On this year’s Empty the Tanks Day, a few conservation groups and members of the public went to the Ocean Park Hong Kong to protest against the captivity of animals and animal shows in the park. Earlier, tens of thousands of signatures were collected on the internet to plead for the closure of an aquarium in Guangzhou, due to concerns regarding the suspected lack of care for a Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) kept in the aquarium. As early as the 1880s, zoos became places for people to get close to many kinds of animals from around the world. Yet as people pay more attention to animal rights, moral standards on animal treatment are spotlighted, and there are now more opposing voices to the captivity of animals. Is the historical role of zoos now over?
Urban dwellers live away from nature. They find great curiosity and interest in wild animals, particular the larger ones that are seldom seen. Commercial zoos are operated with such popular support. Some zoos, on the other hand, are built for educational purposes by governments. Zoos first appeared in the 18th century and those with scientific and educational purposes were built from the late 18th century. Aquariums with marine animals came later, in the mid-19th century.
Today many cities have large zoos and aquariums which serve as leisure facilities for both local and foreign tourists. Some famous ones include the Singapore Zoo, National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Taiwan and Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan. In Hong Kong, the most popular one is Ocean Park. Besides, there are numerous government-run zoos, such as Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, where large animals like Bornean Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Raccoon (Procyon lotor) are kept, and Hong Kong Park, Kowloon Park, and Yuen Long Park. You may not think about these latter city parks as zoos, but there are in fact large aviaries with many foreign wild birds inside. In the Wetland Park and some museums, there are also animals display facilities such as fish tanks.
Zoos and aquariums provide entertainment for the public and are indeed popular leisure facilities. Commercial operations are profitable and promote economies and tourism. From the positive side, these facilities allow the public to see many kinds of wild animals from around the world without the need to travel long distances. It is a convenient, safe and time-saving way to observe these animals. Aquariums are particularly valuable, in that marine creatures are hard to see. Zoos and aquariums open the eyes of the public and let them learn about different animals in nature.
Conservation value of zoos
Apart from providing leisure, some zoos and aquariums have conservational values too. Ex-situ conservation preserves certain individuals of the population, and sometimes they undergo cross-breeding with individuals of the same species at another zoo or aquarium to boost the species' survival chances.
Many rare species are threatened by habitat destruction (e.g. chimpanzees in the rainforests) or over-catching (e.g. rhinos). Zoos can provide refuges for these animals. For instance, ChimpanZoo is an international research programme founded by renowned chimpanzee researcher Dame Jane Goodall with participation from numerous countries. The aim is to adopt retrieved smuggled juvenile chimps and illegally caught adult chimps. The zoo also acts as a research base for long term close observation of apes, which supplements field studies and contributes to chimpanzee conservation. Another example is China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan. This is an important base for the research and breeding of the rare Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). It also works with various zoos around the world to protect the endangered species, while people worldwide can get a close look at Giant Pandas.
However, all along there have been a lot of controversies around captive animals in zoos and aquariums, particularly those that operate commercially with emphasis on entertainment. In recent years, public awareness of conservation and animal rights is on the rise, and criticism and opposition to captive animals are also intensifying.
Captive means torture
Firstly, a captive environment poses great psychological stress on the animals. No matter how close to nature is the artificial environment, it is totally different to the natural habitat, which causes stress to the animals in captivity. The general shortening of lifespan of captive animals as compared to the wild population is a case in point. In the wild, Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) can reach 30 to 50 years of age, while those in captivity on average have a lifespan of 13 only years.
In animals with more developed thinking and feeling systems, stereotypic behaviour—repetitive action without obvious objectives—often appears in captivity. Bears in a zoo, for example, may walk in circles, swing their heads and pace for long hours. These stereotypic behaviours reflect the psychological pressure and suffering of the animals. In a captive environment, some animals fail to grow healthily, both physiologically and psychologically. Hence, many regard the captivity of animals as torture to the animals.
Besides, many animals in zoos and aquariums are caught from the wild. Some are bred from wild caught animals. In either case, the animals are first caught in the wild. This will directly reduce the wild population, particularly those rare species with commercial value. Many animals, including migratory birds and fishes, cannot be bred in an artificial environment. Their appearance in zoos and aquariums means that they are continuously caught in the wild.
Dolphins are found in almost all large aquariums. Artificial breeding of dolphins is very difficult, so most dolphins are caught in the wild. In the famous documentary The Cove, produced in 2009, the cruelty of hunting and killing dolphins is exposed. Dolphins are herded by fishing vessels into the cove and aquarium staff pick suitable individuals for show business. The remaining dolphins are slaughtered en masse for the meat. Despite the fact that many aquariums claim their dolphins are legally acquired, the film does expose the truth that few would know.
Twisting animal habits
Most commercially-operated zoos and aquariums provide animal shows to increase attraction. These signature shows, such as a Killer Whales jumping above the water and whistling, parrots cycling and monkeys roller skating, are important programmes to attract visitors, while at the same time result from cruel treatment in which the animals undergo long term training and conditioning which is contrary to their natural behaviour. Children that watch these shows may gain the wrong impression that these twisted behaviours are inborn.
Not only are commercially operated zoos and aquariums being condemned, the educational functions of publicly run zoos and aquariums are also questioned. Most visitors are actually attracted by the striking appearances and behaviours of animals; only few are serious about learning about nature from zoos and aquariums. Besides, ex-situ conservation is not ideal, as the living environments of the animals are not their natural habitats. There is call for more in-situ conservation – that is, setting up reserves at the natural homes of the wild animals.
In-situ conservation may be the best. But specific conditions and needs of different species have to be taken into account. For those animals with habitats destroyed or no longer able to survive in the wild, ex-situ conservation may be needed, such as in the case of the previously mentioned ChimpanZoo and China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Closer to home, we have Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, which is open to the public, and hosts numerous birds, reptiles and fishes, as well as large mammals such as Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) and Red Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak). Many of these have been recovered from smuggling activities or saved from injury. These institutes focus on conservation and research and caring for the animals, and only display the animals for educational purposes under suitable conditions. This is different from the zoos and aquariums that prioritise leisure and entertainment purposes.
Personal behaviour and animal welfare
In any case, discussion regarding the closure of zoos and aquariums has started around the world. More and more people locally and worldwide are opposed to captive animals. The increasing value placed on animal rights is an emblem of human civilisation.
It may seem that the captivity of animals in zoos and aquariums is not relevant to our daily lives. We can just refuse to watch the animal shows or boycott the shopping centres that use captive animals as gimmick. However, let us reflect on whether we have ever tried to catch fish and shrimps in streams? Or harvested crabs and clams on the coast? Or caught insects in the woods and brought them back home? These are all related to the concept of animal welfare and animal captivity.
If we keep pets at home, we had better choose those that are artificially bred. Avoid keeping rare species, or introduced foreign species that may not find the climate and environment suitable. In addition, never release living creatures carelessly. Releasing foreign species into the local environment will lead to ecological disasters. Even the release of local species may affect the wild populations. And it is often difficult to identify the species. Concern for animal rights and welfare is closely bound to our daily lives.
Text ｜ Henry Lui & Dr. Cheng Luk-ki