I first learned about the CBS 60 Minutes piece set to air March 15th, 2015 through the zoo directors’ list serve. The hard-hitting, TV news show was working on a story about zoos and they were working with Damian Aspinall – a well-known opponent of zoos. Great, that’s all we need. It was just 2 weeks earlier that a 60 Minutes piece on Lumber Liquidators claimed high levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde in some of their flooring products, sending their stock plummeting the very next day. And who can forget the effect of the documentary Blackfishon the fortunes of SeaWorld? In a society that is fed a steady diet of “reality TV”, I expected Monday morning pundits to be singing the praises of Aspinall’s heroic efforts to save animals and a damning indictment of the cruelty of zoos. But, as one of my favorite Saturday morning sports commentators likes to say – not so fast my friends.
DamianAspinall was born to a life of wealth and privilege on the 500 acre Wildlife Park that is part of his country estate in the English countryside. The operation was started in the 1970’s by his wealthy father, who was passionate about keeping his animals in enclosures as close to their natural habitat as possible and keeping them in social groups that would replicate their behavior in the wild. The 54 year old Damian clearly has an affinity for these animals, as the videos of him playing tug-of-war with a tiger, patting down a black rhino, and wrestling with gorillas clearly show. He says the animals are part of his family – his equal.
The 60 Minutes story begins by asking whether endangered animals born and bred in captivity should ever be released into the wild. A conservation group called the Aspinall Foundation,the narrator says, is trying to find out. CBS Journalist, Lesley Stahl, began her interview with Aspinall by noting that zoos see their mission as not just displaying animals but also saving endangered species.
Zoo Gorillas Return to the Wild
“Zoos,” he responds, “are jails that lock up animals for life. If I could extinguish all zoos over the next 30 years, including my own, I would.”
Stahl makes the case for zoo animals as ambassadors and zoo education might encourage preservation, but he is shaking his head before she is finished speaking.
“Please show me the statistical evidence that zoos educate and that the education that they claim they are doing has helped animals in the wild. There is no evidence because it is a lie,” he claims.
This exchange sets the tone of this story. Zoos, Aspinall claims, are bad and he is determined to return his animals to the wild – beginning with his gorillas.
As they talk about the plan to send his gorillas to Africa, Stahl notes they are fragile and questions whether it is too dangerous for zoo raised animals to go to the wild. But he brushes the question aside, suggesting that man underestimates animals.
Aspinall crates-up 10 gorillas, a male, 5 females and 4 young, and ships them to Gabon in West Africa, where he has purchased 1 million acres and turned it into a park. The gorillas are released onto an island to acclimate. One year later, as the 60 Minutes cameras roll, they tentatively step across a bridge from their island to the mainland in what appears to be a triumphant release from captivity to a life of freedom. But the joy is short-lived. One month after the gorillas crossed the bridge to freedom, the team found all five females and one of the babies dead. The others probably suffered the same fate, but crawled off into the jungle to die. Aspinall had earlier acknowledged the possibility of failure but brushed it aside. Those who wanted to prove him wrong can take no joy in being right.
Can zoos be animal sanctuaries?
In one of my very first blogs, in August 2013, I recalled a 1989 trip to Africa where my wife and I observed “biodiversity in its natural state”. As we sat at a waterhole in central Africa, we watched a female sitatunga antelope cautiously step out into the open and make her way to the water for a drink. It was not a remarkable scene until someone pointed out two female lions lurking at the forest edge nearby. We watched as they split up and were mesmerized as one lion chased the antelope into the waiting jaws of her companion in a remarkable bit of teamwork. The antelope never had a chance. We didn’t know whether to feel sorry for the sitatunga as she was suffocated by the lion’s strangle hold on her throat or cheer for the lions and their remarkable bit of hunting. You could argue that these lions are better off in the wild because they get to hunt antelope for dinner, but I am not so sure about the sitatunga.
In December of 2014, I wrote a two-part blog entitled Amnesty for Animals that looked at the concept of the repatriation of captive animals back to the wild. If we are going to repatriate wild animals and move them out of zoos, aquariums, and marine parks, I wondered, to what wild will they be humanely returned? Accredited zoo and aquarium facilities are getting better and more humane while enlightened and loving caretakers learn new techniques to ensure that animal welfare is a top priority. A large, diverse zoo habitat might be a perfectly good, permanent home for some wild animals.
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.
Contrary to Aspinall’s claim, people are positively influenced by the collective conservation message of zoos and the animals that live in them. The University of Warwick, in England has just provided evidence evidence that zoos and aquariums do more than just entertain us. The largest study of its kind suggests they also raise awareness of biodiversity and how to protect animals and their habitats. Would these zoo animals better-off in the wild? They might be if humans had not evolved to dominate every corner of the planet – but here we are. And how do you define better-off, anyway? Aspinall’s gorillas are certainly not better off.