The December 3rd Seattle Times headline read “Scuffle at zoo board’s meeting on where to send elephants”. It seems that dozens of activists showed up at the Woodland Park Zoo board meeting to protest a plan to close the zoo’s elephant exhibit and send its two animals to another zoo. The activists were “demanding its two elephants be sent to a sanctuary rather than another zoo”. They were blocked from attending due to lack of space in the meeting hall, but, after police were called, tempers subsided – at least for the moment.
In November, the zoo had announced that it would phase out its elephant exhibit, saying its two remaining Asian elephants need “a larger social group”. The move was coming after several years of criticism over the zoo’s small, aging exhibit and the quality of the elephants’ lives in captivity. Officials were looking for a zoo that had a stable elephant collection that was free of disease and had an active conservation program that would highlight the threat to elephants in the wild. It sounded like a good plan and a responsible thing to do except for one thing. Activists, according to news reports, said relocating the elephants to another zoo would mean more of the same. “The elephants,” the activists said, “need to go to a sanctuary. They’ve been in captivity since they were taken from their mothers as babies. They deserve to be off exhibit to heal from the trauma of captivity.”
It is a sad fact that zoos have allowed the perception (not entirely undeserved, unfortunately) that some captive situations can be traumatic. Zoos also stand accused of wantonly breeding animals to produce the cute babies which make them money at the gate. When the babies grow up they become surplus to the zoo’s needs. Sanctuaries have been rescuing these “unwanted” and “surplus” zoo animals for decades.
If zoos are going to survive, I believe they need to step up their game and become the sanctuaries to which people refer, and that will begin with a renewed focus on welfare. At Chehaw Park, for example, the zebras and antelope call a 40-acre pasture home. The cheetahs regularly lie atop a mound watching the world go by, much as they would in the wild. And Bogart the camel appears to enjoy his time interacting with people during his outings as Chehaw’s animal ambassador. Chehaw is a good home for these animals and is an example of a zoo that is also a sanctuary. But animal rights activists would close down even the good zoos and return animals to the wild.
As suggested in a previous post, instead of trying to repatriate all wild animals, I think we need to find ways to allow some of them to live in our midst – a kind of Amnesty for Animals Program. Abolishing zoos, marine parks, and circuses is not the answer. It is these institutions that have developed the ability to live with animals. Granted, there has been plenty of abuse in the past, but times have changed. We need to talk about living together in a global community of zoos, game parks, marine parks and, yes, even circuses. We need to give animals their rights, take them out of the hands of those who will not or cannot care for them, grant them protection under the law, and assimilate them into our lives and into our societies.