Issues Magazine

Animals as Entertainment

By Lynda Stoner

Zoos are for the enjoyment of humans, not animals. Our focus must be on retention and regeneration of natural habitat.

I still recall my first trip to a zoo as a child. Back then, people dressed up for such a special occasion – best frocks, much anticipation. Going to the zoo was an Event.

But the only feeling I still harbour from visiting the Adelaide Zoo decades ago is a sense of bleakness at the plight of the animals. George the orang-utan arrived from Borneo in the 1950s and existed in his barren environment until 1976. A statue of George has been erected at the zoo.

What isn’t acknowledged was his misery in such a sterile place. A hessian bag and a half tyre: that was it. For an animal with the intelligence of a five-year-old, that was all the enrichment he had. He sat and stared at us. Turned his back on us. He had no private retreat – after all, if the paying public couldn’t see George, what would be the point of having him there?

The elephant at this zoo was consigned to wandering around and around in a circle, carrying customers in a wagon harnessed to her back. It is hardly anthropomorphising to recall the despair in the eyes of this beautiful animal. The defeat. Total subjugation.

In 2009, an orang-utan at Adelaide Zoo used a branch to short-circuit an electric fence before making her escape from her enclosure. Much of the zoo was evacuated while she escaped over a fence, only to be thwarted by a second fence. This demonstrates two things: that this intelligent animal possessed planning skills – which explains the craving for stimulation shared by all animals and denied to George his entire life – and that she wanted to escape her prison.

I will always remember the tragedy of George, a fate he shared with a polar bear, lions, a tiger and a panther who had nothing to do but pace back and forth. Isolated. Bored to the point of madness. Gawked at and laughed at by crowds of people who spend a few minutes looking at these magnificent confined animals and then walk away and never learn anything at all about the real behaviour and needs of these animals. Children throwing things into their enclosure, adults with their taunts and bravado.

Another lingering memory I have of George and other primates was of them staring at us, being quite still, while behind them they gathered up clumps of faeces to fling at spectators. Children squealed with delight; adults made disgusted noises. I felt those actions by the primates were decidedly appropriate.

Confinement for animals is against all norms of nature. It is a frightening and noxious environment, whether the animal is in a laboratory cage, an agribusiness cage or stall, or inside a circus or zoo cage.

Zoos may have changed cosmetically since I was a child but they remain a prison. I went to Taronga Zoo in Sydney a couple of years ago and felt the same disgust and sadness I’d had as a child. The enclosure for the elephants had a few more aesthetically pleasing trees and water areas, but those cosmetics did little for the confined elephants. I sat for an hour watching the elephants displaying zoochosis (an acute mental disorder – note the word was coined around zoos), swaying and weaving their heads.

How anyone can believe that an animal who usually travels up to 80 km per day is better placed in a zoo is bewildering. Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild. Imagine spending 70 years in the same room, day after day. Thankfully for them, they have a shorter life span in confinement, fewer years of misery.

Whenever an elephant attacks, zoos and circuses spin all but the obvious – that elephants are finally “breaking” when they attack. Elephant intelligence has been compared with primates and cetaceans. Like us they show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind. Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling. In fact, the emotional attachment elephants form with family members may exceed our own.

Written and visual records from around the world show captive elephants and big cats lashing out with frustration and rage. And we continue to be amazed and outraged when they do. Zoo keepers call it hormones or an aberration. Late in 2012 at Taronga Zoo, the elephant Pathi Harn attacked one of his keepers; Arna the elephant, for too long with Stardust Circus, killed her trainer in 2008. Two years ago, at Sea World Parks in Queensland, “killer whale” Tilikum dragged his trainer of 16 years to the bottom of the aquarium, another fatal incident. Tilikum had been involved in the death of another trainer a decade before. Tilikum has been held captive for 30 years.

Singapore’s Animal Concerns Research and Education Society and the US-based Earth Island Institute reported in a study published in 2010 that “researchers Lori Marino, a zoologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and Diana Reiss, Professor of Psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York declared dolphins to be the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans and suggested they should be treated as ‘non-human persons’” (“World Sentosa’s Plans To House Wild Caught Dolphins”). Thomas White, Professor of Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, has written a series of academic studies suggesting dolphins should have rights.

In the same study, cetacean specialist Giorgio Pilleri says, “… whatever efforts are deployed, the keeping of cetaceans in captivity will always pose problems because of the inherent contradiction on which it is based: the keeping in cramped conditions of creatures which are accustomed to vast open spaces”. Pilleri believes that captivity, coupled with the destruction of the dolphin’s sophisticated social structure, causes “profound psychological disturbance and neurotic behaviour almost identical to that of humans when held in solitary confinement. Symptoms include loss of communication, despair, suicidal behaviour and unnatural aggression.

Another indicator of the deficiency of zoos is the high number of animals that kill or deliberately abandon their offspring: “I think it’s fair to say that in most cases of infanticide, it’s related to stressors, whether it’s in the wild or in captivity,” says Zoocheck Canada director Julie Woodyer. She continues, “One of the primary reasons polar bears would kill their own cubs in the wild is because there isn’t enough food even for them to eat. Once you remove those stressors these problems shouldn’t exist, but they do because zoos have created different kinds of stressors for animals because they haven’t evolved to cope in that small environment.”

New Scientist’s report “No Way Out” (26 January 2002) examined what happens in the brains of human and other animals when they exhibit stereotypical behaviour. The report indicates: “An estimated 80 million captive animals worldwide perform bizarre, repetitive rituals, known as stereotypies. Preventing animals from following natural instincts may sabotage neurotransmitters in the brain.”

For all the flourishes of so-called enrichment and improvements, Taronga Zoo as it was two years ago took me back to the Adelaide Zoo of decades ago. Animals pacing back and forth, bar biting, eyes hollow, giraffes licking at walls – all displays of stereotypic behaviour. As with pigs in sow stalls, chickens in battery cages and laboratory animals, stereotypical behaviour can lead to total psychosis.

Zoos continue to insist they are a necessary conservation mechanism and “educational”. There is nothing educational about seeing a normally free living and widely roaming animal confined to a cell. I watched people watching animals during my recent visit. The approximate time spent in front of any single cage was five minutes. The most frequent complaint was, “they’re just sitting there”. Most people spend the majority of their time in the gift shops and cafes. As for conservation, how often do the offspring of confined animals actually get returned to the wild? Almost never.

At the Animals and Death Symposium in 2012, Paul Andrews of Taronga Zoo said that “zoos must decide how much resource to invest in surplus animals that do not, or no longer, contribute to the program”. In November 1962, Taronga Zoo purchased two elephants, Gigi and Gilda, from Singapore. Six years later, in November 1968, the same pair and a giraffe were sold to Ashton’s Circus.

In 1982, Copenhagen zoos killed three young Bengal tigers because no other zoos would give them a home. Tigers are threatened in India but in zoos there is often an over-population. At the time of the killings the zoo’s managing director, Bent Joergensen, said, “emotionally it does feel senseless, but there just wasn’t anything else for us to do. Many zoos are facing the same problem.”

Human zoos were commonplace throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with people taken from their countries of origin displayed in a so-called “natural” state. Some zoos combined incarcerated animals and humans for profit. Human zoos were to be found in most Western countries until around World War II. Purportedly, those zoos were also to educate and ensure species did not die out.

In 2007, the Adelaide Zoo conducted an experiment called the Human Zoo project. They locked groups of six humans into an empty orang-utan enclosure, each for a week at a time. According to The Monthly: “It aimed to create awareness of the closeness of humans to their primate cousins, to provide a platform for research on animal behaviour and enrichment and raise awareness of the conservation needs of primates in the wild” and to raise funds for a chimpanzee exhibition. Unsurprisingly, the poster for this particular exhibit classed these animals as “the most dangerous” on earth. These voluntary exhibits had all contemporary luxuries but the greatest was the knowledge that this ephemeral experience was a choice: participants could leave whenever they wished.

People often express the idea that animals whose species are facing extinction are “lucky” to be in zoos. I would proffer that hermetic habitation, and being subjected to the egocentric whims of another species, is not lucky. Better these animals whose natural habitats we have so cataclysmally destroyed be permitted to die out than be artificially propagated and endure simply for human curiosity.