Zoos: shut them or support them?

Elephants share a morning meal at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. File picture: Etienne Creux

Elephants share a morning meal at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. File picture: Etienne Creux

Published Jun 18, 2015


Dr Marianne Brindley calls for the closure of the Pretoria Zoo but the National Zoological Gardens say they have an important role to play.

Pretoria - Modern zoos attained prominence in 19th century Europe when wild and exotic animals were unknown to most inhabitants of that continent. The animals were confined in small display areas with little regard for their original and natural habitat and places of origin.

Already in that century, South Africa began protecting and providing sanctuaries for its multiple diverse species and continued to be at the forefront of more enlightened attitudes, as is visible in the Kruger National Park, among other excellent reserves.

I recently visited the spacious National Zoological Gardens (NZG) in Pretoria eager to see how research advances and modern attitudes had influenced and been implemented there.

With a hard-to-follow map that resembled a zany maze, I kept walking into buildings, and more unkempt buildings with paint peeling off, a scattering of fences, dead-ends, no sign-posts, empty cages where chimpanzees should have been, and herd animals not in a herd.

But the real tragedy I encountered was enclosure after enclosure of docile, bored, captive animals that looked more like dumbed-down orphans than individuals and groups of vibrant species following their natural instincts… Despite all the publicity and money spent on wildlife research and photography, we are still living in the 19th century it seems.

The elephant enclosure really infuriated me: there they were, the majestic giants of Africa – looking pathetic, in fact showing less character and temperament than the stuffed elephants in the static Natural History Museum.

There was not a blade of grass in this “modern” enclosure-cage, desert elephants would have felt more at home. These savannah dwellers stood beside an area of green sludge clearly meant to offer them a sense of water. As I watched these remnants of the illustrious beings of the wild, I spoke to a keeper about this captivity. “Oh no,” I was assured: “Look they have those ground holes to play in.”

Later in the day they were thrown some branches, apparently so that they could “remember” how once upon a time in the wild, elephants did carry branches. Oh, lucky elephants!

But it was the rhino that upset me the most. It was in such a horrible state and I was filled with pity at seeing it with its sawn-off horn, scraped skin, its forlornness, marking its territory against a concrete wall, that I could not see the point of its sacrificial life in this zoo.

 The Pretoria Zoo has the beautiful Apies river flowing through its midst. Why have they not enclosed part of it for the elephants to have rippling, clean water and a more natural and invigorating environment in which to be confined?

As for the real Apies, the monkeys, they were caged-in with a few diversionary toys. I do not like people laughing at chimpanzees and monkeys, it is degrading and arrogant and passé. These are wonderful species in their own right, we need to restore animals and birds and other species into their rightful habitats in the wild. We have space and magnificent wildlife reserves and safari parks to which school trips can be organised.

It is no longer acceptable for us to remove animals from their natural habitats and break up social units for the amusement or diversion of passing visitors, or in the name of “research” that has obviously failed in that the Pretoria Zoo shows no evidence of an enlightened appreciation of the true nature and ecological habitat of other species.

Perhaps we are underestimating the easy step from this kind of patronising viewing of “dangerous” animals in zoo cages, to that of canned hunting of “game” that has reached epidemic proportions in our country, certainly in Limpopo.

Zoos have no place in modern society and life. The Pretoria Zoo should be shut down. It shows little respect for the spirit of the wild and those who cannot protest in ways that we understand. It is high time that we move beyond outdated prejudices and suppositions and enter the mind-set of the 21st century, showing sensitivity towards other forms of life, not as curiosities or to titillate us, but who are part of the wonderful and diverse expression of life on our planet. Close our zoos down and replace them with a truly enriching experience in conservation.

Dr Marianne Brindley, Randburg

* The National Zoological Gardens responds:

The National Zoological Gardens (NZG) of South Africa was founded in 1899 with a menagerie of merely 44 animals – the animals were saved from being killed for the purposes of taxidermy by the first director of the zoo, Dr Jan Willem Boudewyn Gunning.

It was the norm in the late 19th century for people to visit zoos to see exotic animals that they may not be able to see in their natural environments. Admittedly, at that time animals were taken from their natural environments and placed into captivity for the purposes of display.

Modern zoos around the world no longer collect animals from the wild, but utilise their extensive networks to exchange animals. One of the main reasons that this is done is to create a diversified bloodline and allow zoos and aquariums around the world to house a variety of animals. This is also necessary to ensure viable back-up populations. Such an example is the exchange between the NZG and the Zurich Zoo in Switzerland and the Ramat Gan Zoo in Israel that saw the exchange of rhino and gorilla between the three zoos.

The NZG attempts to keep animals in the same social structure in which they would normally occur, balancing this with the carrying capacity of the enclosure. As such, solitary animals – like the black rhino – are cared for individually.

The mandate of zoos has considerable changed since the 19th century and today focuses on conservation, education, research and offering a recreational element. The NZG is involved in a number of conservation projects, including the ground hornbill project, Pickergill’s reed frogs and African penguin.

Annually the NZG receives more than 600 000 visitors who would normally not have the chance to visit a game reserve and viewing photographs or television documentaries cannot replace the wonder of experiencing animals up close.

The NZG realises that there is a disconnect between people and the natural world and attempts to bridge this gap.

The NZG’s researchers, in conjunction with partners at the various South African and international universities, are consistently working at improving our understanding of species and how to improve their chances of survival in the wild.

The NZG is an urban recreational attraction that affords the residents of Tshwane an opportunity to relax and enjoy a family outing. In order to manage this experience, the NZG has designed a map to allow for what we call a “zoo loop”. This allows visitors with limited time on their hands to see the most popular animals in the shortest period of time.

Zoos worldwide, including the NZG, utilise a technique called environmental enrichment that caters to the behavioural needs of the animals.

Environmental enrichment utilises a number of techniques to achieve its goals including food, food placement and furnishings. Some examples include scattering the elephants’ food throughout the enclosure for them to find as opposed to it just being “dumped” in one place, the leopard being fed with a bungee jumper to get his meal into a tree and various puzzle feeders. The NZG schedules enrichment on a monthly calendar that ensures that all five senses of the animals are stimulated.

The animals receive a scientifically balanced and nutritional diet as determined by the NZG’s team of vets. In the wild, elephants would have to cover vast distances to get sufficient sustenance, but this is not the case in zoos. To ensure the psychological wellbeing of the elephants their food is scattered throughout the enclosure. They also have access to a mud bath similar to ones in the wild that allows them to wallow at leisure. Negative behaviour in elephants is not manifested in the animal standing still, but rather in swaying from side to side. The NZG’s elephant cows do not display this behaviour.

However, the bull shows mild signs of stereotypical behaviour that he learned at a circus. But this behaviour has largely been rectified by the NZG’s management techniques and enrichment.

The management of zoo animals is a scientific process and is not done haphazardly such as diverting a river through an enclosure. It must be pointed out that the Apies River is one of the most polluted rivers in the country and all rivers are governed by legislation. Therefore, the poor quality of the water is a high risk for the animals’ health.

During 2014 a total of 1 215 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa. Based on the ongoing rhino horn pandemic, it would have been irresponsible for the NZG not to dehorn all five of its rhinos. Much thought was given and discussions held by the NZG management team about the dehorning process and how it may affect the animals and it was decided that this would be the best option – not for the zoo or its visitors, but for the safety of our animals. The rhinos are in fact safer in our zoo than they would be anywhere else in the wild as we can keep a constant, vigilant eye on them. The rhinos are also under 24-hour security watch.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Pretoria News

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