Zoos cannot replicate an animal’s natural habitat. Even the best zoo cannot adequately provide for an animal adapted to live in the wild. Animals in their natural habitats can roam hundreds of kilometres, hunt prey, raise their offspring and enjoy complex social relationships.
For example, in the wild, elephants and birds cover large distances, but are prevented from doing so in captivity. British zoologists have found that tigers enjoy a roaming range 18,000 times larger than the average zoo enclosure; for polar bears it is one million times larger. This is simply not feasible in a zoo environment where animals become little more than living exhibits.
In 2015 Orana Wildlife Park in Canterbury acquired three gorillas. These animals are not native to New Zealand and will never be released into the wild. Their future consists of existing in unnatural and comparatively small surroundings in front of daily visitors. In the wild, animals are stimulated by their changing surroundings, foraging for food, and seeking a mate. In the artificial environment of zoos, boredom is rife. Animals may be housed inappropriately: species that naturally live a solitary existence may be put in groups or group animals left alone, unable to behave or interact naturally. A prey animal may become stressed if housed close to predators, and animals who would naturally avoid contact with humans have no escape from daily contact.
The zoo environment can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of zoo animals. Captive elephants, for example, cannot exercise in the same way they do in the wild and typically endure long hours standing on hard surfaces. These conditions are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, one of the leading causes of death and euthanasia among captive elephants.
A survey of the records of 4,500 elephants both in the wild and in captivity found that the average life span for an African elephant in a zoo was 16.9 years, whereas for African elephants living in Amboseli National Park the median life span was 56 years, (although elephants have been known to live for up to 70 years). Good welfare in zoos depends on continual enrichment programmes and attempts to replicate a natural environment, which can never be properly achieved.
Captive animals can suffer from ‘zoochosis’— extreme physical and mental frustration — which leads to abnormal behaviour such as pacing, rocking and self-mutilation. These actions are recognised symptoms of humans suffering from mental illness. In zoos it is not uncommon to see primates who throw faeces and birds who have plucked out their own feathers. Elephants sway to and fro, while lions and tigers pace endlessly.
As Dr Keith Lindsay, a biologist with more than 30 years of experience in elephant research and conservation has said, these are symptoms of “pathological, stereotypical behaviour that is common with disturbed animals in captivity, but which is never seen in the wild.” There are also cases of animals being given antidepressants to hide their unhappiness from visitors. In 2015 Auckland Zoo euthanised a gibbon, Iwani, because he was “severely depressed” and the zoo admitted they could not meet his welfare needs.
A journalist who has investigated zoos in New Zealand, Selwyn Manning, wrote:
“Few people realise the monotony of zoos. When the public visits a zoo they see the animals pace or sway behind their walls for three, maybe four, hours. But for these animals every day is the same and during visiting time they stare at the stream of faces in the crowds. Everyone is the same. Everyone just stares back. Meal time is always the same food, every night. They sit captive, thousands of miles from the climate for which evolution has adapted them. It’s the monotony which crushes their spirit, the endless hours which numb their brains.”
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