The 2013 release of “Blackfish,” a documentary criticizing SeaWorld and other similar facilities for keeping orcas, reignited a long-standing argument against having animals in captivity. Some people immediately jump to conclusions – mostly negative – about an animal’s wellbeing when they see bars, barricades and certain animal behaviors despite not knowing the real purpose for those things. Although some still strongly feel that animals do not belong in captivity, I think both people and animals can benefit from programs offered by accredited animal care facilities.
Awareness of poor animal care has greatly improved in recent years thanks to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums setting high standards for facilities. According to the AZA website, accredited zoos and aquariums undergo a rigorous application process as well as “…a multiple day on-site inspection by a team of experts from around the country.” The AZA experts examine almost every aspect of operations, from enclosure dimensions to food preparation, animal training, the animals’ overall welfare and more.
One of the most important services that these accredited zoos, aquariums and other animal care facilities offer their guests is education. Captive wild animals and their caretakers provide the public with valuable information about nature and the environment that people might not otherwise be exposed to. The article “Conservation and Education: Prominent Themes in Zoo Mission Statements” that originally appeared in 2010 in the Journal of Environmental Education determined that education was one prominent theme found in 136 zoo mission statements. Even if guests don’t stop to read informational signs, the ability to see a penguin, lion or tiger up close might make a patron more aware of climate change, or more willing to donate money or resources to an environmental cause.
I think a lot of people have the perception that zoos and aquariums take animals directly from the wild, stick them in a cage and call it a day. Although that is the unfortunate truth about zoos in the past, facilities now almost never take animals directly from the wild. Animal care facilities acquire their animals in a plethora of ways; for accredited zoos and aquariums, their animals are often offspring of animals already in the collection or they are traded from another zoo. Zoo animals are required to have very detailed records of their genealogy and personal history. Sanctuaries can be a home for animals that came from abuse situations or don’t have stringent documentation. Other facilities rehabilitate animals and house them because they would no longer be able to survive in the wild.
Facilities often use their platform to fund research and conservation efforts locally and across the world to save endangered or threatened species through education, outreach, breeding, etc. Martha Fischer, director of the WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa, spoke in a lecture to the captive wild animal management class at the University of Missouri about the Saint Louis Zoo’s initiative to save the Grevy’s Zebra in Africa. The zoo, in tandem with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, work with local people in Kenya and Ethiopia to monitor current populations and teach other locals about why the zebras are ecologically important.
When I worked for three months at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, Alaska, I met guests who represented both ends of the spectrum in support for captive animals. Most people were very kind and understood the foundation’s mission for the “conservation and propagation of our national bird and its habitat throughout North America.” Some donated money to the foundation, others thanked me and the other staff members for the work we do and others left with knowledge about raptors that they can now share with family and friends.
I still remember that one man on the other end of the spectrum pulled me aside after a presentation and told me that the foundation should change its design of the bald eagle enclosure because it looked like the birds were in jail. I politely thanked him for his suggestion, but explained that the purpose of the bars was to keep the patrons and the eagles safe. The eagles were there because they were injured and could not sustain themselves in the wild; they were not imprisoned in any sense of the word and actually displayed lots of behavioral signs of comfort and “happiness”.
I have seen firsthand at ABEF and at the Raptor Rehabilitation Project at MU how a positive and almost magical experience with a captive animal can change someone’s life for the better. Before jumping to conclusions, I wish the general public would pause to analyze their thoughts and the facts before deciding that all captive animals situations are bad.