Walking through the Adelaide Zoo, I spotted two wild lorikeets in the hollow of a tree which I watched quite closely as I felt they must be used to humans in such a frequented environment. I chuckled as they played and went about their natural behaviours and found it incredible that the only animals I had fully enjoyed observing within the zoo were there on their own terms and were free to leave at any time. Later on, I strolled past an aviary which I saw housed rainbow lorikeets and it struck me as surreal that this zoo housed animals that you could frequently see in their wild state in the exact same venture. This thought felt potent in my brain, and raised some big ethical red flags.
Having read the history of zoos in Nigel Rothfels’ book “Savages and Beasts“, I understand that a huge transition has taken place from the birth of the first menagerie where animals were shown off to the western world in more of a display sense in order to parade the beasts around to show off one’s wealth and stature to one’s peers. The more exotic your animals were, and the vastness of your collection, the more prestigious you stood in your community.
Menageries then turned into travelling shows where human zoos became very popular. Native Homo sapian tribes from all corners of the world were gathered to go about their lives in front of dapper Englishmen in their top hats and coats as they gawked and laughed at the villager’s primitive ways.
Following the travelling shows, came the evolution of the modern day zoo as we know it today. Exotic animals were housed in enclosures which replicated their native homelands and were provided more suitable diets. Guests were able to gain more of an insight into how these animals lived in the wild and in what microcosm they used to do so.
What is the common theme within these three examples of displaying creatures to the public? The common theme is that in each of these instances, people are coming from far and wide and paying good money to see exotic animals that they couldn’t see otherwise in their hometowns. The unreachable beasts of Africa were suddenly at the public’s fingertips and native tribes of people from deep within forest recesses were suddenly living their lives right in front of crowds and crowds of paying people. Zoos have always worked as a concept because you are making these foreign animals accessible where they weren’t accessible before and as a result, showcasing parts of the world that tourists may not have been able to travel to on their own.
So now, with all of this in mind, do you think that a zoo should be holding an animal that is commonly found in the area, albeit, an animal that is so common that it frequents the zoo on its own terms? Doesn’t that just push the concept of zoos to the next level to assume that people will be willing to pay to see an animal that they can see every day in their own back yard? By doing this aren’t zoos holding creatures captive for the sole sake of holding creatures captive? What are the benefits to the public of seeing captive rainbow lorikeets?
Zoos have become a powerful tool in conservation, being able to inspire children from a young age to form a connection and a respect for animals, not just native, but beasts found all over our planet. Even I can admit that visiting zoos as a child myself, fed an urge to see what our planet held and to learn more about the way animals have evolved. Zoos may have created more conservationists than we know, and zoos have definitely supported many conservation programs on a global scale. But I think its time to re-evaluate the way we run zoos once again, to add a new step in the evolution of holding captive animals.
In just my life time, and my parent’s life time I have seen inappropriate animals being erased from zoos. Polar bears, elephants and many other animals have been removed from local zoos because the climate and conditions have not been ideal for their health and lifestyle. I have seen envirodomes being built and conservation centres being established. I have seen higher levels of education being provided to both the public and schools and I have seen a change in how zoos run from being display centres to being conservation hubs. But why, tell me why do we need to house native birds in cages for the public eye?
Next time you go to your local zoo, wherever it may be, have a look out for natives and ask yourself, do we really need to showcase our own animals for our own people? Do we really need that rainbow lorikeet or that laughing kookaburra in a cage? Or do we need to show people and explain to people that it is truly wonderful that they can find everything they are looking for and more, just by stepping outside and seeing the gifts nature has to offer.
Food for thought.