flamingos), as long as they have friends with whom to interact. Understanding the factors that predispose animals to poor welfare in captivity can help zoos develop effective enrichment strategies.

This list must include large mammals such as elephants, dolphins, and whales, whose social organization and territories cover vast expanses in the wild. It must include large carnivores such as lions, polar bears, and wolves, whose prey-chase behavior cannot be mimicked in captivity.

Zoos love to showcase charismatic polar bears, because they are moneymakers who attract a lot of visitors. One study, for example, found that polar bears spend an average of 11 percent of their day engaged in stereotypic behavior, and that stereotype was correlated with higher fecal glucocorticoid concentrations, which mean higher levels of stress.

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The term was first used by Born Free Foundation’s Bill Travels, who rightly identified the abnormal repetitive, obsessive behaviors of zoo animals as a form of psychosis.1 Captivity literally drives animals mad. Animals in zoos can be seen pacing back and forth, tracing and retracing a particular route through their enclosure, plucking out all their feathers or pulling out all their hair, scratching or rubbing or licking themselves to the point of serious self-injury, biting the bars of their cages for hours on end, and engaging in what zoo managers euphemistically call “regurgitation and reingestion” (eating their own vomit).

Stereotypes are also thought to be caused by brain dysfunction brought on by stress-induced damage to the central nervous system. This stress-induced damage may be caused by the animal’s current environment, or might be a result of earlier trauma.

For example, giving bears more dry land area and visual access beyond their enclosure have both been shown to reduce pacing. “Welfare” is being redefined as not merely the absence of or ability to successfully cope with negative experiences, but the promotion of states of enjoyment and happiness.

One of the most popular trends is to provide naturalistic zoo enclosures, which aim to give animals a tiny slice of home. A barren cage might be replaced with an “African savanna” full of tall grass and a few plastic “trees.” Cement “rocks” might be added to a penguin exhibit.

Monkeys might be given climbing structures, “vines” on which they can swing, and platforms that provide some visual diversity. One study showed that giving animals the choice to go outside, whether they opted to take advantage of it, had a positive behavioral effect.

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At the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the red panda exhibit is built around a giant magic tree. At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the orangutans are given cut branches or hay or banana leaves, so they can build nests.

For jaguars, food and spices are hidden inside logs, so that the animals will be stimulated to search their exhibit for the scents. At the Beijing Zoo, officials have undertaken an environmental-enrichment initiative that involves allowing animals access to privacy.

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1 www.facebook.com - https://www.facebook.com/GrupaHatak/posts/4144807562215847
2 en.wikipedia.org - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WandaVision