Rattling the cages

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Zoos began as places of entertainment, where people curious about wild animals from foreign lands could look at them comfortably and safely while feeling a frisson of excitement at being so close to large carnivores, or shudder with revulsion at species felt to be ugly. The animals were on display for the pleasure of the populace, and were housed in small cages where they could be seen at will, unable to escape the gaze of the curious. The concept was very little different in philosophy (though it was in practice) to that of a museum on the one hand, or to the long history of animal exploitation in circuses, the use of animals in fights in the Roman Coliseum, or the horrors of bear baiting and cock fighting or dog fighting. These extreme cases of animal exploitation (and usually maiming and death) continue today in some parts of the world, but in western countries such activities have generally been banned (a notable exception being the indefensible and barbaric bull fights). Circuses using animals are also increasingly unwelcome in many places and we have been left with the more benign form of exploitation of the zoo.

However because zoos felt uneasy at being perceived to be part of a spectrum of animal exploitation, and because of public distaste for seeing wild animals cramped in little cages of concrete and mesh, zookeepers in recent years have placed emphasis on their role in conservation as a justification for maintaining zoos as part of our society. Unlike circuses they can do this because in at least some cases the zoos have been able to breed some animals in captivity. The claim of course is that as a result threatened species can be built up in numbers and eventually returned to the wild. Extinction is therefore being prevented and visitors to zoos can make their visits with a clear conscience and be entertained while at the same time gaining a warm inner glow from doing good. A second, related, claim is that zoos help to 'educate the public', the idea being I suppose that if you see a threatened species (or indeed any species) up close and personal you will be more inclined to try to prevent the extinction of that species (and I suppose all other species). More inclined perhaps to throw yourself in front of a bulldozer, as Australian foresters or Brazilian ranchers or Indonesian timber barons destroy yet more forest habitat.

Neither claim has any validity at all, and in fact I believe that zoos (like circuses, rodeos, recreational fishing, and hunting for 'sport') do great damage to public attitudes towards conservation.

Where is the evidence that people viewing animals in cages (of whatever size) have their attitudes to conservation of the environment as a whole improved? On the contrary, the fact that they are seeing animals in pens, totally controlled, and available to be seen by any human at any time, reinforces the human view that animals exist only for the benefit of humans, a view that is helping to destroy animal species at a fast rate and make zoos even more 'essential.' They are also seeing animals in isolation, reinforcing the view that conservation is simply about saving a few large and cuddly species. In a zoo the environment is a clean and neat place, as far from wilderness as you can get, but it is wilderness that needs to be conserved. A zoo also helps reinforce the popular misconception that the environment is not the place where we all live, but is something separate, over there, distinct from everyday life. The subliminal message of a zoo is that you can protect the environment by just putting a few fences around some little bits (a view recently suggested by the environment minister in relation to the high country) while we get on with developing everything else. This is a view that developers and their political representatives love to see held by the public.

But even if we took the most favorable view, that people visiting a zoo and seeing rare species gain from that experience a positive view about conserving those animals, what follows from this? The general public can no longer, it seems, have any influence at all in the environmental degradation that is evident all round the world. Whatever a small child feels about polar bears or chimpanzees or bilbies is, unfortunately irrelevant these days in the face of big business and union interests and their political representatives. There might, just, be a case for having Brazilian cattle men, say, or Indonesian timber barons, have a look at the animals whose extinction is proceeding so quickly, but I suspect the warm fuzzy glow engendered by even the best zoo would have no hope of making an impact with the people who are in a position to stop the damage they are causing.

Finally the idea that zoos can breed endangered animals and return them to the wild in order to 'save' species is both wrong and in itself damaging. As everybody knows, extinctions are occurring at an accelerating rate because habitats are being lost ever more rapidly, and it has been frequently pointed out, not much use having a captive breeding program if there is no habitat to return them to. But the problem is even worse than this.

You can no more save a species by breeding it in a zoo than you can by retrieving DNA from a museum specimen, or implanting embryos of wild cattle species into domestic cattle. A species is not just a collection of naked animals existing in a vacuum (a view in itself which zoos help to instill in people) but a collection of relationships with other organisms. In the wild species have internal and external parasites, predators and prey, organisms that rely on their droppings and the remains of their kill, organisms that share their living quarters, organisms that scavenge their dead bodies, plants that are eaten, seeds that are germinated after passing through guts. And all those organisms in turn have links to still other organisms. Species also have communications with their own kind, calls to be recognized, nest building to be learned, social organization to be maintained. An animal in a zoo or a test tube has lost all or most of the attributes that make it a distinct species and moreover a species that can actually function in an environment. A mammoth recovered from DNA (if it can be) is no longer a mammoth, a tiger bred in a zoo is no longer a tiger.

Perhaps most damaging of all though is that the constant repetition of the idea that we can save species in zoos or test tubes is believed by the media and therefore increasingly by the public. Calls by conservationists to save whole ecosystems will increasingly fall on deaf ears if it is believed that we can in effect have our cake and eat it too. We cannot remove all the habitat from an area, exploit it in some way for profit, and then rebuild the environment that was there with the aid of zoos, DNA stores and seed banks. Lost environment is lost for ever, and zoo promotion is dangerously helping to obscure this fact.

Virgil said "Go on home, you have fed full, the evening star is coming, go on, my she goats", so do I, to my sheep, on The Watermelon Blog.