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Time to Boycott Zoos?

From when I was a small boy I loved animals, and I loved Zoos. I loved everything about animals: Johnny Morris on Animal Magic, all great and small creatures in my back garden, Brian Simmons’ pet shop, my first South American wildlife book, and especially childhood visits with my Uncle Loz to Chester Zoo. I connected with animals in a way most people could not imagine. I enthused about them, knew the latin names at 7 years old, had every other kid in Ashton Gardens, St Annes, searching for frogs and newts; I took my grass snake to Roseacre junior school for ‘Bring a Pet to School day’. Memories! – but good ones!

Fast forward 50 years. My heartfelt sorrow now are Zoos – I now can’t stomach setting foot in one anymore. I should, I’m a zoologist, I link to them, I run a zoo-licenced conservation facility, what’s wrong with me? The truth is I live by the truth, and the truth from anyone who is as clued up as I am about animal conservation is that for profit zoos should be things of the past.

Yes, zoos have played a role in supporting species’ conservation – for a small number of endangered species they have supported some commendable field‐conservation projects. However, out of the 30K plus specimens maintained in captivity in some single UK Zoos the actual number that are critically endangered or of high conservation value are still but a fraction. So why are all the others there one could be forgiven for wondering?

Its clear zoos are now fully focused on being high profit commercial businesses. But how does the care, safety and life quality of the animals feature in their commercial success stories? I have good friends who still work in zoos, they are there because they care passionately for the animals, their well-being and conservation, full stop. They do not buy into giant fake dinosaurs for further public attraction, they do not buy into themed disney-style exhibits, they do not buy into integral themed hotels for local funders and Hey Ho supporters to stay in as they look across a makeshift African plain from their panoramic hotel window! It seems planning costly new accommodation (for human attendees) has been more at the forefront of priorities for some of the more commercial zoos recently, at least until lockdown.

No, I remember as a boy seeing the Chimpanzees at Chester Zoo – to be honest it was one thing from my memorable visits that really saddened me. Since then the keeping of wild mammals and birds in captivity in particular has never really sat well with me, mainly because I think their needs and requirements simply cannot be met. Back then I saw the little chimps looking sad, but I thought that’s ok you know, in time they will have a new place, something really befitting of a species that is so close to us humans, this is a cool zoo – I love it.

The cylindrical chimpanzee house/exhibit, often referred to in the zoo world as the goldfish bowl, was the result. Even before, providing the chimps with an outside space and life without bars had been a big move forward in zoo terms, and George Mottershead who had started the zoo had won an Mancunian award for taking his exhibits to the next stage in animal husbandry AT THAT TIME.. he must have been so proud. Ironically, George, the founder of Chester Zoo was driven by ‘His dislike for the Belle Vue Zoo and the conditions in which animals were housed there, which had a familiar ring about them to his own personal experiences as a lad at the London Zoo’.

All I hear about George Mottershead is good. However, I wonder if he would be so proud to know that all these years on, with all the new developments and resources available, that some of the same Chimpanzees still reside within that same exhibit. Maybe if George was still around they would now have the best exhibits imaginable, and the extensive 400 acres owned would be dedicated to just supporting endangered species, kept in optimum conditions, with quality rather than quantity being the focus. But perhaps that’s not a good business model for those now making the decisions or benefitting from the profit.

George Mottershead helped establish new ways forward in animal husbandry, that was his legacy, that was what Chester Zoo was originally all about. Since, with the millions of pounds over the years that Chester Zoo has grossed, the fact that this chimp exhibit still awaits replacement speaks volumes. From the oldest chimpanzees (50 year old plus) and newcomers born into a life of enclosed captivity, who wake each day let within the same glass walls of the pyramid with daylong public viewing, to the growing number of African-evolved wild animals allowed out to pasture on cold rainy English days, is subjecting such intelligent wild creatures to this kind of life really befitting of our time? I wonder what the chimps would say if they could make their feelings known to the real Company Directors?

I have experienced Zoos all my life and this wrong upsets me more than ever. I have seen a lot of change but if conservation rather than profit was the main aim then the zoos concerned would be different already. I am well placed to know the score, all the arguments for and against: Educational benefits V the isolation and unnatural surroundings of a captive environment; Captive breeding V never being able to be released in their lifetime; Half the longevity in captive elephants V those in the wild; How visitor numbers through the till are so important to some V how important it is a magnificent giraffe gets to enjoy the African sun on its back – and how far and fast it gets to run In the Wild..



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