Last week, a flood in the Georgian capital Tbilisi killed 19 people, with six still missing. Rain caused the Vere River to burst its banks, flooding the city and its zoo, killing animals and allowing others to escape. Initially, all of the zoo's seven tigers and eight lions were thought dead, but last Wednesday a man was killed by an escaped tiger, prompting Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to criticise zoo officials for providing false information. Two of its three jaguars are still thought to be dead, as are 12 of its 14 bears.
According to The Guardian, police have been accused of unnecessarily shooting many of the animals. They were also seen by zoo staff taking selfies beside lions, tigers and other large animals they had shot. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," one worker said. "It was like a trophy for them."
Though horrific, a certain element of human tragedy always feels unavoidable in disasters like floods. In densely-populated cities, it's almost impossible for people not to get caught up in the wreckage when something goes badly wrong. However, the presence of wild animals in these disasters feels more avoidable. Leaving aside their deaths and treatment here specifically, that we'd house lions, tigers and other large animals within roaming distance of a Swatch shop at any time merits questioning, never mind that we do it all over the world, in almost every city, attracting 175 million visitors per year.
I'm no big animal rights crusader, but I do have some basic common sense. And this basic common sense tells me one thing when it comes to the captivity of wild animals: it's probably not something we should be doing.
Zoos – or, in their original form, menageries – have been around for a staggeringly long time. The oldest known one was uncovered in 2009 during excavations in Egypt, where archeologists found evidence of one dating back to 3500 BC. Until the early 19th century, however, they were mainly representations of royal power, like Louis XIV's menagerie in Versailles. Not until modern zoos began appearing in London, Dublin and Paris did they focus on educating and entertaining the public.
In line with our improved views on animal rights, zoos have improved in the past 30 years: cages have mostly been replaced with moats and glass, and the majority now employ full-time vets to administer medication and restrict diets. Positive reinforcement is also the norm, turning hoses on animals no longer considered ethical when wanting them to do something. Dart guns are also on the wane, having caused animals a great deal of stress.
When it comes to certain things, however, there are still irreconcilable differences between zoos, parks and animals' natural habitats. On the issue of space, the average lion or tiger has 18,000 times less in captivity than it does in the wild; polar bears a million times less. To say this adversely affects the animal is an understatement: in 2008, a government-funded study discovered there was a welfare concern over every elephant in the UK; 75 percent of them were overweight, and only 16 percent could walk normally. African elephants also live three times longer in the wild than they do in captivity, and 40 percent of lion cubs die in zoos compared to 30 percent in the wild. That may sound a similar figure, but consider that a third of the reasons they die – predators being a big one – in the wild are absent in zoos, and perhaps it doesn't.
Thinking that all zoos have improved, then, would be a mistake. In Britain, there have been numerous incidents of abuse, like at Woburn Safari Park, where, in 2010, lions were discovered being left in cramped, unsuitable enclosures for 18 hours a day, and where staff were found training elephants with 4,500-volt electrical goads. There's also Knowsley Safari Park, where, in 2011, photos showed animals being disposed of in bins, having been shot by untrained staff members. And in Ireland, at the crisp-related Tayto theme park, bans were put in place in 2013 and 2014 to stop it acquiring new animals due to "inappropriate breeding", "inadequate" enclosures and "high levels of aggression and stress among animals".
Worldwide, there have also been dozens of reports of training with goads, inadequate premises and beatings – but the world's leading zoo association, WAZA (the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), has yet to expel or condemn any zoo involved.
Psychologically, the effects continue: in the UK, 54 percent of elephants experience behavioural problems, and lions spend 48 percent of their time pacing, a sign of behavioural problems, with animals in captivity frequently displaying this "stereotypy", a repetitive or ritualised behaviour caused by the boredom of confinement. Other examples include excessive licking, self-mutilation and trunk-swinging. Depression is also common among animals if they're harassed by visitors, their food variety is lacking or their need to mate is unmet or delayed.
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: Why Animals Die Prematurely in Zoos
An argument in favour of zoos is their conservation work. A closer look at this, however, reveals what's largely a myth: in reality, less than 1 percent of zoo species are part of any serious conservation effort, with many being inbred, having little "genetic integrity" and of "no conservation value", according to a 2013 study by Dr Paul O'Donoghue, a conservation geneticist.
Far from reentering animals into the wild, they actually take from it; 70 percent of Europe's elephants being extracted, along with 79 percent of Britain's aquarium population. In fact, it's been shown that captive populations can actually hinder conservation, with one study saying they give "a false impression that a species is safe, so that destruction of habitat and wild populations can proceed".
Last year, London Zoo spent £5.3 million on an enclosure for three gorillas. Conversely, only 3p per visitor can be traced to conservation efforts by aquarium giant Sea Life. The discrepancy between money spent on captive animals and those in the wild is huge, despite it being 50 times more expensive to house animals in zoos than it is to protect them in their natural habitats.
Most ironic, however, in the face of this myth is how many animals zoos kill. Last year, after the giraffe Marius was euthanised at Copenhagen Zoo, it was revealed by EAZA (the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) that between 3,000 to 5,000 healthy animals are killed across Europe each year.
Another argument in favour of zoos is the education they provide. However, with 41 percent of Britain's aquariums lacking even the most basic information on signs, what can a person possibly learn that they can't from documentaries or YouTube?
Truthfully, zoos are part of a bigger problem, and that's how we relate to our natural environment. We bring our children there and teach them to resent animals if they're not entertaining enough, then bring them home and feed them fish fingers and chicken nuggets – foods pulverised into indistinguishable mush – before wondering why the planet's in such rag order.
We're so focussed on meeting our basest needs, some ideas we inherited centuries ago, that we can't see the damage we're causing. We need to wake up, finally, and, like Costa Rica have done already, begin the painful process of shutting down zoos.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Paul O'Donoghue worked for the Aspinall Foundation. This has since been amended.
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