Zoos are an opportunity to come face to face with wild animals, they are a place of refuge for creatures in danger, they provide education for the young, teaching them respect and admiration for wildlife.
Zoos practice conservation efforts to save endangered species and provide scientists with invaluable data. This is the general consensus, but are they really sanctuaries or unnecessary prisons maintained for our entertainment?
There is no denying the financial contributions zoos make to charities and organisations, the research on animals in captivity they supply which can contribute to aiding animals in the wild, and the wonder and inspiration they provide to children are important.
However, it would be sensible to suggest that although a zoo may claim to be providing the best for its animals, and although keepers and trainers care deeply for them, common sense should not be ignored even if you love seeing animals up close as much as I do, and this applies to all establishments, even those in the UK. On London’s Southbank, the Sea Life centre has faced criticism over the care of its Gentoo penguins.
Youtuber Lex Croucher started a petition three years ago arguing: “Sea Life and Merlin Entertainment are committing an act of cruelty by keeping penguins in this condition, and this needs to change.”
However the petition fell short of its 150,000 signature goal at 42,275. Although Lex did manage to rally support and made valid arguments in her video, it seemed not much came of the petition even whilst some mainstream media outlets picked up on the story.
The Captive Animals Protection Society have also released their own investigation of the various Sea Life centres, in a report called Sea Lies. From the various branches they visited, the CAPS investigator found “evidence of stress-related disease, high mortality and repetitive behaviours indicative of an inability to cope with captive situations.”
On my visit to the aquarium, I have witnessed the penguins underground in a tiny, bland enclosure with tacky painted walls and a small pool. The enclosure I felt was more for the public than the penguins, surrounded by glass and even had circular glass domes directly inside the animals’ environment so that children could poke their heads up and see the penguins up close.
Disheartened, my research after the visit uncovered the previous petitions and complaints. The enclosure had actually just undergone a revamp, it had apparently doubled in size with now a second pool, the dome, waterfall and underwater jets. If this was the reality of the situation now I dread how it must have been before.
In response to my questions, a Sea Life representative said: “We are always seeking to improve our environments – both for our creatures and our viewing public. With this in mind, in 2016 we almost doubled the enclosure space, with more viewing windows for the public, more space for the creatures, and an additional pool and enrichment features such as a waterfall and underwater jets.”
It can be seen from the images, the enclosure more or less resembles a shabby Santa’s grotto. The waterfall dripped miserably and the penguins all huddled in one corner. The lights had started to dim to mimic nightfall, however, the enclosure remained fairly dark throughout the day.
The whole enclosure was surrounded with panels of glass with no privacy for the animals and the dome for children to crawl under and peer up at the penguins. There is nothing for the penguins to do all day, ironically, information around the enclosure boasted of the speed of the penguins and their more active behaviour in the wild.
As you may hear in the clip, music is played loudly over the speakers all day, but while this creates a magical ambience for the children and families visiting, it interferes with the natural conditions which Sea Life claims to have replicated; hearing the same song played on repeat can’t be good for the penguins’ mental state either.
I also found complaints from parents and visitors before the renovation, complaining they couldn’t see the animals and that the exhibit was dull and not interactive enough.
“My complaint about this area had been that while it was an amazing opportunity to see the penguins, both in the water and above, the view was always blocked down low (the underwater view) by toddlers, and above by a barrier of their parents. Sea Life London Aquarium was great at taking my feedback and I was pleased to be invited back to see the expanded Penguin Point zone,” said Laura Porter, a blogger.
This raises the question of whether the exhibit is more for the entertainment of visitors than for the welfare of the animals and came two years after the petitions to help the Gentoo penguins.
Not looking to condemn the organisation on appearances, I reached out to Sea Life to hear their reasoning of the enclosure.
“The welfare of our animals is of utmost importance to us and we do not keep any species for which we cannot offer the highest levels of care; nobody is more committed to this than our team of expert keepers. The enclosure was designed by our Sea Life experts in collaboration with specialist vets.”
In relation to the enclosure underground with no air or windows, Sea Life reasons: “It enables us to carefully control temperature, light levels and humidity to reflect the penguins’ natural cycles – including moulting, nesting and breeding patterns; the fluctuating London climate would disrupt these vital annual cycles and would at times be far too warm and uncomfortable for an Antarctic species which is covered in a thick layer of blubber and insulating feathers. Additionally, outdoor enclosures which are open to the public and the elements can result in litter or natural debris, such as twigs from trees, falling into the enclosure which can be a health hazard to the birds.”
Sea Life argued the penguins served a bigger purpose by residing at the centre: “Our Gentoo penguins are not here at Sea Life London purely for entertainment; they have a more important role as ambassadors for their wild counterparts and other marine species. Including as ambassadors for Falklands Conservation with whom Sea Life London Aquarium is supporting.
“Penguins capture people’s imagination and we believe inspire people to care, so keeping them helps us enormously to educate about serious marine issues such as climate change, plastic pollution and overfishing. With the opportunity to influence over a million people from all over the world each year, we believe this is a positive.”
Sea Life has made huge contributions to conservation as well as rescue and release programmes with their partner charity the Sea Life Trust. Some of their current projects include the ‘Wipeout Whaling’ campaign, coral propagation and ‘Bite-back’ shark conservation.Although they argue the penguins are an educational and awareness tool for the wider issues Gentoo penguins are facing, surely their happiness and well-being should not have to be sacrificed. If they cannot provide the best care for the animals then they should be given to an organisation that can.
Whilst the positioning on the Southbank does mean that thousands of visitors from around the world learn about, and potentially donate to, the plight of Gentoo penguins, is witnessing distressed animals in a dark, crowded room the right message to be sending kids and the public?
CAPS has highlighted in a study that the majority of children (62 per cent) were deemed to show no change in learning or experienced negative learning during their trips to the zoo. Other observations from zoo exhibits have shown that people will view the animals for only a minute or so and rarely pay much attention to the written displays. It’s more the curiosity of first seeing the animal and then quickly moving onto the next.
I contacted Falklands Conservation as Sea Life are representing the organisation whilst they house the penguins. Voicing my concerns on the penguins’ welfare, I received this comment:
“Falklands Conservation considers very carefully who it builds relationships with (…) We carefully evaluate our association within displays or material produced on the conservation benefit gained to both parties and how it can help change the hearts & minds of visitors for the long term benefit of wildlife and the environment.
“We work with the SeaLife London Aquarium and receive a small yearly donation from them (…) We understand that the SeaLife London Aquarium take their responsibilities on care and animal welfare very seriously and take help and advice from a wide range of specialists both in-house and from outside agencies,” the organisation said.
“Gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands, are a very important part of the world’s population and so we hope visitors to the SeaLife London Aquarium are learning about them, and the Falkland Islands too. For many people their only opportunity to come face to face with certain species is within zoos, wildlife parks & aquariams.”
The captivity of wild animals has been a hot topic for years, what exactly is their purpose?
The first was royal menageries in Woodstock, the Tower of London and the Strand. ZSL was the first scientific zoo and in order to afford to stay afloat, opened up to the public in 1847.Zoos existed purely for entertainment and research but over the years progressed to create more natural enclosures and in 1966, the first safari park was built in Wiltshire, at Longleat. Thereafter, nature documentaries opened the public’s eyes to how animals live in the wild and the morality of keeping animals captive was soon questioned and zoos challenged.
In 1981 the Zoo Licensing Act meant you could no longer capture wild animals and the focus of zoos would be to educate. Conservation has been the most cited reason for the existence of zoos in recent years, although how effective they can really be on this issue is debated.
Arguably the most well-known criticised case of the animal captivity of late is Sea World. The capture, breeding, training and displaying of wild orcas has been a hugely controversial issue due to the documentary Blackfish and death of trainers as a result of the animals captivity over the years.
This is a great example of the complications of keeping wild animals in captivity. The trainers at Sea World dedicated years of their lives to caring for these whales and clearly felt love and respect for them. It has been said they weren’t correctly informed of the facts and science of their behaviour and so they believed no harm was done.
Similarly, visitors to the park were told the environment was stimulating and appropriate for the whales, and the public who enjoyed seeing the animals up close chose to believe the information provided to them.
On the other hand, Sea World has successfully participated in rescue and release programmes which proved beneficial to conservation and to animal welfare.
An example of this is ‘JJ’ the orphan grey whale. The abandoned whale was rescued and nursed back to health at Sea World and released back into the open ocean. The park attempted to prepare the whale for release as much as they could with his feeding and socialising. Though his tracker was lost there is no denying the park did all they could.
The effort in releasing him might have been unique to his case due to the fact that the park would never have been able to cater for his size from the business owners’ perspective, however, it does demonstrate how capable zoos are of putting animals first and contradicts excuses for keeping animals for life.
This is not the only case, there are many examples of zoos’ effective conservation work.
The issues with captivity that have occurred at Sea Life can be applied to all institutions. Our yearning to be close to wild animals may be blinding us to what is morally right for them.
Trainers often believe they have a bond with their animals which is not often the case when commanding/training animals in exchange for food. If they do form a bond, however, this makes it difficult to release animals back into the wild or to replicate their natural conditions which supposedly zoos intend to do.
Zoo animal welfare organisations such as Born Free and CAPS argue that to rely on captive populations draws attention from the threats such as global warming, poaching, overfishing, urbanisation and deforestation.
It lulls us into a false sense of security to feel that the animals will remain safe whilst scientists can breed them in captivity when in reality, these financial resources would be better used to tackle the issues head-on and take preventative action to ensure populations aren’t threatened in the first place. What is also surprising is that the majority of breeding programmes in zoos are not with endangered animals.
In 2016, following the escape of a gorilla at London Zoo, Sir David Attenborough had criticised the enclosure for its glass windows and lack of privacy.
“They are not just animals. They are related to us. They value their privacy. Just imagine what it’s like to be there,” he said. In regards to zoos, he appeared solemn on their existence: “It’s a pity they’re always in danger,” he said. “If we could get rid of that then perhaps there would be no need for zoos.”
On top of this Born Free argues: “The best animals for restocking wild populations are those from highly endangered species born in the wild (or, failing that, to wild-born parents), and kept in their natural habitat and social groups. The worst candidates are those species not in immediate threat of extinction, bred for generations in captivity, in environmental conditions very different from their natural habitat, especially those subjected to frequent relocation”
High profile capture and release programmes were only initiated when populations were desperately low and since only a select few animals are bred together this can affect their genes.
Moreover, as captive animals have no knowledge or association with predators they are less likely to survive in the wild. Animals become dependent on humans to survive, this is why the most successful capture and release programmes where with wild animals (like JJ the grey whale) and not captive born.
The BBC recently reported on the rescue of damaged bears from circuses and zoos which had been placed in a sanctuary in Ukraine. This clearly demonstrated the extreme effects of captivity, the bears were anxiously shaking or pacing, behaviour that could be considered ‘zoochosis’. Though now in a safer more natural environment, the bears were now incapable of surviving without human intervention.
Laws like the Zoo Licensing Act require zoos to be educational and to provide natural environments as well as to contribute to conservation or other aiding schemes. With the majority of breeding in zoos not with endangered animals and with very few cases of animals being released back into the wild, it can be argued keeping animals in captivity does very little for conservation.
In instances such as with the Gentoo penguins, it could be argued that animal welfare might not be the priority. Ultimately the visitors of the zoo can shape the conditions provided, in fact in the 1990s, surveys suggested three-quarters of Britons were opposed to keeping animals in captivity and London Zoo was months from closure after government funding cuts.
If visitors are less passive and challenge the treatment of animals in zoos, these institutions will be ultimately forced to actively invest in the welfare of their animals. If zoos are to exist today they should provide animals with more than is necessary for them to survive, but for them to live a fulfilled and happy life.
Featured Image by Josie Collins.