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Zoos’ dirty little secret

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By Jennifer O’Connor

People around the world were justifiably outraged when a healthy young giraffe was killed because he didn’t fit into a Danish zoo‘s breeding plan. A second giraffe execution was in the works before public condemnation put a stop to it. But the only real surprise is how forthcoming these zoos were about it, since disposing of unwanted animals is typically the industry’s dirty little secret. Zoos everywhere, including right here in North America, routinely find ways to unload animals they no longer want or need.

Baby animals bring visitors through the gates. But little ones quickly outgrow their ticket-selling appeal. There’s never enough space for all the adult animals. Many of them are simply warehoused in off-exhibit buildings designed solely to cage and house animals with no place to go. Stored like used car parts, all they can do is wait for relief that never comes. Others are traded or sold to other zoos or roadside menageries.

The vast majority of animals who are bred in zoos are not endangered, and most of the ones who are in trouble aren’t going to be released into their natural homelands in order to bolster wild populations. For every elephant born in a zoo, two more die, yet zoos continue to subject elephants to painful and frightening artificial insemination, just to churn out more cash cows. Chai, an elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, has been subjected to the procedure 112 times, with only one successful birth—a calf who later died. According to investigative reporter Michael J. Berens, the overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is an appalling 40 percent—nearly triple the rate of elephants in the wild. In a 25-year period at the Houston Zoo, 14 out of 14 elephant calves died—a 100 percent failure rate.

Even though the U.S. is overrun with tigers in backyard menageries, sleazy roadside zoos and sham sanctuaries, zoos still allow tigers to breed, because cubs are marketing goldmines. No tiger born in a zoo will ever set foot in an Asian jungle or help wild populations rebound. They will help a zoo’s bottom line.

Gorilla families are led by one dominant male, but so many male gorillas are born in captivity that zoos are being forced to find ways to create all-male “bachelor” groups. But as these juvenile males mature into adulthood, conflicts naturally arise. Caged gorillas have no way to escape an aggressive cagemate.

And let’s not forget the zoo community’s most lucrative marketing coup: the panda. In China’s breeding centers, cubs are typically taken from their mothers before they reach 6 months of age to force females to go into estrus again. Female pandas are fertile only for a day or two, so when a female shows signs of going into heat, she’s poked and prodded and her vagina is swabbed to determine whether she is ovulating. Males are electroejaculated (a probe is inserted into his rectum to produce electrical stimulations that cause ejaculation) and the semen, often from more than one male, is then inserted into the female with a laparoscope.

Like all bears, panda moms are protective and nurturing. But the conditions of China’s loan program require that cubs be returned “home” within two years of birth. Treated as commodities, the young pandas and their mothers will likely never see each other again.

Zoos are businesses whose “merchandise” is living, feeling animals. As long as society considers it acceptable to keep animals in captivity so that humans can while away a couple of hours gawking at them, this merciless and mercenary cycle will continue.

Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

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Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

February 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Cherokee’s Trail of Tears continues

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By Dan Paden

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina has a long history of suffering and hardship, and adversity on their territory has not yet come to an end. The sovereign land is home to three decrepit roadside zoos, in which animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them. One zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, was exposed recently after a PETA undercover investigation documented desperate bears incessantly turning in circles in cement pits, so stressed by the grotesquely inhumane conditions that some have broken their teeth while biting the metal bars of their cages in frustration.

It’s puzzling that this situation is allowed to continue, particularly since non-natives own and operate the zoos—all located on tribal land—even though the conditions clearly appear to violate tribal law. The Tribal Council has done nothing to intervene, much less put a stop to the cruelty. It’s time for these zoos to be closed.

Surrounded by four solid walls, the bears at Chief Saunooke Bear Park cannot see anything beyond their allotted space—a pitiful fraction of what bears actually need. In their natural habitat, bears are curious and energetic animals who spend their time exploring diverse terrain, foraging for a wide variety of foods and digging in soft earth, brush and leaves. The zoo’s concrete pits have no grass or dirt. They are simply holes in which bears are forced to beg for food and wait for visitors to throw it to them. One bear was shot in the head 20 times before dying, and a zookeeper admitted to eating at least one bear.

But this roadside zoo is just one of hundreds in which animals suffer and die. All over the country, animal collectors market their tawdry outfits as roadside Americana or, worse, as “rescue” facilities that give animals in trouble a safe haven. The vast majority are frauds, making money off the misery of animals and the kind hearts of people who want to help them.

Animals in roadside zoos typically are confined to chain-link or chicken-wire cages with nothing but concrete to walk, sleep and eat on. Some owners toss out an old tire or a ball to give visitors the impression that animals can use them to pass the interminable hours, but most of them have no enrichment whatsoever, not even a patch of grass.

Animals who may not get along are jammed into the same pen. Predators are housed in close proximity to prey. Babies are traumatically removed from their mothers immediately after birth to be used as photo props. The lives of these animals are turned upside down. Many pace incessantly, rock back and forth or even hurt themselves by chewing on their fingers, plucking out their feathers or grooming themselves raw.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses animal exhibitors, but the laws protecting captive animals don’t go far enough and the standards that do exist are not properly enforced. Animals must be given food, water and shelter, but cages only need to be “large” enough for an animal to be able to move around a little bit. There is no requirement for grass, shrubbery or other natural vegetation.

Since there are no restrictions on breeding animals, owners churn out babies, knowing that they’ll bring in customers. But babies grow up quickly, leaving a surplus of adult animals with less and less space and fewer resources to meet their complex needs. Exotic animals often go without veterinary care, and zoo operators would often rather depend on free roadkill or donated rotten meat than spend money on wholesome, quality food.

If you’re on a road trip and see a zoo billboard trying to entice you to pull over or if a traveling exhibitor is selling photo ops with tiger cubs at your local mall, please think about the suffering that you’ll be supporting before buying a ticket.

Dan Paden is a senior research associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

January 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Zoos: Don’t ‘get the party started’

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By Jennifer O’Connor

What do blaring techno-pop, psychotropic drugs and zoos have in common? The answer, of course, should be “nothing,” but in an effort to keep revenue flowing in, zoos and aquariums around the world are welcoming events ranging from raves to weddings at their facilities—at a high cost to the resident animals. It’s bad enough that animals are confined to these facilities in the first place. They shouldn’t also be reduced to party props.

Recently released toxicology reports suggest that two dolphins at a Swiss zoo died after ingesting a heroin substitute shortly after a weekend-long rave was held near their tank.

Reports speculate that the drug had been dumped into the tank during the rave “accidentally” or as a practical joke, but Shadow and Chelmers died slowly and in agony. Chelmers’ keeper described his last hour: “He was shaking all over and was foaming at the mouth. Eventually we got him out of the water. His tongue was hanging out. He could hardly breathe.”

Zoos are marketing their facilities for birthday parties, corporate receptions and nighttime “safaris,” even though the commotion and noise can leave animals anxious and unsettled. Three guides at a rave at the Georgia Aquarium admitted that music at such parties upsets the animals and causes them to fight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that inspects zoos, has acknowledged that allowing nighttime visitors can agitate primates. At the San Diego Zoo, an inspector asked zoo officials to reevaluate nighttime display of the gelada baboons, as they appeared to be stressed out.

Aren’t zoos and aquariums supposed to be focusing on the comfort and well-being of the animals? It seems we haven’t progressed much in the years since a former zoo director admitted, in a 1984 article, that the animals are “the last thing I worry about with all the other problems.”

By their very nature, zoos leave animals vulnerable to the whims and wishes of zookeepers and visitors. Animals in zoos have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care and burned alive in fires. They’ve been beaten, shot, pelted with rocks and stolen by people who were able to gain access to the cages. Many have died after eating coins and trash tossed into their cages. A giraffe who recently died in an Indonesian zoo was found to have a wad of 44 pounds of plastic in his stomach made up of food wrappers thrown into his cage by visitors.

It’s no wonder that zoos are increasingly desperate to attract visitors: Parents who still take their children to the zoo are becoming as rare as the dodo bird. Most people are starting to agree that sentencing animals to life behind bars is ethically indefensible, and in response many zoos are adding trains, sky rides, carousels and water attractions to entice visitors to come through the gates.

Visitors to Disney’s Animal Kingdom are “educated” about threatened wildlife on a thrill ride once called “Countdown to Extinction.” And let’s not forget coyly named fundraisers such as “Woo at the Zoo” and “Jungle Love,” at which visitors pay to watch animals have sex. Accompanied by candles and Barry White tunes, tourists sip and sup while awaiting “action.” How does this foster even a scintilla of respect for animals?

Zoo events may be a novelty for visitors, but for the imprisoned animals, it means that their already-limited period of peace and quiet has been stolen from them. Parties and picnics belong in the park or in backyards, not outside the bars of a caged animal who can’t decline to attend.

Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

 

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

May 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm

All bears in zoos are Knut

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By Jennifer O’Connor

Just four short years ago, a white ball of fluff captured the attention of the world. Now hearts are broken with the news that Knut, the polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, had a convulsion, collapsed and died as hundreds of visitors watched. Even in death Knut was on display.

He was marketed as the poster child for “cute,” but Knut was a deeply troubled bear. He spent his days pacing incessantly, bobbing his head repeatedly and exhibiting so much captivity-induced mental distress that one German zoologist called him a “psychopath.” Chased, bitten and harassed by his three cellmates and besieged by onlookers, Knut never knew a moment’s peace or privacy. Polar bears are naturally solitary animals who shun human contact and don’t seek out the company of other bears.

Like all baby animals bred in zoos to bring in paying customers, the adorable cub quickly grew to adulthood. As his marketing and merchandising appeal waned, the Berlin Zoo attempted to unload the less cute adult Knut to another zoo. But Berliners wanted to keep their star. The crowds will move on, but it’s too late for Knut.

Polar bears thrive in enormous Arctic expanses and open water—which no zoo can provide. An Oxford University study found that polar bears suffer physical and mental anguish in captivity and noted that a typical polar bear enclosure is about one-millionth the size of the animal’s minimum home range. Captive polar bears all over North America have died young of causes such as eating debris thrown into the cage, fights with cagemates and reactions to anesthesia.

Bears of all species fare very poorly in zoos. In some bear exhibits, the animals’ constant pacing wears a visible path into the ground, and sometimes one can see the actual paw impressions in the soil where the bears step in the same spot over and over again. These animals aren’t just bored; they are in a state of profound despondency.

Try to imagine living in the same cramped place for the rest of your life. Animals who are genetically designed to roam, swim or fly freely are no more able to adjust to lifelong captivity than we are. That’s why prison is considered society’s harshest punishment.

We are appalled when we learn that Montezuma put albinos and hunchbacks on display for people’s amusement. Yet how is locking animals in cages and letting streams of people gawk, point and laugh at them any different? Just like us, animals want and deserve to live their lives as nature intended.

The next time you consider taking your kids or grandchildren to the zoo, please ask yourself this: Would you wish that kind of bleak existence on your loved ones? Is having a way to occupy the kids for a few hours reason enough to support the lifelong captivity of intelligent and social animals? Do you really want to teach your child that this is the right way to treat the animals they care about?

Keeping animals in cages from birth to death, forcing them into breeding regimens to churn out ticket-selling babies and sentencing animals to a lifetime of deprivation must come to an end. If your family cares about animals, don’t support their cruel confinement. Before you buy a zoo ticket, please remember that animals’ quality of life matters just as much to them as yours does to you.

Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

April 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Entertainment

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