This latest guest blog post was written by the author of ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands’, which recounts the writer’s voluntary ‘zoo checking’ work for the Born Free Foundation in North East India from 1997 to 1999. Shubhobroto, who now works and resides in New Delhi, is also responsible for the Indian Zoo Inquiry, supported by Zoocheck Canada. Originally from Calcutta (Kolkata) and educated in Kolkata, Guwahati (Assam), Jersey, Bangalore and London — Shubhobroto shares this exact from An Investigation of British Zoos: A Journalistic Perspective.
An Investigation of British Zoos: A Journalistic Perspective
It is conceivable and common that people have gardens and spend time pruning their rose bushes in England. But some go further than that. They keep exotic animals and spend time chasing tigers, lions, gorillas and chimpanzees. This remarkable breed of people constitute the private ownership of zoos in UK.
The conservation role of zoos had not arisen until the 1960s and that too only under pressure due the environmental movement egged by pioneers like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau.
1984 was the year when the thought of zoos as benign places of entertainment was seriously challenged in the UK. Pole Pole, an African Elephant that had starred in the film ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna died in London Zoo and gave rise to the whole debate on the ethics of keeping animals in zoos.
Today even some captive animal institutions like the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary admit that captivity is harmful for animals. The fact that zoos might actually be awful prisons for animals is revealed by several experts and organisations in UK and around the world that are increasingly questioning the role played by collections of captive animals.
They suggest that zoos in many ways represent a threat to endangered species and are just profit making businesses that have nothing to do with conservation.
Zoos have been around for thousands of years since people started collecting animals as symbols of power or curiosities. Individuals collected animals as status symbols and zoos signified the domination of man over nature. The birth of the ‘modern zoo’ ostensibly changed the ideology behind the concept. Zoos turned into scientific institutions. Or did they?
One of the institutions that exhibited animals during the imperial period was the Tower Menagerie of London. In a 2004 book and TV serial, Daniel Hahn exposes the ghetto conditions in which animals were held at the Tower Menagerie in London from 1235 to 1835.
The imperialistic nature of zoos was also a factor behind the founding of the London Zoo in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles. London Zoo collected animals from all imperial outposts during the heyday of the British empire.
With the passage of time and the gradual extinction of the empire, the nature of zoos changed with trusts and charities running collections of animals for public show. Zoos seemingly changed from places of eccentric curiosity and personal whim to rigidly controlled institutions.
But the most famous zoos in UK, Howletts and Jersey, were both started by private individuals to serve their personal aims and whims. Until 1981, when the Zoo Licensing Act was passed, anyone could start a zoo in UK. And since Jersey and Howletts have both done remarkable work due to the eccentricities of their owners, their institutions testify that zoos in UK are very much dictated by priorities set by the people who run them.
Zoos in UK claim a stake in conservation education and recreation.
The death of The elephant Pole Pole made front page headlines in UK and gave rise to Zoo Check, now the Born Free Foundation, which constitutes the biggest challenge to the zoo community in UK.
London Zoo put on a new image after its threatened closure in 1991. ‘Living conservation’ became the theme of London Zoo and as the leader of the British zoo community London Zoo claims that reintroduction of captive zoo animals is one of the main aims of UK zoos. But is reintroduction of zoo animals really successful? Is there a significant commitment on the part of the zoo community to aid reintroduction projects?
With the threatened closure of London Zoo in 1991, these questions mushroomed in Britain. There seemed to be a strong public debate on the ethics of keeping animals in captivity in an urban place like Regent’s Park. In a country like Britain, the anti-zoo movement had already started with the formation of Zoo Check, a campaigning lobby started by actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.
In 1991, as London Zoo languished, Zoo Check flourished. London Zoo survived with generous donations from wealthy businessmen but questions were increasingly being raised if these large sums of money were simply wasted to prolong a worldwide anachronism.
London Zoo’s shaky state of existence was undoubtedly one of the motivating factors in the consideration of this subject as a suitable topic of investigation. Another important factor was the involvement of Western NGOs and zoos in spreading the zoo message in developing countries.
London Zoo had donned a new garb of ”Conservation In Action’ and presented itself as the self-proclaimed bandleader of the British zoo community. British zoos started funding zoo activities in many countries in Asia, including India. But one overriding question remained : why keep animals in captivity in Europe and America from Asia and Africa. One of the reasons given by the western zoo community for conducting captive breeding programmes was that Third World countries are unstable, economically and politically to look after their own animals so for the good of the animals they must be captured and taken to zoos in Europe and America.
People have a lot of fun watching animals in zoos, especially children. Lions roar and monkeys swing and bears pace. But is what we see at zoos a distorted picture? Are the animals a travesty of nature? Do they behave abnormally? Does captivity restrict their lives and cause premature death?
There seems to be a growing body of research suggesting that the behaviour of zoo animals is abnormal and many animals go mad due to the effects of captivity. ‘Stereotypic behaviour’ in zoo animals has become a major issue concerning animals in captivity. In recent years, Dr. Georgia Mason and Ros Clubb of Oxford University have published papers suggesting that large animals like elephants and polar bears suffer in captivity. Their findings have been published in the world’s leading scientific journal, ‘NATURE’. The zoo community however is insistent that these researches are flawed and the papers are sexed up for publicity and dramatic effect.
There are more zoos now in UK than ever before and the Federation Of UK Zoos claims that this is a sign of the failure of the anti-zoo lobby in Britain and everything is fine in zoos. The Federation Of UK zoos also claims that the British zoo community is progressive and is pushing for improvement regardless of the anti-zoo lobby. But perhaps the most striking example of the failure of the British zoo community comes from the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, Cornwall. Specialising in primates, particularly Woolly Monkeys, this institution seems to be the only captive facility in UK that accepts that captivity for animals is insidious and destructive.
This place, started by guitarist Leonard Williams, provides the most stringent criticism of animal captivity from within the captive animal community itself. Animals are held in captivity in Cornwall because they cannot be set free and not because they claim a stake in conservation. This unique zoo, is the subject of the article, A Zoo With a Difference : The Monkey Minds Of Cornwall. This centre shows that animal conservation in captivity in zoos can be questionable at best and — at worst — a con in the name of conservation.
Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist with the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in The Statesman, New York Times, The Hindu , Montreal Serai, BBC, Sanctuary Asia and Nature India online. He is the former coordinator of the Indian Zoo Inquiry project sponsored by Zoocheck Canada and has attended the Principles and Practice Training course at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He did his Masters thesis on British zoos at the University of Westminster. He has worked at the Wildlife Trust of India, TRAFFIC India and is currently Wildlife Projects Manager in India for World Animal Protection. He has contributed to several books, including ‘The Jane Effect’, a biographical tribute to Jane Goodall by Marc Bekoff and Dale Peterson and ‘Indira Gandhi : A Life In Nature’ by Jairam Ramesh. He is the author of the book, ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands.’
For more information on the Indian Zoo Inquiry: http://www.zoocheck.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Indianreport1.pdf