Surprising (Yet Unsurprising) Fact Of The Day: Zoo Surplus Edition

“Wait, did you just say you sold me to a hunting ranch?!”

A 1999 investigation by reporter Linda Goldston found that:

Of the 19,361 mammals that left the nation’s accredited zoos from 1992 through mid-1998, 7,420 — or 38 percent — went to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unidentified individuals or unaccredited zoos or game farms whose owners actively buy and sell animals, according to transaction data from the International Species Information System.

Just a snapshot in time, after lots of effort by Goldston to get state and federal records (since zoos and the AZA don’t freely share this info). But revealing…

 

In Defense Of Zoos?

Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director Ron Kagan talks about the history, morality and future of zoos. He probably makes the best case possible–the sanctuary model is the least objectionable–but I am not quite convinced.

I am all for educating the public about animals, conservation, climate change and the anthropocene. I just don’t think you need to confine animals and subject them to the stress of gawking crowds to do it, which also affirms and perpetuates the notion of human dominance and dominion.

If zoos had the guts to tell their visitors straight up that they are the greatest threat to animals on the planet, and that each and every visitor needs to make dramatic lifestyle changes if humanity is to stop destroying habitat and dooming thousands of species, I might be more convinced. But they don’t do that, do they? Because they think no one would show up to hear that hard truth.

Anyhow, lots of interesting ideas in this talk, many of which do not require the actual use of live animals.

Concept Of The Day: Scientism

Just came across this, from this engrossing story called “Zoo Animals And Their Discontents“:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote the seminal essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” used a term for the tendency to deny the existence of phenomena that cannot be proved empirically. “Scientism,” he wrote in 1986, “puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic, it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date — physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms — as if the present age were not just another in the series.”

It is presented in the article as an argument against the tendency among animal scientists and animal keepers to go to extremes to avoid anthropomorphism. But scientism–the idea that if science hasn’t proved it yet it must not be true; ignoring the possibility that science may YET prove it–is a phenomenon that I see across many spheres, from animal intelligence to the connections between diet and health (for example in the gluten debate).

We should be open to anecdotal evidence, and what our instincts and experience tell us, about the world around us (pet owners, for a long time, knew more about the emotional lives of animals than researchers did). We may not KNOW the truth, or have proof, of why something is the way it is. But sometimes we might have a pretty good idea, good enough to act on, even if the science isn’t definitive one way or the other yet.

What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos?

In response to Humanity Vs The Planet, Philip just posed a very legitimate (though depressing) question:

Tim, why do you advocate against zoos and aquariums? Do you honestly believe that things are going to get better? 7.2 billion humans on Earth with all of our garage and oil spills, radiation, by catch. Where are the animals supposed to live? What will the planet be like when there is 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion humans? Where will the animals live? African elephants have reached a tipping point, more are killed by poachers than are being born. The Yangzte River dolphin is extinct, there are only 50 Maui’s Dolphins left. The list goes on.

That had the benefit of forcing me to organize my thinking about zoos and aquaria (at least a bit!). And here is how I responded:

I do not have absolute feelings about zoos and aquariums. I am against for-profit zoos and aquariums for sure. And worry that the idea that zoos and aquariums can somehow preserve or substitute for animals in the wild will only hasten the demise of animals in the wild. And a part of me wants to say that if we are so short-sighted and self-interested as to destroy the environments the animals need to survive in the wild we don’t really deserve to be able to enjoy them in zoos and aquaria. Plus, I do not believe that our pleasure at seeing an animal on display in captivity should outweigh any suffering that animal experiences by being in captivity. So, you are correct, I am not really a fan of zoos and aquaria.

But there is one context in which I can support the work of zoos and aquaria: and that is in the preservation of the genetics that would allow us to reintroduce or repopulate an extinct or threatened species if we ever did change enough about the way we treat the planet to restore the environment they need to thrive in the wild. That sort of Noah’s Ark strategy, as much as I hate that it has come to that, is hard to dismiss. But for me to accept that as a sufficient rationale for zoos and aquaria, the captivity and display model would have to change dramatically to better serve the interests of the animals, and serve less the interests and desire of curious humans seeking amusement.

This also continues a conversation started by Carl Zimmer in the comments section of a post about zoos and the passenger pigeon.

Zoos Couldn’t Save The Passenger Pigeon

There are lots of interesting lessons (most of them cautionary) in the extinction of the passenger pigeon 100 years ago, and most of them are raised in Carl Zimmer’s excellent story about why it happened and what scientists are doing to try and bring the species back (did you know social media played a role in wiping the passenger pigeon out?).

But here’s a point that really caught my attention:

Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.

In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.

For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren.

That history should be kept in mind the next time you hear a zoo or marine park justify captivity and their business model by saying they are helping preserve species that might be threatened or endangered in the wild. Some species will presumably be easier to breed in captivity than passenger pigeons. Some presumably less. That will affect how long a species can “cling” to existence. But the point is that zoos and captivity are not a way to save or preserve a species. That work has to take place in the wild.

And that is completely apart from the question of whether a species can be considered “preserved” or in “existence” if it only exists in a zoo. The difference between a wild passenger pigeon and “Martha” is like the difference between a facsimile and the real, dynamic, thing. Here is how Zimmer describes Martha’s life in the Cincinnati Zoo:

People coming to the zoo to see the last passenger pigeon were disappointed by the bird, which barely budged off its perch. As Joel Greenberg writes in his recent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, some threw sand into its cage to try to force it to walk around. But on that first day of September a century ago, Martha no longer had to put up with such humiliations.

It was a quiet end to a noisy species. As recently as the mid-1800s, deafening flocks of billions of passenger pigeons swarmed across the eastern half of the United States. But they proved no match for humans, whose rapidly advancing technology drove the birds to extinction in a matter of decades.

Martha (and the story of her species), it seems, is well worth remembering.

Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.

Welcome To The (SeaWorld) Machine

Absolutely brilliant use of music and film to convey one visitor’s understanding of SeaWorld:

Fellow Prisoners: A day at Sea World from Justin Hofman on Vimeo.

Filmmaker’s explanation:

I never set out to make this short film. I hadn’t been to Sea World in probably 20 years but decided to give it a shot and take my niece. I tried to see the place through the eyes of young child but logic and my love for wildlife took over. I’ve spent most of my life committed to exploring wild places and observing wild animals. I understand why these places exist but also feel that it’s time we stepped back and reassessed our need to collect and to display conscious, intelligent animals.

Yes, let’s re-assess.

Mosquitos And Captive Animals

It’s not just killer whales in captivity who are vulnerable to mosquito-borne diseases. Seems that zoos are having a hard time preventing penguins from being killed by malaria:

Zoos all around the world love penguins. They’re cute, they don’t require much space, they never eat zookeepers. And children adore watching them, especially at feeding time.

But as carefree as they might look, torpedoing through the water or rocketing into the air like a Poseidon missile, zoo penguins are stalked by an unrelenting killer: malaria.

“It’s probably the top cause of mortality for penguins exposed outdoors,” said Dr. Allison N. Wack, a veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which is building a new exhibit that will double its flock to a hundred birds. If left untreated, the disease would probably kill at least half the birds it infected, though outbreaks vary widely in intensity.

The avian version is not a threat to humans because mosquitoes carrying malaria and the parasites are species-specific; mosquitoes that bite birds or reptiles tend not to bite mammals, said Dr. Paul P. Calle, chief veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs New York City’s zoos. And avian malaria is caused by strains of the Plasmodium parasite that do not infect humans.

But for penguins in captivity, the threat is so great that many zoos dose their birds in summer with pills for malaria, said Dr. Richard Feachem, director of global health at the University of California, San Francisco.

Most of the penguin exhibits I have seen (the Central Park Zoo penguin exhibit comes to mind) are crowded, dirty, and sad. Maybe we’ll feel differently about keeping penguins in zoos if the avian malaria virus mutates into a strain that infects humans.