It’s a horrific story. 486 animals had died at South Lakes zoo in the space of over four years, frequently as a result of poor husbandry practices, and sometimes found still decaying in the enclosure. The owner, David Gill (whose attitude has been of concern for the zoo community for a while now), has been refused the licence and it all seems likely the place will, rightly, be closed.
South Lakes is a bad zoo; it is not, however some press opinions have already starting hinting, an example typical of zoos. These articles range from suggesting that live animals on public display is a bygone that should be replaced by virtual reality, to saying that all zoos should be outright banned.
On top of this mess, the tragic news broke yesterday that in a historical first, a rhino at Paris Zoo was killed by poachers. It’s horn removed to fuel the illegal trade, this confirmed fears that not even captive rhinos are completely safe (a notion that Kent zoos Howletts and Port Lympne took very seriously when they employed round-the-clock security for their animals). I’m almost certain this incident will be twisted into a ‘zoos aren’t safe for animals’ story by the animal rights lobby, at what must be an incredibly difficult time for the keepers at Paris, much in the same way the events surrounding the death of Harambe the gorilla were portrayed last year.
And yet, as if in defiance of the recent events at South Lakes, renowned conservation charity (and one of my personal favourites) Durrell Wildlife Conservation Park announced this week they would be changing the name of their HQ at Durrell Wildlife Park back to Jersey Zoo, just as the great Gerald Durrell originally founded it. “10 years ago we made the decision to avoid the word zoo because of its perceived negative connotations,” said Lee Durrell. ‘Today we embrace it.”
One only has to visit Durrell (Jersey Zoo), speak to their staff and students, and read up on their fieldwork, to see that while on paper both they and South Lakes are similar in the sense they both keep wild animals in captivity that the public can see, they are worlds apart beyond this superficiality. Far from a prison, it feels like a paradise. The animals live in superb conditions, the staff are skilled and passionate, and the legacy of their founder’s “never say die” motto is ingrained into the grounds. It is just one of many high quality, good zoos we have in the UK.
That’s not to say everything is perfect within them, and the management and keepers are well aware of that. Having volunteered at four zoos in the time while I’ve still been in education (New Forest Wildlife Park, Cornish Seal Sanctuary & Isle of Wight Zoo as a keeper, Marwell Zoo in outreach), I can say without a doubt that zookeepers are among the most dedicated and empathetic people I know. When it comes to the care of the animals, they are constantly seeking to make their lives better – whether it is using their spare time to design enrichment, or sharing newfound knowledge in journals with the wider community. And these new findings will continue to shape the way zoos look in the future. Twycross Zoo announced this week that they would be moving on their elephants, following the example set by urban collections such as London, Bristol and Dudley well over 15 years before. Elephants are just one species that will become increasingly rare in zoos as the years go by, with only the best, open-range places that can provide the space, appropriate social grouping and keeper expertise maintaining them. It’s just one of the many changes for the better we will be seeing in the zoo world over the coming years.
And in a world of continual biodiversity loss and urban disconnection from nature, zoos have a huge part to play. It’s likely the preconceived roles as ‘noahs arks’ by maintaining captive populations of endangered species, won’t be the priority rationale, as habitats deteriorate and species become more acclimatised to captivity over time. But in terms of short-term release projects where appropriate, and perhaps more importantly, in continual funding/management of field programmes and the sharing of skills and expertise to these projects, zoos can play a crucial role in the conservation toolbox.
And as alluded to earlier, the fact you’re dealing with real live animals means zoos are a hugely effective public engagement tool – one that virtual reality simply can’t match. To be overwhelmed by a gorilla, smell an ocelot or feel the rush of air as a fruit bat flies over your head is an unreplicable experience that can be life-changing for many (particularly children) who can’t afford to see these animals in the wild. Again, there is room to improve: the educational potential of a lot of zoos is untapped, and examples like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum shows you can have dynamic centres with naturalistic exhibits that tell the story of the whole ecosystems, not just the animals, while simultaneously acting as focal points for the community and embracing the more creative side of natural history engagement.
The events unfolding at South Lakes are unpleasant, as is the case at many bad zoos around the world which should either be reformed or closed at once. But the take home message is that done appropriately, days out at the zoo shouldn’t become a thing of the past. We need them more than ever to inspire a better future.