The recent fatal shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo has taken the global media by storm. The 400lb adult male silverback was shot dead by zoo authorities, after a 3 year old boy accidently ended up in his enclosure. The child’s life was deemed to be in immediate danger, and the zoo authorities shot down Harambe in order to protect the child.
Unfortunately these are not isolated incidents, similar incidents have occurred worldwide when humans have entered into wildlife enclosures at zoos, with tragic consequences for the animals involved. Earlier this year, two of the three lions in the enclosure was shot dead at a zoo in Chile after a man jumped inside their enclosure.
Zoos: Why have them?
A relevant question that follows this incident, as well as the public outcry against the death of Harambe, is whether wild animals such as gorillas belongs in a zoo. Creatures that are confined in zoos are robbed of the freedoms they would enjoy in a natural habitat – the freedom to roam and graze or hunt where they please, to select their territories, to select their mates etc. and endure severe mental stress as a result of their poor living conditions.
Many zoo animals, and this is particularly noticeable in the elephants at the Dehiwela zoo, exhibit stereotypical behaviours such as rocking and swaying from side to side. Several zoological experts agree that such stereotypical behaviours are a sign of mental stress. Wild creatures belong in the wild, and if it is absolutely essential for the public to observe these animals at their convenience, then they should be in legitimate sanctuaries or national parks which mirror their natural habitat with plenty of space to roam.
“Zoos rarely are able to provide natural requirements of megafauna (big animals) such as enough space, adequate nutrition, a habitat or enclosure which stimulates its natural behaviours and social interaction. These are challenging factors for zoo managers to ensure that these needs are satisfied. Once these necessities are missing chronic stress, poor health, boredom, low breeding performances result, classic example of this situation can be seen at the Dehiwala zoo” ” said Country Representative of Elemotion Foundation, Dr. Deepani Jayantha.
A visit to the Dehiwala zoo is a distressing experience for any wildlife enthusiast – from the two young lion cubs pacing back and forth in their tiny caged prison, to the elephants having their legs chained for hours at a time and forced to perform unnatural circus tricks daily for the crowd’s entertainment. One shudders to think what torture methods were used to train elephants to assume a headstand position.
“Zoos are today mostly run as a business and encourage masses to enjoy caged wildlife in the name of conservation. Public money should rather be spent on species in their natural habitats so that such eco- systems get enough funds for their management,” added Dr. Deepani Jayantha.
Zoos & promotion of cruelty to animals
“Zoos are a means of inflicting cruelty on animals,” said Convener of Animal Welfare Coalition of Sri Lanka, Attorney-at-Law, Vositha Wijenayake.
“If we look at the suffering that the animals go through being separated from their natural habitat, the depression they live in and the exploitation for human entertainment on a daily basis, it is impossible to question the existence of cruelty in this practice,” she added.
Sri Lanka is currently working on an Animal Welfare Bill, and the latest recommendations for constitutional reform also point out the need for enshrining the protection of animals in the Constitution.
Article 29 of the current Sri Lankan Constitution bestows a responsibility on the State to “protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community”, but evidence provides that there is need for improving this. The Committee working on Constitutional Reform has recommended that a clause be included in the new Constitution enshrining justiciable protection for animals. This is with the objective of preventing cruelty and promoting their welfare which they point out should be considered for inclusion in the Bill of Rights, and ensure humane and compassionate treatment of animals.
“The Animal Welfare Coalition of Sri Lanka welcomes these recommendations which will be instrumental in ensuring humane and compassionate treatment to animals. We hope that this will be a step towards addressing the issue of cruelty to animals in zoos as well, and also towards the speedy enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill of Sri Lanka,” said Ms. Wijenayake.
Alternative to Zoos?
There are alternatives to having zoos such as legitimate sanctuaries that provide lifetime care for rescued, injured or unwanted animals. Another option is a legitimate Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers which is similar to a sanctuary except the care may be on a temporary basis. Provided that visitors remain respectful of the wildlife, perhaps the best way to observe animals is in their natural habitat.
“For recreational purposes, sanctuaries where the species will have a lot of space with near natural habitats and social environment would be a reasonable alternative to zoos. The extra space will allow to sustain non-exhibit wildlife and will in turn fulfil other ecosystem services too,” said Dr. Deepani Jayantha.
Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers can also help to provide an understanding to the visitors about conservation of wildlife and would help to provide the visitors a constant reminder of the the need to conserve wildlife.
Watching animals in their natural habitats can be considered a far more viable alternative than watching them in enclosed spaces as it is far more beneficial to both the animals and humans who would want to know more about animals who live in their natural habitats.
Ventures such as Whale Watching in Mirissa provide the sort of the experience mentioned above and can be deemed as much more agreeable alternative to having animals such as whales in large enclosed spaces.