Letter Of The Month!

Last month BBC Wildlife Magazine ran a feature on zoos and conservation, a topic that I have quite a few opinions about. It was a good article, raising many of the main points in a pretty even handed way. Of course it was never going to come down with a strong anti-zoo conclusion, that would be a bit radical for a mainstream publication. But, crucially, it did present it as a serious debate, not just a bunch of loonies lambasting a perfectly reasonable activity. That was as much as I expected from it, and I think it does move the anti-captivity agenda forward to be treated with that degree of respect in this kind of forum.

But, of course, I couldn’t leave it at that. So, I wrote a letter to the editor (by email, of course), and was very pleasantly surprised to be told, a few weeks later, that it was being featured as the Letter Of The Month! This honour comes with a free pair of very nice walking boots, and a satisfying feeling that I wasn’t just ranting aimlessly after all.

So, I am going to kick off my blog by reproducing my original email to BBCWM. I made a couple of points that I can expand on slightly here, in case the (relative) brevity of my email left any doubt about what I was saying. For a start, I wasn’t really satisfied with the conclusion to the article. This essentially wheeled out one of the most used and least plausible defences for keeping live animals in zoos – which I felt undermined the balance and credibility of the whole piece. You can see what I had to say about that below.

Beyond that, I wanted to make an overarching point which the piece had not considered. Obviously portraying a clash of beliefs and interests is a mainstay of journalism – questioning the assumptions behind such debates is less common. What I think can really shed light on the issue is to take a step back and de-couple the conservation and education work that zoos do from the business of keeping animals in captivity. After all, natural history museums around the world attract visitors, educate them about wildlife and raise funds for various projects without any live animals on display. If the positive contributions that zoos make do not actually rely on the activities being called into question, can they really be used to defend or excuse them?

I won’t try to unpack this whole issue now, but I expect it will be one of the themes of this blog. In the meantime, I include below the original email that I sent to BBCWM, which they obviously edited – very elegantly and sympathetically – for the publication.

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Hello there,

Thank you for your stimulating article on the future of zoos. Whilst it covered several relevant points in a very cogent way, I was sad to see the unchallenged assertion near the end that zoo-bred populations of endangered species could be used for reintroduction in 500 years time. I really think that some of the serious conservationists included elsewhere in the article should have had an opportunity to respond to this.
In fact, many reintroduction programmes have found that wild born animals make the best release subjects, and that successive generations of captive breeding can significantly impair fitness in the wild. Breeding in captivity unavoidably leads to selection for traits that are favourable in captivity – maintaining traits that favour survival in the wild is clearly best done by breeding in the wild, or at least in natural habitat enclosures within the natural range.
This means that in 500 years time, if captive animal populations really have been successfully maintained by the world’s zoos, and if any intact natural habitat has miraculously been preserved (despite the presumed disappearance of the high profile species within it), the actual animals available for release are very unlikely to be able to cope with the situation they are thrust into. Even as a last resort (which is not needed for the vast majority of species in zoos) this is a pretty desperate plan.
I think what came across from the article was that some zoos do engage in serious conservation work, and attempt to educate the public. What was not clear was whether displaying hundreds of live animals (few if any of which contribute to any ongoing release programme) is truly a necessary part of this, or whether zoos could actually continue to educate, fundraise, and support field conservation with activities and exhibits that do not rely on the historical model of a ‘zoological collection’.
Thank you,
David Jay