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Michael Abrahams | Are zoos really necessary?

Published:Monday | June 6, 2016 | 12:13 AMMichael Abrahams

For most of my life, I have associated the word ‘harambe’ with Rita Marley’s album and song of the same name. Today, when I hear that word, I think of Harambe, the 17-year-old silverback gorilla that was shot and killed after a four-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and was being handled roughly by the animal.
The authorities had little choice as the child’s life was clearly in danger. Adult silverback gorillas have the strength of about eight men, and can easily rip off the head or crush the skull of a small child. Using a tranquiliser would have had unpredictable effects, as such a drug can take up to 10 minutes to be fully effective, and during this time the animal may have become agitated, placing the child at even further risk. The gorilla weighed about 450 pounds, and by merely falling on the boy could have crushed him to death. 
Unfortunately, the parents of the child, especially the mother, have been vilified by much of the public and branded as bad parents, subjected to death threats and racial epithets (they are African-American), and bombarded with suggested punishments from arrest to sterilisation. But children can be extremely slippery, and, in exciting environments such as zoos, may become excited and adventurous and can slip away in a split second.
What I consider to be more important is to investigate how a small child could have been able to enter an enclosure with a potentially dangerous wild animal in the first place. The incident has reignited the debate on zoos and their necessity in today’s world. Zoos (short for zoological parks or zoological gardens) remain popular attractions, especially for children. There are more than 10,000 zoos worldwide, holding about one million vertebrate animals, and these facilities are visited by more than 600 million people a year.
Unfortunately, while providing entertainment for gawking visitors, zoos and similar attractions have often been found to adversely affect the physical and psychological health of their occupants.
One of the greatest and most valid concerns has been the physical restrictions being placed on the animals. This was graphically demonstrated in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on Tilikum, a 12 ½-footlong, 12,000-pound male killer whale who had been SeaWorld’s star attraction for years, until he attacked and killed his trainer following a live show. It was subsequently revealed that the orca had been involved in two other human deaths.
The documentary suggested that the conditions that the creature had been kept under, spending most of his time alone in a tank that measured 20 feet across, had contributed to his bouts of aggressive behaviour. When one considers that these marine mammals can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild, such conditions amount to animal cruelty.
State legislators in California and New York have since introduced bills making it illegal to keep orcas in captivity, and SeaWorld announced this year that it will no longer breed them. This appears to be a step in the right direction, as killer whales in the wild have an average life expectancy of 30 to 50 years, but the average age of death for those who have died at SeaWorld is 13 years.
Land wildlife is also similarly affected by cramped environments. Some zoo polar bears are confined in areas that are one millionth of their range in the wild. Elephants walk up to 30 miles daily in their natural habitats, and bears, tigers and lions will run and roam many miles to hunt. But when animals such as these are imprisoned in cages or small enclosures at zoos, their activities become severely restricted. They have no privacy or opportunities to hunt or exercise, behaviours that are natural to them.
A study from 1983 examining animal mortality at the San Diego Zoo found cannibalism and infanticide, widespread malnutrition, frequent deaths from tranquiliser use and repeated injuries while being transported. Not surprisingly, problems appeared to be particularly acute among animals who have the greatest roaming ranges in the wild.
Such deprivation often causes zoochosis, a condition in which animals act strangely and even hurt themselves out of boredom and frustration. Disorders such as phobias, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, documented at zoos, do not appear to have similar occurrences among animals living in the wild, when the latter are studied by wildlife experts.
Defenders of zoos claim that the institutions contribute to scientific research, play a role in conservation by protecting endangered species, and are a source of education for the public, regarding the animals on display. But only few zoos conduct meaningful research, and animals in captivity are poor subjects, as their habits and behaviour will differ significantly from those in their natural habitats.
Regarding conservation, only few endangered animals have been successfully bred and released into the wild from zoos, and as far as education is concerned, Internet searches and YouTube videos provide us with far more information than the plaques at the animal exhibits.
So, are zoos really necessary?
Think about being taken from your natural habitat and placed on display. It has happened to humans too. A famous case was that of Ota Benga, a human pygmy from the Belgian Congo, who was captured by slavers and exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. He was subjected to physical and verbal abuse from visitors, and although he was eventually freed from life as an exhibit, he ended his own life by shooting himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.