By Faranak Bakhtiari

Animals in captivity: Is there such a thing as a good zoo?

May 15, 2019

TEHRAN – The recent activities of Tehran Zoological Garden have sparked a heated debate between advocates of animal rights and zoo directors, on whether or not zoos endanger wildlife species for their own interests or they have educational and protective objectives.

Do wildlife species find contentment living in standardized zoos or in nature?

During the past years, Tehran Zoological Garden has succeeded in becoming a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Moreover under the population management program aiming at endangered species reproduction, the Persian leopard and Asiatic lion have been transferred to the Zoo for captive breeding. 

In this regard, a male Persian leopard was sent to Iran from Portugal last year in an attempt to revive the species, who mated naturally at the Zoo with a female leopard and at the moment, the leopard is pregnant. 

Subsequently, the Zoo transmitted a male Asiatic lion from Britain’s Bristol Zoo under the supervision of EAZA to implement a revival plan for extinct , while the female one will also be sent to the country from Ireland within the next few days.

No natural habitats, no chances of bringing animals back from extinction

However, animal rights defenders blame Tehran Zoological Garden for keeping the wildlife species, such as Asiatic lion, who once have been pushed toward extinction in the country under the unfavorable conditions, believing that when their natural habitats have been destroyed and there is no possibility for them to return back to the nature, keeping them is violating their right.

Breeding species in captivity will not definitely ensure a stable population in the country once again, therefore, why not allocate the captive breeding costs to protect those animals in the nature from extinction?

Sepehr Salimi, an animal rights advocate, criticizing the Zoo said that the restoration of Asiatic lion or any other extinct species in captivity is impossible, because the most important issue for the species’ survival is living in the natural habitat, and when it is destructed, then the species eventually will disappear, as well.

He further points out that if we are to breed extinct species in the zoos, we should not use the term revival because the revival of an extinct species occurs when a species is found in its original habitat without human interference for survival, so reviving species in zoos is meaningless.

Over the recent years, Tehran Zoological Garden did not have a good record on wildlife conservation, as 14 African lions have lost their lives due to inappropriate nutrition, and two tigers who were relocated from Russia for captive breeding lost their lives due to an outbreak of glanders (an infectious disease occurs primarily by ingestion of contaminated food or water), which is mainly related to not meeting the standards, he explained.

Given that the Asiatic lion’s original habitat no longer exists, why should it be reproduced? Their revival only serves the zoos’ interests, Salimi stated.

The transfer of endangered species to the country takes place under the supervision of the EAZA; an association that has given Tehran Zoological Garden five years to fully standardize all animal habitats to become a member of the union, although, it does not mean that no violation will happen, he explained.

Time Magazine reported that many European zoos cull animals or violate their rights, and that EAZA keeps records of this, but won't release them.

In 2012, Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark put down, via lethal injection, two leopard cubs whose genetics were over-represented. 

In 2010, the decision by officials at Edinburgh zoo to put down two hog piglets named Sammi and Becca sparked protests.

David Williams Mitchell, communications and membership manager for EAZA, in this regard said that “as a conservation organization, we realize that there's a crisis in the natural world, and that we have an obligation to protect species in the wild from human actions,” adding, “one of the ways we do that is through breeding programs. But we have limited space within EAZA to carry out that, and we need to prioritize animals that can contribute to future of the species.”

Keeping animals in an unfavorable condition results in mental illness and depression, he lamented, adding that zoo is a purchase and sale center, because the number of animals are not determined.

Referring to the zoo’s positive attempts, he noted that zoos can be a great habitat for those injured animals not able to live in natural habitats, while they are not permitted to reproduce the species.

From the animal right advocates point of view, zoo is not a proper place for all the wildlife species, and all must be shut down, he concluded.

Zoos improve wildlife conservation 

This is while, Iman Memarian, Tehran Zoological Garden director, said that zoos should be run for cultural and educational purposes as well as wildlife conservation.

Standard zoos are one of the most important bases for wildlife conservation, being used to educate people about wildlife protection, he said, adding that also, many wildlife-related sciences, such as veterinary are expanding in zoos so that veterinarians can control animal diseases in nature. 

On the other hand, people are contemplating how our ancestors destroyed the wildlife, and what we should do today to preserve the remaining species, he also added.

Currently, 80 percent of the animal habitats in the Zoo is living up to the internationally defined standards, and it must be completely in line with the necessary standards during the next 5 years to become a permanent member of EAZA, he explained.

Memarian further noted that some thinks that when an animal is in the cage, it is not feeling well at the moment, however, one should bear in mind that animals have different needs, all of which can be provided at standard zoos.

Today, it is possible to measure the amount of hormones in the body through the urine and faeces of animals, so researches show that the level of wildlife satisfaction in standard zoos is even higher than their level of satisfaction in nature, he added.

“Tehran Zoological Garden has gone far to meet all the standards required to keep Asiatic lion and leopard, he said, the condition is improved, the Zoo is living up to the required standards, and take safety measure strictly,” he further highlighted.

“No habitat is yet determined for the Asiatic lion to live in, and there is no possibility to re-introduce it to the nature,” he lamented, adding, there is no plan for releasing the Persian leopard in nature, but we are ready to work with the EAZA in this regard.

Defending the EAZA operation in response to the recent criticisms, Memarian said that the union has so far succeeded in captive breeding of endangered species in zoos and has reintroduced them to their habitat. Although, there are people who are generally opposed to the zoo, ignoring the positive functions of zoos.

He further called on the role Department of Environment play to help improving the zoos’ condition, as the country’s zoos are far below the global standards.

Zoos’ function is not defined properly; those not aiming at educational and protective plans are violating animal rights, he concluded.

While worldwide animals are being kept in zoos for various purposes it is not easy to decide whether the decision will suit the animals in conserving them or they are rather being tortured cruelly. 

FB/MQ/MG

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