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Why zoos must become places for compassionate conservation

By Jo-Anne McArthur

There will always be a need for places where we can care for animals or practice compassionate conservation—places where the goal is protection and not human entertainment. These places exist and we need more of them. Sanctuaries, wildlife centers, conservation areas: where the needs of animals native to the geography and compatible with the climate are met; where humane education takes place, rather than the model of display and objectification currently in practice.

Following the widely-acclaimed We Animals, Jo-Anne McArthur released her new book, Captive, exploring the interaction between humans and animals in captivity. Over the course of a decade, McArthur documented  zoos and aquaria in over 20 countries, illuminating how we see, and fail to see, animals in enclosures. Click book cover for more information about Captive.

Some argue that zoos fit in this new paradigm of care. Ron Kagan, CEO at the Detroit Zoo, agrees. His aim is to create a sanctuary model for zoos—housing only rescued animals and providing an experience for both human and non-human animals in which both benefit. Sanctuaries are about providing both care and choice to their inhabitants. Kagan believes this can be achieved for zoos if a primary focus is put on creating natural environments.

The Detroit Zoo houses two rescued polar bears who live in a thoughtfully designed habitat of four acres. These bears, unlike in virtually all zoos, have the option of staying out of sight of the visitors. People complain, but this provides the staff with an opportunity to explain about choice and autonomy for the animals. Over the years, the Detroit Zoo has rescued more than 30,000 animals on their own and with countless conservation and animal welfare groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States among them. The zoo has an unparalleled humane education program and its goal is to trigger biophilia (to use biologist Edward O. Wilson’s term for a love of the natural world) in all visitors.

I asked Kagan whether he’d ever thought of creating a new name for this type of establishment, as it moves away from the antiquated zoo model. He had considered it at length, he said, but preferred to “rebuild rather than rebrand.” If the needs of an animal cannot be met, he added, then the circumstance for the animal has to be changed. The zoo moved all their remaining elephants from the icy city of Detroit to a more climate-appropriate sanctuary in California, run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society. With fewer animals and more space, zoos can better be involved in genuine conservation. Furthermore, nothing is stopping them or other “good” zoos from participating in conservation from afar, where the animals can be protected in their natural habitats or in sanctuaries. In these programs, it seems, there can be an evolved role for zoos in animal care.

Brown bear, Germany 2016: Credit Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation

In their current form, zoos and aquaria need to be reformed or abolished. Underfunded, tiny, roadside zoos need to be shut down and animals should never again be made to perform for us as they are still forced to do. It’s time for zoos to be courageous and move beyond their present and historical construct. More and more, this is the desire of the public, and I know it to be that of zoo staff as well.

During a recent visit I made to an aquarium, a staff-member gave us a presentation about fishes: their habitat, what they eat, and their life patterns. She stated that the main threat to fishes and their habitats worldwide was trawling. During a short question-and-answer period, I pointed out that to assign blame to trawling was to abdicate us of our responsibility; that we use trawlers to meet our demand for fish. As an aquarium and supposed fish-education centre, I inquired, could they not suggest we eat fewer fishes? She replied to the audience that, as fish are a part of the human diet, the aquarium could not advocate for that.

Once the crowd had dispersed, my conversation with her and another staff-member continued. With the present and undeniable emergency of the depletion and pollution of the oceans, I mused that it was the responsibility of aquaria like theirs to be courageous and educate the public about ideas they may not want to hear. In the privacy of this conversation, they agreed, and emphatically encouraged me to write a letter to the aquarium about it. They felt muzzled by the business they worked for, one that purportedly aimed to raise awareness about the animals in its care. Zoos and aquaria must not forgo opportunities to do better.

Baltic grey seal, Lithuania 2016. Credit Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation

Like all animals, we wish for autonomy. We wish to be with our own and to explore our world. We flee from harm and we seek shelter. We desire to build our lives and make our own way. We hate forced confinement and we succumb to despair if we have no prospect of freedom.

I’m not an ethologist or a psychic. I have no special insight into the souls of animals. Yet I see what I see and I record it with my camera. And I know I am not alone. If you worry that you’re being tricked into an anthropomorphism that you don’t agree with, then I ask you simply to look again. Do we really think the despondency and desperation we observe are not real? Do we really believe that the paw reaching through the bars, or the defeated body sprawled on the concrete floor, offer no insight into what these beings are experiencing? Where else do those primary emotions come from, if not from our mutual experience as vulnerable animals, subject to the joys and sffering of a body that lives and dies?

Arctic wolves, Germany 2016. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation

The zoos I visited and have depicted in Captive are not immutable or inevitable; they are human constructs for human pleasures that belong to an age when we knew little to nothing, or cared about, the inner lives of other species. As the field of ethology—the observation of animals in their natural settings—continues to gain its footing in the scientific discourse about sentience and welfare, it will become inevitable that compassionate choices are the only paths forward. We can encourage zoos to conserve species in the wild—like the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark is doing by working with the Black Mambas (an all-female anti-poaching unit in South Africa) to protect rhino and elephant populations, and like the Detroit Zoo is doing with those looking after highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jaguar, France 2016. Credit Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation
Lechwe, Germany 2016. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation.
Polar bear, Latvia 2016. Credit Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation
White tigers, France 2016. Credit Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation.

We can provide more resources for improved habitats for rescued animals who would not survive in the wild. We can close down all unaccredited and poorly run institutions. There are a lot of things we can do. And of this I am certain: places of exploitation, domination and objectification have no place in an enlightened society. They can become sanctuaries, wildlife centres and places for compassionate conservation. It’s time for us to be courageous and build a relationship between we animals and those animals based on respect and care. It’s time to evolve and leave captivity behind.

Arctic wolves, Germany 2016. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/Born Free Foundation

This post was based on excerpts from Captive, by Jo-Anne McArthur.

About the Author

Jo-Anne McArthur is a photojournalist, author, and humane educator. She has been the recipient of many awards for her work in the field, including Huffington Post’s ‘Top 10 Women Trying to Change the World’, one of CBC’s ‘Top 50 Champions of Change’, as well as being the recipient of Toronto’s 2013 Compassion for Animals Award.

One of the world’s foremost photojournalists documenting the stories of animals, McArthur was the subject of the acclaimed documentary The Ghosts in our Machine, and in spring 2017 launched the We Animals Archive, a free-to-use resource featuring thousands of high resolution photographs of animals. Her images have been used by hundreds of organizations, publishers, and academics, and have been exhibited around the globe from Helsinki to Sydney. National Geographic, The Guardian, Elle Canada, DAYS Japan, Helsingin Sanomat, and many other media outlets have featured her work, and she has received awards and accolades from organizations such as Huffington Post, CBC and numerous animal protection organizations.

On January 1st, as a companion project to Captive, McArthur launched A Year of Captivity. Every day in 2017, A Year of Captivity shares an image and stories about captive animals around the world, along with related media, and tips on how we can further the mainstream discourse about ethics of zoos, as well as help create meaningful change for animals. A Year of Captivity unfolds on both instagram and facebook.

From September 7th to 10th, 2017, images from Captive and A Year of Captivity will be exhibited at Toronto’s Harbourfront Center alongside Toronto Vegfest, the biggest event of its kind in North America. McArthur is currently booking speaking engagements and book signings for Captive, with an official US book launch taking place at the Leonard Nimoy Theatre, NYC, on October 21st. Follow A Year of Captivity’s social media for updates on speaking engagements and book signings. A west-coast book tour will take place in early 2018.

About Captive

Published by Lantern Books
Edited by Martin Rowe
Designed by The Goggles
10″ x 8 1/2″ softcover
Publication: July 2017
ISBN: 978-1-59056-562-990000
Available on  Amazon  (CAD $35)  and Amazon US (USD $35)

Comments

  1. Karen McCabe
    Canada
    August 5, 9:46 am

    Once you open your eyes and see how unnatural it is for animals living in captivity, and once you understand that these same animals have their own ways of living it is most unsettling to see others enjoying their suffering. Jo-Anne McArthur does a great service to all animals living in zoos and aquaria by bringing their plight to the mainstream. I truly hope that one day all forms of animal captivity for human entertainment will be seen for what it really is. A way for humans to profit from their suffering.

  2. Jill Roeder
    United States
    August 2, 7:24 pm

    Almost everyday I hear some positive remark related to the excitement and normalcy of confined animals. It really is a mindset that needs changing.