So, what does WAZA say? What it terms as its basic principles for the guidance of all members states, “The continued existence of zoological parks and aquariums depends upon recognition that our profession is based on respect for the dignity of the animals in our care, the people we serve and other members of the international zoo profession. Acceptance of the WAZA World Zoo Conservation Strategy is implicit in involvement in the WAZA.”, it continues, “Exhibit Standards: All exhibits must be of such size and volume as to allow the animal to express its natural behaviours. Enclosures must contain sufficient material to allow behavioural enrichment and allow the animal to express natural behaviours. The animals should have areas to which they may retreat, and separate facilities should be available to allow separation of animals where necessary. At all times animals should be protected from conditions detrimental to their well-being and the appropriate husbandry standards adhered to.”
But does WAZA provide annual, independent checks and audits of its members? And, let’s remember that many of these destination zoos are not members of WAZA.
The CITES-WAZA MoU only came into being in 2011, so it took them a while!
Zoos are obviously worried about the increase in scrutiny, why else would they release the 2021 documentary Escape from Extinction. As a guardian review states, “Escape from Extinction is so hellbent on forcing its case, it feels hard to trust. It doesn’t engage on what conditions “accredited zoos” must meet, or enter into discussion with animal rights activists with legitimate concerns about the lives of animals in captivity.”.
Zoo’s marketing materials talk about the goal of many captive breeding programs being the re-introduction of animals into the wild. I don’t think that they would get the same level of donations if the marketing approach was that excess captive breeding will lead to culling, castration or solitary confinement.
Undoubtedly, some captive breeding programs are needed, but is it time they are all done in-situ and with local communities, rather than in zoos? This comes back to my question of, “While zoos obviously trigger a passion for protecting wildlife in some people, is it simply too few to justify keeping this industry open in its current form?”. Is this a dialog that we should have during 2022, the year of biodiversity? The Association of Zoos and Aquariums says that “zoos and aquariums are some of the best places for you and your family to get connected to nature and become engaged in conservation action.” But if this connection to nature doesn’t lead to any benefits for wildlife (and there isn’t a great deal of evidence that it has) then what needs to change for zoos to justify the industry staying?
Zoos have done little to clean up the global industry. Private zoos, roadside ‘zoos’, zoos attached to pubs and hotels all need to be scrutinised. As a very minimum, ‘to raise the floor’, should trade only be allowed between WAZA listed zoos?
Let’s remember that humans were kept on display in zoos well into the 20th century, the last “human zoo” was in Belgium in 1958. Often created as part of international trade fairs, people were put on display as articles of curiosity, to act out their cultural dances and rituals. These displays appear to have legitimised for some people a belief in the moral superiority and inequality of races, that exists to this day.
So where to from here? It is clear that the nature of this debate has been slowly shifting in recent years and we can anticipate that in 20 or 30 years’ time the keeping of a number of iconic and/or highly sentient species will be considered unacceptable by the broader public. This debate has more recently extended to the notion of non-human rights, with its push to give animals and ecosystems rights to their existence independent of human needs and wants.
Together with the discussions of setting aside 30% of land for nature by 2030, it could provide the basis of a significant shift. But this means nothing if there is no commitment to provide the necessary funds to establish such protected areas or, if in-depth discussions on the nature of land ownership and rights don’t occur.
While these more complex transitions are discussed, a starting point must be improved regulation. For example, a substantial commercial trade in exotic pets such as exotic cats, birds and reptiles is currently disguised as a trade between ‘private zoos’, again undermining the integrity and legitimacy of the global zoo industry. In addition, there is no clear definition of a ‘zoo’ and even if such a definition is in place, the requirements, such as for being open to the public, are often non-binding or frankly ridiculous; EU Directive 1999/22 on zoos requires them to be open to the public for only ‘7 or more days a year’. Is a facility really a ‘zoo’ if it is closed to the public for 358 days of the year?