As part of Animal week, we visited Dartmoor Zoo. A very knowledgeable tour guide talked to us in detail about the animals, their habitats and their care routines.

The tour guide explained that the main purpose of Dartmoor zoo is education and that, with more funding, Dartmoor zoo is hoping to focus more on conservation.

Our tour guide explained that the animals in Dartmoor zoo act as “ambassadors” for the rest of their species, in hope that they will catch the interest and inspiration of visitors, to understand more about wild animals and how we can help them.

Should zoos be a thing of the past?

I understand and respect this idea and am very keen to learn more about how important conservation and education is in helping to support vulnerable species. Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) help vulnerable species to survive by providing education to the public, captive breeding and reintroducing species back into the wild. https://www.thoughtco.com/zoos-and-endangered-species-conservation-1182068

Despite this, I couldn’t help but wonder if these captive animals might be happier in their natural environment. I appreciate that I do not have an extensive understanding of the animals, as the zoo keepers who work with them every day do.

However, I am also very aware that that none of us, including zookeepers, have ever been a tiger, or a lion, or a wolf, so how can we truly know how they are feeling?

Education is a powerful tool

A study of more than 5,500 visitors from various Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA accredited) organisations concluded that visitors of zoos and aquariums became more aware of how they could have a positive impact upon environmental issues. https://www.thoughtco.com/zoos-and-endangered-species-conservation-1182068

However, it has been argued that television programmes such as David Attenborough’s many nature documentaries can actually offer a more in depth understanding of animals in their natural habitats, according to Chris Draper of the Born Free charity. David Attenborough himself actually disagrees with this and argues that only seeing an animal in real life can provide us with a genuine awareness https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/02/zoos-time-shut-down-conservation-education-wild-animals

I would argue that not all of the species in zoos are there because they are vulnerable in the wild and that some are actually purely there for entertainment purposes, such as meerkats. Studies conducted by the Born Free Charity and Freedom for Animals have found that a small number of animals in England and Wales are classed as endangered species and about 15% of species in these zoos are threatened.

However, the question of “should zoos continue to exist, to protect endangered species who may not survive in the wild?” still remains.

Damien Aspinall, conservationist, believes that the protection of endangered species can be achieved without putting animals behind bars, but instead by releasing them into protected reserves in which they can be free in their own environment. Aspinall believes that all zoos should be closed and that “we have no moral right as a species to let animals suffer just because we are curious about them.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/02/zoos-time-shut-down-conservation-education-wild-animals

However, Mark Pilgrim, chief executive of Chester Zoo, does not agree that all zoos should be closed. Pilgrim argues that funding provided by visitors of the zoo allows for conservation work in many different countries and supports programmes for reintroduction of animals back into the wild. Jane Goodall, primatologist, also argues that zoos play a valuable role in ensuring the welfare and protection of animals.

Should we continue to educate the public via zoos, to encourage visitors to witness animals for themselves? Animals that visitors may not have otherwise thought about, or considered in their day to day lives?

Should we continue to hope that this will inspire people young and old to learn more, to think more about how their actions can have an impact on the natural world around us and to do what they can to preserve our wildlife and help to conserve endangered species?

If so, should we continue to use wild animals as ambassadors for this purpose, or should we use the internet and nature documentaries, and learn from afar? Is it our duty to conserve animals whose numbers have declined due to human interference in the first place, or is it our duty to finally leave them alone?


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