Gorilla in zoo watched by humans
A lowland gorilla faces away from visitors at the Toronto zoo's African rainforest pavilion. (Photo by Fred Lum, Globe and Mail/CP Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Activism

Zoo controversy raises pros, cons of putting animals in captivity

Do humans have sovereignty over other creatures? Does teaching others about animals increase respect for them?


Three ladies entering their golden years in a compound in Toronto’s northeastern suburbs have become the focus of a sometimes-vicious tug-of-war that has lasted more than a year. Iringa and Toka are both 42 years old. Thika is 31. All three are African elephants, the last of 10 pachyderms that have been kept at the Toronto Zoo since 1983. They suffer from infections and digestive ailments commonly found in aging, captive elephants.

The zoo’s board of management concluded some time ago that it could no longer afford the $618,500-a-year cost of keeping the trio in Toronto. So in a move that mirrored decisions taken by a growing number of zoos elsewhere, it voted to get out of the elephant business for the time being and relocate the trio to an accredited zoo in a warmer location in the United States, where there is a better chance their health will improve.

That’s when the tussle began. Animal welfare advocates, citing the deaths of four other elephants at the Toronto Zoo in the past four years, balked at the plan and began a campaign to send the trio to a sanctuary for rescued animals in California where there is lots of room to roam. They gained an ally in a city councillor who garnered enough support to win a council vote that overturned the zoo’s decision.

The zoo struck back, questioning the sanctuary’s credentials and later raising concerns about infectious diseases reported in some of the elephants currently living there. Rumours and insults flew around the Internet, and letters to the editor in local newspapers seethed with recriminations. The controversy eventually caught the attention of Bob Barker, host of the long-running television game show The Price Is Right. Barker, a well-known animal welfare advocate, first offered to pick up the $200,000 tab of shipping the elephants to the California sanctuary, and then upped the ante to nearly a million dollars when it turned out the elephants would have to travel by chartered aircraft due to a foot problem one of the animals suffers from. “To think that one of them might not survive the trip in a truck touched my heart and purse strings,” Barker said. He’s also been part of a campaign to relocate Lucy, a 36-year-old Asian elephant living alone at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. That fight became a lawsuit that stopped short of the Supreme Court of Canada, which in April refused to hear the case.

While on the surface these disputes are about the welfare of the animals, they’re really part of a bigger debate between people who think zoos should exist and those who think they shouldn’t. And that debate raises fundamental questions about values: Do humans have sovereignty over other creatures? Does putting a few animals on display and perhaps breeding them lead to greater respect and protections for their counterparts still roaming free?

As the controversy over the fate of the Toronto elephants gathered steam, an organization called Zoocheck Canada set out to test one of the basic assumptions about zoos: that they are primarily about conservation and education. “We found that the average length of time that people look at the elephants is 117 seconds,” says Rob Laidlaw, the organization’s founder and director. In a window that brief, “You can see the size, shape and colour of the animal; you can’t see anything else,” he says. Zoocheck’s 2011 survey also found that fewer than one percent of visitors to the elephant compound actually read the signs that describe the animals.

A trip I took to the zoo last summer seemed to bear this out, albeit unscientifically. I stood by and eavesdropped in the Australasia pavilion as several families watched a prickly little creature with a pale, thin snout peek over a log. “It looks like a gross porcupine,” one kid said. Her mom nodded. A few more identified the “porcupine” without being corrected. Then one little girl said the same in French, and her mother, who’d read a descriptive sign, replied back in French, “No, it’s an echidna.” Mother and daughter then moved on to another exhibit. I saw the same thing happen with wallabies and a secretary crane.

Zoocheck’s research was admittedly partisan. The organization wants to see zoos, whether they’re publicly run facilities like the Toronto Zoo, roadside tourist traps or private animal collections, subjected to tougher laws and oversight. The truth is, non-partisan research on this issue is hard to come by. A three-year study commissioned by the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums found that “visitors believe they experience a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit,” and that visiting a zoo “prompts individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution” — conclusions that are hardly surprising for a study titled Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter.

Bill Peters, director of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), admits that the educational value of zoos is hard to quantify. But he deals with educators all the time and is convinced that there’s an “intimate relationship” that develops between zoo visitors and animals that can’t help but instil respect for wildlife. “The experience produces an emotional investment that allows for an acceptance of the educational material,” he says.

Many of us have experienced the connection Peters describes; we have fond memories of visiting a zoo as children, and want our own kids to experience the sense of wonder that comes with seeing large animals up close. Even so, how do we reconcile plucking animals from the wild and putting them on display when we can turn on our high-definition TVs, tune into documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series and watch the same creatures doing remarkable things in their natural habitat? One episode shows a pride of lionesses bringing down an elephant on a dark night on the savannah — you’ll never see that in a zoo.

“Zoos are a 19th-century idea that hasn’t been updated since the first zoo opened,” says Rob Laidlaw. In fact, humans began capturing animals and displaying them for entertainment long before that. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese all did it. In medieval Britain, a menagerie kept in the Tower of London was shown to the public for a small admission price. The modern era of zoos began in 1752 with the founding of the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna. It is still in operation.

Zoos today face an animal rights movement that is fast becoming more mainstream, with endorsements from celebrities like Natalie Portman and Pamela Anderson. Governments, in turn, are under mounting pressure to strengthen animal welfare laws and enforcement. Last summer, the Ontario government found itself under the gun after former employees of Marineland, a private aquarium and zoo in Niagara Falls, Ont., went public with allegations that animals and marine mammals at the heavily promoted, CAZA-accredited theme park were being mistreated. United Church minister and NDP MPP Rev. Cheri DiNovo presented the premier’s office with an online petition bearing nearly 77,000 names and calling for a new law that will require a higher standard of care for captive animals. Currently, zoos in Ontario are subject to the same laws that govern the treatment of household pets. “Anybody can open a zoo or aquarium or menagerie,” says Laidlaw. Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province would move to tighten its laws after an investigation into the Marineland allegations is complete.

British Columbia has the country’s toughest zoo laws. Zoos in the province must be members of CAZA, meaning they must meet minimum animal welfare standards before being accredited, and are subject to spot checks and investigations if complaints arise. But critics point out that membership in CAZA does not carry ironclad guarantees.

Even if zoos follow the rules to the letter, run education programs and contribute, as the Toronto Zoo does, to habitat conservation, a fundamental dilemma still remains: Do they not create an illusion that everything is all right in the animal kingdom, when in reality shrinking habitats, poaching, resource exploitation and climate change are threatening the very continuation of some species?

If elephants could speak, the grandes dames of the Toronto Zoo would surely have something to say about questions like these, as well as the controversy swirling around them. They were on display as usual last summer, shaded by big umbrella-like canopies and amused by a few toys scattered around their dusty enclosure. City councillors still want to move the trio to the sanctuary in California, but zoo officials are unwilling to release them because of reports that other elephants there are suffering from tuberculosis. Animal rights activists say the zoo is overplaying the TB issue and underplaying safeguards at the sanctuary as a stalling tactic. The issue appears to be headed back to city council this month.

So it’s starting to look like Iringa, Toka and Thika are going to spend another winter in Toronto. When the weather gets cold, they’ll be moved into a barn with hard floors. From time to time, they’ll venture out into the snow but will spend most of their days idle. They’ll face an increased risk of depression and susceptibility to illness. In other words, they’ll be like a lot of humans this winter, only much bigger.

—With files from David Wilson


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s November 2012 issue with the title Animal rights and wrongs.”


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