We’ve all been to the zoo at some time or another, if not recently, then most likely at some point in our childhood. If you’re around my age, you might even recall Bosco’s many trips to the Dublin Zoo through his magic door.
What could be better for kids than educating them about animals, teaching them to be empathetic towards other creatures which share our world? Bringing kids to the zoo has many benefits for the family. It’s a well deserved day out for the both parents and children, a great chance to bond, and it introduces kids to new and exciting experiences.
Day trips to the zoo can be a great way to get out of the house. For many young children, trips like this are memorable for their uniqueness. They see the animals they have learned about in nature books, classrooms, or on documentaries. Children get to meet the cartoon characters of their favourite movies such as Ice Age, Lion King and The Jungle Book.
It’s a true pleasure to see the excitement of children in the zoo: their enthusiasm at every turn, their happiness when they see an animal they know of: lions, tigers, penguins, Californian sea lions. At a recent trip to Dublin Zoo I was surprised overhearing how knowledgeable young kids were about animals, even correcting their parents on the names of some wildlife.
There are many breeding programmes which zoos enter in order to preserve endangered species. Many animals are high risk because of deforestation or the destruction of their natural habitats. Poachers will often hunt animals for their fur, feathers, or – more specifically – elephants for the ivory from their tusks.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, almost fifty species of animals are classed as either critically endangered or endangered. Many of which are familiar to us: Black Rhinos, Tigers, African, Chimpanzees to name but a few.
In an article published by Treehugger.com, over half of London Zoo visitors surveyed between the ages of 7-14 showed improved knowledge in at least one of the following three areas: Conservation endangered species, desire to participate in conservation efforts.
According to Treehugger.org, ‘39 % of kids said they didn’t care about endangered species before attending the zoo but did so afterwards’. A trip to the zoo can educate kids about ecosystems and the importance of looking after our planet.
Our very own Dublin zoo houses and funds the preservation for many critically endangered animals from at home and abroad. At home, these include birds such as the Red Grouse and the Little Tern. The preservation colony of the Little Tern in Co. Louth was vital for the protection of the species, which almost became extinct.
But what happens at the other side of the fences and screens? What is it like to be an animal in a zoo?
Despite our knowledge of many different animals, we know very little of the life of animals within zoos, for example, the mental health problems of being in captivity.
According to Collins dictionary online, Zoochosis is the ‘psychological problems associated with animals kept in prolonged activities. More commonly-zoo animals exhibit signs of extreme depression and related psychological conditions as they struggle with the confines of their captivity’.
No matter how hard zoos try to mimic the habitats of wildlife they keep, it is impossible to recreate the great expanses of open land within which wild animals would have free reign.
Independent.ie stated last month that an €18m state capital investment programme provided in 2006 for the redevelopment of Dublin zoo expired last year. Using this investment, the zoo was able to double its previous size to give animals more space, improving the facility greatly. Dublin zoo is a charity, so all profit goes back into the zoo. Luckily the zoo is the most popular visitors’ destination in Ireland, adding greatly to its capital.
According to Dublin zoo’s website, the zoo is 28 hectares and has over 400 animals. 28 acres is a great amount, but when one considers an animal like the giraffe from sub-Saharan Africa, it is easy to see how animals come to suffer from Zoochosis. Zoochosis effects animals in captivity and manifests itself in many different ways.
According to circuswatchwa.org, abnormal behaviour due to zoochosis includes bar biting, pacing, tongue playing, circling, neck twisting, vomiting, coprohagia (playing with and eating excrement), rocking, swaying, head bobbing and weaving, overgrooming and self mutilation. The list is worrying in both length and content.
Zoos are an attempt to preserve animals, but doing so can be detrimental to their mental health. BornFree.org, a website which encourages that animals be kept in the wild has illustrated some of the reasons why wildlife suffer so much in captivity. ‘Ensuring reasonable animal welfare in captivity is extremely challenging. Animal species have evolved over millennia and their physical, physiological and behavioural traits have developed in order to optimise their chances of survival in their natural environment’.
‘In captivity, animals may face a number of challenges for which evolution has not prepared them. The climate, diet and the size and characteristics of the enclosure may be completely alien to the species as it exists in the wild’.
It is noble of zoos to attempt to conserve animals, yet the task is not easy. Attempting to recreate the habitat animals would have in the wild is costly work. Some zoos simply do not have the funding.
Recently, news such as Copenhagen zoo, have come under scrutiny for their treatment for animals. Last week the zoo euthanized four healthy lions to make room for the arrival of a new male lion. Copenhagen zoo said ‘because of the pride of lions’ natural structure and behaviour, the zoo has had to euthanize the two old lions and two young lions who were not old enough to fend for themselves’, according to The Guardian website. The zoo said that the new male lion would have killed the younger ones as soon as it got the chance.
Copenhagen zoo had previously made headlines after euthanizing a young giraffe name Marius because it was considered unfit for breeding. European laws on inbreeding meant that the animal was unsuitable for procreation; however, other zoos such as the Yorkshire wildlife park in Britain had agreed to adopt the animal according to The Guardian.
While zoos offer protection for endangered species which would otherwise be lost to the world, there are many NGOs, such as PETA, who are mindful of the damage that zoos may also cause animals. However, zoos remain popular visitor attractions and places where breeding programmes and research are conducted.