Lions in zoo

Recently, before a crowd of horrified zoo visitors, a lioness was killed by a male lion in the exhibit enclosure they’d shared for three years. Dallas Zoo veterinarians and animal behaviorists say they’re stumped.

Though it happens in the wild (albeit rarely) when females are sick or acting unusually, 5-year-old Johari was reportedly in good health and no behavioral abnormalities had been reported.

One day later, a Dama gazelle at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., suffered a fatal accident when he ran into a barrier inside his enclosure. Zoo officials explained that he was spooked when a Grevy’s zebra attacked a zookeeper in an adjacent enclosure.

The zookeeper was reportedly not authorized to be within the enclosure, but the chain of events was unclear. When the dust cleared, one animal was dead of a broken neck, the zookeeper had been mauled, and one angry zebra was said to be “upset” in the wake of the entire bewildering episode.

Zoos might be baffled by these two cases, but the reality is that aggression in captive animals ­­— toward humans, other animals, each other, or even toward themselves — is no stranger to the captive animal industry. Almost every species of marine mammal, primate, cat, wild dog or bear, for example, must be meticulously screened and carefully introduced to the community and captive environment, respectively.

Consequently, policies and procedures surrounding any kind of aggression tend to be scrupulously observed in zoo and animal park settings. After all, aggression in captive animals (and its attendant illness and mortality) has long been associated with the stress of confinement and other factors related to captivity.

Given an emerging awareness of the plight of captive animals in everything from Chinese circuses to swim-with-the-dolphins facilities, it makes sense that facilities offering animals as an attraction and source of funding — whether they’re for profit, not-for-profit, government-run, scientific institution-affiliated, good or bad — are starting to feel some heat from the general public.

Are Some Animals Just Not Right for Captivity?

Consider Blackfish, the popular documentary about captive Orcas released on DVD earlier this month. While Orcas can be extremely dangerous even in the wild, the documentary's exposure of aggression to humans and other Orcas in captivity portrays the challenges of keeping these creatures in any facility safely. 

A truncated lifespan and the dorsal fin collapse these animals experience offer some physical evidence that Orcas can be negatively impacted by captivity. But it’s the rapidly expanding body of research regarding the intense importance of social lives to wild marine mammals that reveals the most serious animal welfare issues inherent to captivity. Indeed, any kind of long-term confinement of these animals is likely to be untenable.

Which is arguably true for a great many species. After all, unless their habitats have been completely lost, the ideal place for any given animal is his natural home… not a zoo. There’s no argument there.

Still, among the many reasons these facilities offer for the animals' being there, the greater purpose appears to be education.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: At what cost, education?

Measuring the Effects of Captivity

It’s a great question. At the University of Guelph, researchers attempted to frame that question by studying the longevity of Asian and African elephants in captivity relative to those in the wild. The study, published in Science in 2008, includes hundreds of zoos in Europe.

Though the study’s findings are being hotly debated in the zoo-keeping world, Guelph researchers determined convincingly (to the wider scientific audience) that elephants live less in captivity than they would in the wild — by a long shot.

Asian elephants fared worse according to the study, with half of all members of this species dying by age 19 in the European zoos (compared to half of the elephants dying at age 41 in their natural habitat). In the African species, females were especially at risk. Though a third of females live beyond age 50 in the wild, no female African elephant in captivity has lived beyond her fourth decade.

Lots of reasons were considered: climate, food sources, obesity (yes, elephants get fat in captivity), exercise and normal elephant socialization. But the study’s goal was not to reason why. It’s aim was simply to point out the obvious.

After all, we do know that zoos can impact individual animals adversely. How adversely is the question.

Striking a Balance

I mean, no one is asking zoos and other animal attractions to stop educating the public, saving species with captive breeding programs and learning more about their biology. But if we claim to seek to provide stewardship to these animals, it stands to reason that we should do so with an understanding of what we gain in the bargain.

Learning what we lose will likely show us that some animals fare better in captivity and some worse. And getting there will also help us arrive at a cost-benefit analysis that can direct us not only in choosing which animals to keep in what quantities for what purposes, but it’ll help us allocate funding for these too.

But public pressure in favor of animal welfare is mounting worldwide. And soon enough, I predict, when the public starts paying more attention to the science and less to the spin, animal attractions may need to work with a broader scope of checks and balances — where what's in the animals' best interest may potentially outweigh the need for educating or entertaining the public.