Try and remember the very first time you ever went to a zoo. What fun, weren’t the animals truly amazing? Or perhaps it was not such a happy event, as you stared into the sad and lifeless eyes of a poor wild animal cruelly imprisoned in a dank, dingy cage. For zoos are not always exotic and exciting places. They can be depressing too. Don’t you start to question the ethics of it all? We instantly sympathise with the plight of caged baby monkeys, but what about other species? GT examines this debatable issue.
The cruel wild beast is not behind the bars of the cage. He stands in front of it - Axel Munthe
MR. SHER SINGH wants to be known as a ‘sher da puttar’ (son of a lion). Throughout history, we humans have tried to measure our power by how we could captivate and tame the wildest and most dangerous of animals. Many North African, Indian and Chinese kept animals (1,000 and 400 BC) to show off their power and strength. People wanted to tame and own these wild creatures. And Mr. Sher Singh wants to be like them.
The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, “We are the absolute masters of what the earth produces”. Under Roman laws, animals were without rights, created solely for human convenience. Romans had huge open-air theatres. In the central portion called arena, they would kill hundreds of animals everyday — and a big audience hooted and cheered and had ‘fun’.
Lions, tigers, elephants and bears were made to fight against each other and against gladiators (warriors). Alexander the Great would send back many animals that he captured on his military expeditions to Greece. Aristotle kept them in cages and studied them and compared the human position in relation to other animals. By the 4th century BC almost all the city-states in Rome had captive animals.
Around 4500 BC in what is now Iraq, people bred pigeons to serve as messengers. Indians domesticated elephants in 2500 BC. Wen Wang: 1000 BC built his ‘Ling-lu’ (zoo) and called it ‘The Garden of Intelligence’ Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt built a zoo in 1500 BC. In 1500 BC The Chinese empress — Tanki, built a “House of Deer” made of marble. Emperor Charlemagne, 8th century AD, maintained a collection of animals. So did Henry 1, 12th century AD.
The term ‘zoo’ was not used until the early 1800s when the Zoological Society of London was founded. The first modern zoo for the general public was opened in Vienna, Austria in 1765 AD. They became common only after the 1800’s. Initially, zoos were exhibits to amuse and entertain. No one cared about the animals’ food and housing needs. If the animal was ill, who cared! If it died, people got more from the wild. No one bothered to breed wild animals.
It was only in the last century that the role of zoos came under greater scrutiny. As the knowledge animal behaviour increased, keepers and designers started thinking of the special needs of the animals. They tried to make their enclosures resemble the animal’s natural habitat. This helped ensure the social and psychological well being of the animals. In the 1950’s, veterinary medicine developed.
Some captive wild animals started breeding in Zoos. The new borns needed more attention and improved conditions to survive. Scientific professionals specializing in zoology and biology replaced general administrators as Zoo directors. Animal right activists began to focus on conditions of zoos. Some even went to the extent to say that holding animals in captivity was unethical.
When your parents were children, it may have been quite acceptable to keep a solitary animal in close confinement just for amusement. Today, many people would think differently. We hear of ‘Animal Rights’, of animals as being ‘exploited’ — a concept unknown during the early days of zoos. So now we justify the existence of zoos on the fact that they help in conservation, education and research.
But have things really changed? We all know of the appaling conditions of zoos in India. Whether or not zoos ought to exist and if they should exist, in what form and for what purpose is a question we all must address.
Are zoos just a relic of a medieval past?
Carl Hagenbeck an internationally known German animal dealer and trainer, was one of the first introduce humane training methods for animals. When the animal trade began to decline in 1870s, he started his own “ethnographical shows”, spectacles featuring animals from remote regions. The common way of training animals at that time was sticking hot iron on and beating the animals.
Hagenbeck said that this was cruel and unnecessary. He demonstrated this in 1889 when he introduced a ‘lion act’ in which, as a finale, three lions pulled him around in a cage in a chariot. His success inspired others and the Hagenbeck training methods replaced the harsher training methods in circuses all over Europe and America. In 1906, he sold his animal show and opened a zoological garden near Hamburg, Germany, — the Hagenbeck Zoo.
The Hagenbeck Zoo was the first to use moated, barless open-air enclosures that resembled the animals’ natural habitat. Today more humane methods of zoo keeping are being practised. Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust in the UK, set up by the famous author and naturalist Gerald Durrell and the San Diego Zoo in USA are held as examples of well managed modern zoos, that conserve threatened species. The Jersey Zoo takes credit for having saved the Mauritius Kestrel, a raptor, from near extinction.
There are more than 10,000 zoos and aquariums located in over 80 countries, with USA having the greatest number, almost 200. The total number of zoos established since 1800 in India is more than 355. Who is responsible for these creatures? In India, the state governments and the municipalities run most of these zoos. Conditions in these zoos are very poor. The animal to keeper ratio in most Indian zoos is as low as 1000:1.
The casualty rate in Indian zoos is one amongst the highest (roughly 40%) and the birth rate lowest in the world. Of the 32 white tigers in Nandankanan Zoo in Orissa born during 1995-2000 by inbreeding only six survived, because there was lack of planning. Nor were they reintroduced into the wild. And we all know the horrific story of how last year, tigers were killed and skinned at Nandankanan.
Do we need zoos?
Zoos are seen as places of entertainment, more closely related to the circus and amusement park than to museums and education
Zoos are probably the most complex forms of animal keeping in the world. Animals, usually those regarded as “wild” animals, are kept together in a proximity unknown or impossible in their natural environment and together they are put on display for the benefit of humans.
The animal rights movement, the concern for animal welfare, the influence of ethology (science of animal behaviour), the increasing sophistication of natural history films on television, foreign travel where people have the opportunity to see animals in the wild, the development of theme parks of various sorts, and the growth of ecological awareness... all of these have influenced the style of exhibition of the best modern zoos and this in turn influences the way that the public responds to the animals on display.
One of the major problems faced by many modern zoos is that of their status. It seems that they cannot easily move away from the image of being places of entertainment than education. Whereas a natural history museum containing stuffed animals is given high cultural status in our society, a zoo, with living examples of many of the same animals, is perceived, by most visitors, as a place of entertainment.
The best zoos argue that they educate — to teach people to respect the natural world, to learn from the lives of the animals in captivity and to appreciate what conservation means. One of the major problems, however, is that the animals on display are both individuals and representatives of their species.
The educationalists in the zoo would like visitors to be interested to learn about animals as members of a species, whereas most visitors seem to respond to the actual individuals on display. There is a strong tendency for visitors to react to the animals in terms other than those of zoology, ethology or ecology. We humans always react to animals as being funny, ugly, cute, fierce, disgusting or frightening. Animals are anthropomorphised; seen as having human characteristics.
The information labels on enclosures seem to be used for identification purposes but it is what the animal looks like or how it behaves which keeps the interest of the visitor. If the animal in some way entertains, then visitors will pay attention to it. An enclosure might contain the rarest antelope in the world but it will not command the sort of attention paid to a lion cub or a monkey swinging in its cage.
In the zoo, animals live their lives for the benefit of humans. Even in the best zoos the animals are, in a sense, actors performing for humans. Their enclosure is an artificial world, a stage set on which they must display their lives. They act the part of other members of their species in the wild and the zoo attempts to tell a story of the lives of these others through them.
The best zoos are concerned to communicate an important set of ideas and attitudes about animals and the natural world, about authentic lives and authentic environments but they must do so through captive animals living inauthentic lives. "Animals in the zoo are living by our favour" but this is not unusual. In an important sense most animals are living by our favour; humans decide how they will live or whether they will live.
The zoo is simply one institution, a richly complex one, in the arena of human-animal relations in which humans decide what sort of lives and relationships these should be. Excerpts from a review essay by Garry Marvinl, Honorary Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, of ' Zooman: Inside the Zoo Revolution' by Terry L. Maple and Erika F. Archibald and 'Zoos and Animal Rights: The Ethics of Keeping Animals' by Stephen C. Bostock.
Legal rights for our closest cousins?
To quote the Project's FAQ, “The Great Ape Project is arguing for the inclusion of our fellow great apes in the “community of equals” not because they are human-like, but rather because they possess a variety of characteristics which are morally relevant. These characteristics, such as complex emotional life, strong social and family bonds, and self-awareness, have a great moral weight not because most humans have them too, but because they are morally relevant in themselves.” New Zealand became the first country to enact legislation recognizing the special status of great apes.
The law prohibits the use of great apes in research, testing,or teaching “unless such use is in the best interests of the nonhuman hominid” or its species. DNA studies show that a chimpanzee’s closest relative is not the gorilla, but the human. Humans share 98.4% of their DNA with the two living species of chimpanzees. Pondering over this molecular comparison an editorial in the magazine New Scientist says “But this misses the point: genomes are not cake recipes.
A few tiny changes in a handful of genes controlling the development of the cortex could easily have a disproportionate impact. A creature that shares 98.4 per cent of its DNA with humans is not 98.4 per cent human, any more than a fish that shares, say, 40 per cent of its DNA with us is 40 per cent human. Gibbons and monkeys share nearly all their DNA with gorillas. And what of tarsiers and lemurs? Take DNA as your measure of sentience and moral worth and the chemical connectedness of life ensures that you soon end up extending honorary personhood to the rat and haddock.”
According to Australian philosophy professor Peter Singer, president of the project,“The community of equals is the moral community within which the most basic ethical and legal principles apply to members. The right to life, the right not to be tortured and the rights not be imprisoned without due process are concepts that now only apply to human beings.” Sceptics argue otherwise. Is it possible to equate a chimpanzee with the intelligence of a four year old? And therefore grant it the same rights as we do for a child or mentally retarded person.
The New Scientist again, “Advocates of the kind of proposal being debated in New Zealand get round such concerns by suggesting we give apes semi-human legal status. But human rights are all or nothing. To think of apes as second-rate versions of ourselves is surely to demean the very creatures we seek to protect.” Biomedical researchers are a worried lot. They believe that this would simply be the first step in a grand plan to extend human rights to all other animals — and the end of their work. What do you think?