Given that we are in the season for wishful thinking it seems appropriate that I should come up with a wish of my own. After all the time I have spent banging on about how zoos are doing it all wrong it is about time I made a few suggestions outlining how zoos could be doing it right. So, my wish is for my ideal zoo.
As I have said before, I am not against zoos per se, just the concept of zoos as entertainment rather than conservation centres. In order to avoid my future wrath I have devised a series of criteria that zoos must satisfy to be considered “ideal”. These are the Bunny Criteria. After all, what’s the point of devising standards if you can’t name them after yourself in order to achieve some level of immortality (although, as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”)?
- The zoo must be a non-profit organisation. As long as zoos are forced to pander to the public and the almighty dollar they will always risk putting money before animal welfare and conservation. This can be achieved through wealthy patrons/owners or government sponsorship e.g. White Oak Plantation/White Oak Conservation Center (http://www.gilmanfoundation.org/whiteOak/, http://wocenter.org/) and the Lubee Bat Conservancy (http://www.batconservancy.org/), both in Florida and both closed to the general public.
- With so many endangered species in the world and so few zoo places the zoo must focus on maintaining these species with no, or an absolute minimum, of non-endangered species e.g. the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (http://www.durrell.org/) on Jersey Island.
- Zoos must have excellent education programs ranging from intelligently designed play areas for children e.g. Copenhagen zoo (http://uk.zoo.dk/VisitZoo.aspx) to structured classroom activities for school children to guided presentations within the zoo (presentations that do not include anyone patting tigers or other inmates) e.g. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (http://www.desertmuseum.org/).
- Zoos must be connected to in situ conservation programs by releasing captive bred species to the wild, assisting with habitat management and encouraging visitors to adopt conservation related activities.
- Zoo enclosures must meet certain minimum standards, which are already in place in many countries and administered through organisations such as ZAA, AZA, etc. However, the old adage of the bigger the better certainly applies when it comes to zoo enclosures. Every effort must be made to hold animals in a natural environment, in natural groups and fed a natural diet. If this cannot be done satisfactorily then the animal has no place in the zoo e.g. elephants in small urban zoos, polar bears in Australia, gorillas in Canada, etc.
- Zoos should focus primarily, if not exclusively, on local fauna and maintain as much of the local natural environment as possible in order to encourage visitors to enjoy and conserve that environment and the species contained therein e.g. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in Canberra (http://www.tidbinbilla.com.au/). Too many problems occur in zoos because of an inability to adequately duplicate an animal’s natural environment. The further from home that animal is the greater these problems will be.
There they are, The Bunny Criteria. No doubt there is plenty of room for improvement as it is hard to be dogmatic about these sorts of things. If a species is not local but endangered with an in situ conservation program e.g. the Mauritius kestrel, should it be maintained in a zoo? Yes. If a species is local and not yet endangered but can be used in the zoo to highlight environmental issues e.g. koala and habitat fragmentation, should it be kept in a zoo? Probably. If a species is not local and not endangered but has a high profile thatis used to bring visitors through the gate e.g. elephant, should it be in the zoo? No.
I am happy for animals to live in zoos as long as their welfare remains paramount and their presence realistically facilitates their conservation, rather than visitor entertainment. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that breeding one elephant every couple of years even comes close to satisfying this criterion.
Dr. F. Bunny