You may have seen the recent news of gorilla Kumbuka escaping from his enclosure at London Zoo. The male Western Silverback got out into a secure keeper’s area and was quickly tranquilised. The public was never in danger and the situation seemed to have dealt with very well by the London Zoo staff.
The events have led to an organisation called the Born Free Foundation releasing a statement saying “it could have ended very differently” and was a “startling reminder” of the risks of keeping wild animals in captivity. The organisation wants to see zoos phased out, something which I disagree with.
In terms of their opinion of the events of the London Zoo incident, it seems frankly wrong. It was extremely unlikely that it would ever have ended any differently thanks to the zoo’s safety procedures. The animal never escaped into a public area, the public were evacuated quickly and the gorilla was tranquilized and moved back to his enclosure remarkably quickly. It seems clear to me that London Zoo has clear safety procedures which it followed efficiently.
There is a debate to be had about intelligent animals being kept in captivity. You’ve probably seen Blackfish after all. But I do believe that even the most intelligent animals can be kept happily in captivity if treated well. It relies on the zoos really understanding the animal and being able to provide it with the environment it needs- both the physical space and fulfil its leisure and social needs- but I think it can be done.
I think zoos are really important for many reasons. For a start, they can encourage a love of the environment, particularly in children, that few other things can manage. That love of the environment is vitally important. If we want to save the endangered animals across the world we need a world where people care about animals and I think zoos really do this.
Zoos also provide an important service in education. On a basic level this is signs and guided tours which tell visitors more about the animals. But many zoos provide special education systems for schools which teach children about conservation in a practical way. As part of their conservation programs some zoos also educate local people about animals which can really have a positive effect.
Those conservation programs do a lot of good work. Profits from most large zoos go directly to conservation programs which help save the very animals people are seeing in front of them. The zoos often have breeding programs which can breed new animals to be released into the wild. This can be effective because it can increase the genetic pool of a species. These breeding programs are also important to ensure rare species don’t die out. In a worst case scenario a species like the tiger could go extinct in the wild but be saved thanks to tigers being bred in captivity.
Plenty of zoos work as rescue centres too. Many of their animals are ones which have been rescued, be that from injured individuals in the wild or those illegally kept in the pet trade. These animals could never be released in the wild but can be kept happily alive in a zoo.
Things need to be done better, I concede, but zoos still have an important role to play. They have moved on, here in the UK at least, to simply being places for entertainment but now educate and lead conservation projects. If the Born Free Foundation really wants to help animals they should be helping zoos to achieve these aims rather than criticising and trying to eliminate them.