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How does a cage encourage the success of a species?

We're not the only species on lockdown

I was scrolling through my local ‘Spotted’ Facebook page and saw someone using an image of a seal in a cage to express how they are feeling right now during lockdown, and it got me thinking, can we as humans now relate on a personal level with wild animals kept in captivity due to the covid-19 pandemic?

Granted, a global pandemic is not the same as wild animals kept in zoos from a scientific point of view, but the result is the same. Countless beings, locked inside with limited space and the same four walls for prolonged periods. Hundreds of thousands of wild and exotic species of animals are kept captive in zoos (and other establishments) across the globe. Many human primates will not think twice about visiting a zoo or marine park, but not all animal establishments are created equal. Not all vow to protect, support and conserve wildlife and threatened species.

Here are some terrifying and important facts about the business of captive animals:

  1. More tigers are kept in captivity than in the wild. There are an estimated 5,000 tigers kept in back-gardens in the USA compared to approximately 3,200 tigers in the wild.

  2. Wild African elephants live more than three times as long as captive elephants.

  3. It is questionable how many zoos support true conservation, for example, lions are a popular species with the public, however, the vast majority in captivity are hybrids or subspecies, and therefore cannot be released into the wild, and are of little to no value to wild populations.

  4. A pod of wild dolphins can travel up to 100 kilometres a day in the wild, and orcas can travel between 120-160 kilometres. In captivity, these animals are kept in swimming pools and would need to swim approximately 1,208 laps to achieve these distances.

  5. Although there are some legitimate sanctuaries, elephants are taken from the wild for humans to ride in Asia. All wild elephants must be ‘tamed’, this can be a torturous process called “breaking its spirit”, and many die young from exhaustion due to the long hours and poor husbandry/nutrition.

  6. Even when the zoo’s breed animals to release into the wild, there is often seldom money left to monitor the animals' post-release. Many released animals die due to inexperience and habituation. Many die from exhaustion, exposure, starvation and/or are hunted by humans/predators.

  7. Half of all amphibian species are in decline and 1/3 are threatened, yet zoos often opt for larger, more ‘charismatic’ species such as lions, tigers, bears, elephants, giraffe and rhinos. Just think how many amphibian enclosures could be placed inside the same space that a captive elephant requires? We’d surely achieve a lot more by breeding frogs, toads, newts and salamanders?

The seven facts presented here are just a drop in the ocean of the many issues surrounding animals in captivity, but one that bothers me most is how unnecessary it is to keep some species in captivity. How does the wild population of bottle-nose dolphins benefit from their peers' captivity? How does a zoo-bred elephant, never to be released into the wild, benefit his or her wild counterparts? How does a cage encourage the success of a species? Please don’t get me wrong here, I see the benefit of captive establishment, I even worked for one for a couple of years, and many do some positive work, but it is important for us to remember that not all animals need zoos, they are not a necessity. Tiger petting zoos are not essential, elephant riding establishments are not essential, orca and dolphin shows are not essential. Parrot shows are not essential. Education is essential, however, it needs to offer a true account of the welfare, behaviour and welfare of the species and their needs.

I encourage you, next time you think about attending a captive animal establishment, do some thorough and self-led research into that establishment. Find out which species they house and most importantly, why they house them. Brush up on your animal husbandry, learn about the needs of wild animals and whether the captive establishment you are visiting is meeting those requirements. If you’re an avid zoo-goer and you’re stuck at home on lockdown, this is the perfect opportunity to educate yourself on the good, the bad and the ugly of wild animal captivity and to become empowered by the information you discover.


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