Zoos – Conservation or Cruelty?

November 2020 – As Ireland battled its second wave of the Covid-19 virus, a call for help came from an unlikely and for many, a surprising place. Located in the Phoenix Park in Dublin city centre, Dublin Zoo launched an appeal campaign aimed at raising funds for the running of the zoo. The zoo had seen a huge drop in visitors as a result of the virus and the continued restrictions had had a devastating impact where the care for its 400 animals costs upward of €500,000 a month.

Launched on November 18th, 2020, the ‘Save Dublin Zoo ‘appeal received more than a million euros in donations from the public within less than 48 hours as the Irish public rallied to the call for help. In addition to this, the government also pledged to provide additional funding for the zoo to ensure its survival for “generations to come.” The campaign surpassed all expectations from the zoo authorities as almost 3 million euro was raised through donations alone.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most national news these days, the save Dublin zoo appeal sparked a ‘debate’ on social media over the ethical and moral integrity of zoos. With calls from some people for the zoo to be closed permanently as it was, as they saw it, akin to a prison where animals were confined to cages and denied their freedom, solely for the purpose of entertaining visitors. This lazy and superficial take on zoos is a lot like social media opinions themselves, reductive and lacking self-awareness.

A hangover of the Victorian vaudeville sideshow or an integral part of wildlife conservation, the arguments for and against zoos are compelling and worthy of discussion. However, as is far too often the case, this discussion is drowned out in the white noise of online social media and are not heard by those who need to hear them. Virtue signalling and an ascent to the summit of the moral high ground outweigh any critical or nuanced discussion on the topic. These ad hominem arguments do nothing to advance the conversation and alienate any reasonable or measured contribution. Sensationalism, insults, and name calling make would be contributors cynical about the issue as both sides argue while failing to display any deeper understanding of the history or reality of animal conservation and or advocacy.

This echo chamber achieves nothing, nobody learns anything, and everyone comes away from the experience feeling worse about the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, the topic of zoos can be replaced by any trending social or political issue and the formula works the same every time. At a time when the world is focused on combating the spread of Covid-19, the save Dublin zoo appeal comes as a timely reminder of that other global crisis we are sleep walking into, climate change.

Published in 2019, The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) outlined the serious challenge facing conservationists and environmentalists in combating the dire effects climate change in having on ecosystems across the globe. IPBES chair, Sir Robert Watson warns that,

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development and their impacts on nature. It also outlines its predictions for the coming decades if action is not taken now to combat these global trends.

It highlights how the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. In conjunction with this, more than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are now threatened. 

The World Meteorological Organisation published its Provisional Report on the State of the Global Climate 2020 outlining how despite the COVID-19 lockdown, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continued to rise, committing the planet to further warming for many generations to come because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere. WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas stated that,

“The average global temperature in 2020 is set to be about 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level. There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024,”

The past decade has seen an increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding and wildfires along with an increase in global average temperatures. This has led to famine, drought, population displacement and habitat destruction. Since the mid-1980s, the Arctic has warmed at least twice as fast as the global averages contributing to continued polar bear habitat destruction and death. While many may lament the polar bear resigned to an artificial artic habitat in a zoo, the reality is that his natural habitat is becoming more and more inhospitable as a result of our actions forcing these conservation efforts on the part of zoos.

Polar bears are not the only animal whose habitat and survival in the wild is at risk. Tigers number some 3,900 in the wild and have lost an estimated 95% of their historical range. Their habitat has been destroyed, degraded, and fragmented by human activities with illegal poaching still presenting the biggest threat to wild tigers. The impact of poaching is not just felt in the loss of one tiger. Should that tiger be a female with cubs, then the chances of her cubs surviving into adulthood are slim to none in the absence of their mother. While it may be difficult to see a tiger confined to the limitations of a zoo enclosure, it is human action, and in some cases inaction, that have put him there and why the zoo authorities work so hard to protect a species decimated in the wild.

News these days is less 24 hours than it is 24 minutes, and the fervor that met the Save Dublin Zoo appeal quickly died down as the digital mob sharpened their pitchforks for the next moral outrage. Zoos have come a long away from their early days as Victorian shows of wonder and amazement with the modern incarnation of the zoo being less about entertainment and more about education and conservation. Most people will not change their minds on whether zoos are good places or not. Those that enjoy them will continue to visit them and revel in the wonder and amazement of seeing these exotic beasts up close. For those that do not like them, they will continue to remind us how wrong it is for us to visit and support them. Whatever side you find yourself on its worth taking a step back from the argument and acknowledging that for the most part, human activity is one of the main reasons animals like these have to be protected. The irony is we are not separate, but very much a part of this natural world that finds itself in an increasingly perilous situation. Were our actions more in line with the ideals of preserving this world, then there may be no need for zoos at all. While animals can rely on the help and dedication of humans who see the need to intervene on their behalf, who will save us when the damage is done, and it is already too late?          

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