During my last visit to Dublin Zoo, I stopped by the rhino enclosure to admire their horns. Worth around €60,000 per kilo on the black market- more than gold or cocaine, they were safe from the butchery of poachers, hunting them for wealthy Vietnamese clients.
I had just returned from a trip to Hoedspruit, South Africa, where my daughter and I explored the greater Kruger National Park. We watched a lion savage an impala, endured a venomous Black Mamba come within biting distance, and – a personal highlight – observed a pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world, cross the road.
Ironically, the rhinos we saw in Africa had their horns removed by conversationalists to avoid certain, brutal theft. The rhinos in Dublin were safe.
When news of Dublin Zoo threatening closure came this week, I had to think of their warped circle of life. They aren’t safe in their own homes, because of a South East Asian appetite for body parts and now they aren’t safe in their adopted home due to Covid-19, which came about due to a Chinese appetite for animal body parts.
They aren’t the only ones in trouble. The 400 animals at the zoo, costing up to €500,000 per month to feed, can’t be furloughed. Dublin Zoo director Dr Christoph Schwitzer pleaded for financial help.
It’s heartbreaking, but many global zoos are on their knees. Back in April, the manager of Neumünster Zoo in Germany caused outrage when she suggested that some animals might soon have to be fed to others, if the zoo was to survive.
“We’ve listed the animals we’ll have to slaughter first,” Verena Kaspari told Die Welt newspaper. It would be “unpleasant”, but even that would not solve the financial problems, she added. Euthenasia was next on the cards.
My first thoughts were- why not just leave the zoos open, with limited visitors and strict distancing guidelines? But ultimately, the news puts a spotlight on the existence of zoos in these progressive times.
Many modern zoos are conservation zoos and can’t be compared to their Victorian predecessors which began as 19th-century menageries.
Good zoos are responsible for saving iconic species and they provide refuge and veterinarian services. In Dublin last year an endangered western lowland gorilla was born.
But, no matter what way you dress it up, there’s an elephant in Cabra. Not just an elephant, but a coterie of the world’s finest wild animals.
When you visit the courts, do you ever think- there’s a giraffe closeby. On a wet, cold, rainy night in Dublin, do you ever spare a thought for the orangutan down the road?
We’ve evolved since wild and exotic animals were kept by megalomaniac and sycophantic rulers of Mesopotamia,Egypt and China for non-utilitarian uses in 2500-odd BC.
We’ve survived the age of enlightenment, exploration and curiosity where scientific interest in zoology and anatomy was born. Where people came from far and wide to see unusual animals they read about in fantasy books. Back then, humans hunted animals with pride and made rugs and ashtrays out of them.
Now we’ve largely grown out of that. People travel now. We watch David Atenborough documentaries. We have access to the greatest wildlife experiences on their fingertips.
We no longer need zoos. Sure, Dublin Zoo offers a great day out. But when animals are born in captivity, they become dependent on humans.
Remember the orca from Free Willy? Having spent most of his life in captivity in Mexico, after being released into the wild, he died. .
Animal’s lives become secondary to ours.
In 2016, Harambe the gorilla was killed after a 4-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo, even though he posed no threat.
The best man made habitats can’t replace the wild.
Obviously we can’t just shut down zoos. But globally governments, big businesses, wildlife NGOs and the WHO need to address the wildlife trade without apology to it’s main Asian culprits. Their governments need to punish the sale of animal parts harshly.
Then billions, as Attenborough suggests, need to be invested in our wildlife. Loss of habitat needs to be addressed, alternatives need to be found so that zoos can be fazed out.
There will still be places for conservation, rehoming and sanctuaries, but zoos in countries like Ireland are like staying at Sandals resort instead of jail. The services are great, but it’s jail nonetheless.
Many zoos do wonderful things, but no pen—no matter how humane—can compare to the freedom and call of the wild.