Posts Tagged 'zoos'

Why zoos are good

Many years ago I ended up doing a radio debate on national radio over zoos. I’m still not sure if it was a mistake. I had a couple of opportunities to kill my opponent dead but my inexperience and nerves got the better of me. By all accounts (both neutral and partisan) I did rather well, and my failing was that I had rather expected my opponent to respond to reason, logic and data. It was not to be.

Still, the core issues have stayed with me and given my general love of good zoos (note the adjective) I’ve long thought of writing something more formal about why zoos are good. Here is that attempt.

Now first off I am perfectly willing to recognise that there are bad zoos and bad zoo exhibits. Not all animals are kept perfectly, much as I wish it were otherwise and even in the best, there might still be room for improvement. However, that some politicians and police are corrupt does not mean we should have government officials or that a group to enforce the law is a bad idea. It merely means we need to pay more attention to the bad and improve them or close them. In either case, zoos are generally a poor target – they have to keep the public onside or go bust. They have to stand up to rigorous inspections or be closed down. While a bad collection should not be ignored, if you are worried the care and treatment of animals I can point to a great many farms, breeders, dealers and private owners who are in far greater need or inspection, improvement or both.

If you are against animals in captivity full stop then there is perhaps little scope for disagreement. But even so I’d maintain that some of the below arguments (not least the threat of extinction) can outweigh any argument against captivity. Moreover, I don’t think anyone would consider putting down a 10000 km long fence around the Masai Mara to really be captivity, even if it restricts the movement of animals across that barrier. But at what point does that become captivity? A 10000 m fence? 1000 m fence? What if veterinary care is provided? Or extra food? Or the animal is left alone, but has a tracking collar attached? I’m not pretending that an animal in a zoo is not in captivity, but clearly there is a continuum from zoos and wildlife parks, to game reserves, national parks and protected areas. Degree of care and degree of enclosure make the idea of ‘captivity’ fluid and not absolute.

What I would state with absolute confidence is that for many (but no, not all) species, it is perfectly possible to keep them in a zoo or wildlife park and for them to have a quality of life as high or higher than in the wild. Their movement might be restricted (but not necessarily by that much) but they will not suffer from the threat or stress of predators (and nor will they be killed in a grisly manner or eaten alive) or the irritation and pain of parasites, injuries and illnesses will be treated, they won’t suffer or die of drought or starvation and indeed will get a varied and high-quality diet with all the supplements required. They can be spared bullying or social ostracism or even infanticide by others of their kind, or a lack of a suitable home or environment in which to live. A lot of very nasty things happen to truly ‘wild’ animals that simply don’t happen in good zoos.

So a good zoo will provide great care and protection to animals in captivity. These are good things for the individuals concerned. But what do zoos actually bring to the table for the visitors and the wider world? This is, naturally, what I want to focus on, but it is I hope worth having dealt with the more obvious objections and misapprehensions.

Education. Many children and adults, especially those in cities will never see a wild animal beyond a fox or pigeon, let alone a lion or giraffe. Sure documentaries get ever more detailed and impressive, and lots of things are on display in museums, but that really does pale next to seeing a living creature in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it, watching what it does and having the time to absorb details. That will bring a greater understanding and perspective to many and hopefully give them a greater appreciation for wildlife, conservation efforts and how they can contribute. That’s before the actual direct education that can take place through signs, talks and the like that can directly communicate information about the animals they are seeing and their place in the world.

Conservation – reservoir and return. It’s not an exaggeration that colossal numbers of species are going extinct across the world, and many more are threatened. Moreover, some of these collapses have been sudden, dramatic and unexpected or were simply discovered very late in the day. Zoos protect against a species going extinct. A species protected in captivity provides a reservoir population against a crash or extinction. Here they are relatively safe and can be bred up to provide foundation populations. A good number of species only exist in captivity and still more only exist in the wild because they have been reintroduced from zoos, or the wild populations have been boosted by captive bred animals. Quite simply without these efforts there would be fewer species alive today and ecosystems and the world as a whole would be poorer for it.

Research. If we are to save many wild species and restore and repair ecosystems we need to know about how key species live, act and react. Being able to study animals in zoos where there is less risk and less variables means real changes can be effected on wild populations with far fewer problems. Knowing say the oestreus cycle of an animal or their breeding rate, or that they don’t seem to like a crop that’s about to be planted can make a real difference to conservation efforts and to reduce human-animal conflicts.

All in all with the ongoing global threats to the environment it’s hard for me to see zoos as anything other than being essential to the long-term survival of numerous species. Not just in terms of protecting them and breeding them for reintroduction, but to learn about them to aid those still in the wild, as well as to educate and inform the public about these animals and to pique their interest so that they can assist or at least accept the need to be more environmentally conscious. Sure there is always scope for improvement, but these benefits are critical to many species and potentially at least, the world as a whole, and the animals so well kept and content, that I think there can be few serious objections to the concept of zoos as a whole and what they can do. Without them, the world would be and would increasingly be, a poorer place.

Marwell Zoo

And so to Marwell. This is probably the zoo in the UK I have been to most apart from the venerable London and despite having been since I started the Musings, it’s yet to have a write up. Fortunately this time I’ve got more interesting photos of animals than perhaps any other previous trip so I’m going to be able to get the most out of it. Moreover, this was a trip with Darren Naish, Heinrich Mallison and Sebastian Marpmann which gave great opportunity to discuss what we were seeing. It also meant Darren and i tried to explain what the place was like to the others on the drive down and in doing so gave me a new appreciation of the collections.

I’d always thought of Marwell as being ‘ungulate heavy’ – if you like your bovids and equids etc. it was the place to go, but on reflection, it really is dominated by these and is quite unlike any safari park or zoo I can think of – even other big and open parks like Chester and Longleat. Set in the South Downs, the zoo (and it is huge) is in the gentle rolling hills and grasslands which are a great setting. Pockets of woodland provide areas of cover for things like anoa and peccary while the open spaces are ideal for zebra and antelope. And these animals are massively in the majority. While there is for example a good cat collection (ocelot, serval, leopard, cheetah, tiger and snow leopard, and theoretically at least, sandcats) and a few primates, there’s tons of ungulates. Giraffe, all three zebras, roan antelope, waterbuck, scimitar horned oryx, Przewlaski’s horse, okiapi, bongo, pygmy hippo, Brazilian tapir, white rhino, nyala, sititunga, Somali wild ass, warthog, addax, Dama and dorcas gazelle, peccary, anoa, kudu, Congo buffalo and best of all, a pair of white tailed gnu.

What’s more these aren’t just present, but they are there in big numbers. There were 9 giraffe, and at least a dozen each of the waterbuck and oryx. Others were in big numbers too with a dozen ostrich and more than 20 capybara.The enclosures are typically huge since they have the space (and my one complaint would be they are too big in places, or at least accessible only from limited places so you can be a *very* long away from the animals). That space does mean they have a lot of room and several mixed exhibits – the largest of which is a new African space that must be 20 acres as a single field with giraffe, Grevy’s, waterbuck and ostrich 30 or 40 animals all sharing the space. This gives the animals a bit more scope that some other places and we saw trotting zebras, galloping giraffe and sprinting ostrich which was great.

We were also lucky enough to see lots of less common behaviours. Giraffe grazing, Congo buffalow calling, a pair of zebras really fighting, roan antelope engaged in ritual sparring, and a tiger eating grass.

Marwell doesn’t really go in for the ‘traditional’ collections. Big cats and giraffe aside, there’s few classics – no elephants, only the white rhino, no lions, no sealions, no great apes, no jaguar, no aquarium, the reptile house such as it is, is tiny with only a few species, there’s some owls but no other birds of prey and there are few birds in general. Though there are still a few ‘inevitables’ (Asian short-clawed otters, Sulawesi macaques, meerkats) there are some great things tucked away too – fossa, the stunningly rare Alotran lemur, giant anteater, weaver birds, bat-eared foxes and the like.

Collectively then this is an unusual zoo. No real reptile collection, no fish bar some cichlids, few birds, few ‘classic’ species. But what it has in spades and with both jokers is a superb layout, innovative use of space and the existing environment, some real rarities, and lots and lots of animals clearly enjoying where they are. It is, i short, a great zoo. You might not get what you expect if you’re a regular zoo go-er, but you will have a very good day.

A panoply of extant crocodilians

I have always liked crocodilians, but as a child only ever saw the odd large American alligator in a zoo or Nile crocs on TV. For a very long time I had no idea just how diverse the living crocodilians were and despite my interest in all things vertebrate would probably struggle to name more than a handful of species.

A combination of getting to a lot more zoos, and zoos generally becoming more eclectic in their collections means that I have now seen more than a dozen species at one time or another (though only two or perhaps three in the wild). For a while I’ve been building up a collection of photos of various taxa with a mind to doing some form of identity quiz. Darren Niash planned to host it at one time, but the last time we mentioned it was two years ago now I think, so I doubt I’m causing him any great problems by doing it here.

So, below the fold are a ton of croc photos from various zoos (sadly not all of them are great images for various reasons but should be good enough). Not all are different taxa (and nor are the photos of a given species consecutive), but there are around 10 different species represented here. Feel free to try and guess what they all are in the comments and more importantly, lots of crocs: cool!

Continue reading ‘A panoply of extant crocodilians’

Ueno zoo, Tokyo

While I got back from my little trip to Japan almost 2 years ago now, I have still yet to write up my trip to the excellent Ueno zoo in Tokyo (though some phots have turned up here before). As with much of this series of zoo reports, it’s best to focus on the different or unusual and avoid the basics that any good zoo should have.

In this case this is rather easy, the zoo was large, well designed and with excellent enclosures. There were some obvious specialties (a really good collection of bears, several birds of paradise) and some unique animals like a Javan tiger and showbills which I had not seen before which is always a bonus for the dedicated zoo goer (I saw teporingos!!!). They were in the midst of a rebuilt of the elephant section which looked great and must be open now, and their reptile house while still being given the finishing touches, was brand new and truly first rate with a monstrous estuarine croc in residence. Some set-ups were especially nice, such as the raised perspex box that allowed otters to swim around at eye level effectively outside their enclosure.

The last real comment was the size of the place. Split across a road, I had though I’d covered most of it before discovering the second ‘half’ and suddenly it was much bigger. Despite quite a few hours there, I didn’t cover everything and as noted some parts were still under construction or development, so it’s very much a full-day kind of place. Well worth a visit, though I tend to say that about any good zoo. And certainly you have to admire their commitment to safety.

Beijing Zoo Too


I do actually now have a *lot* of photos of the Beijing zoo, so given that I’m unlikely to find a useful forum for many outside the zoo review I though I should just stick them up here while it’s vaguely relevant. Photos again by myself and Roger Close.

Continue reading ‘Beijing Zoo Too’

Beijing Zoo

metalGiven the raft of zoo reviews on here of late it’s remiss of me not to have covered the Beijing zoo since not only is it actually quite good, but I have been probably half a dozen times in the last year and it’s opposite the IVPP. One partial reason was a lack of good photos (although a few have turned up on here from time to time such as bustards, vultures and partridge) and I have Mesozoic bird expert Roger Close to thank for some of the photos below (the rest are mine, but as ever please ask before using them). Right, onto the review.

Continue reading ‘Beijing Zoo’

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