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Last month I attended a Congress organised by the World Association of Zoos & Aquaria (WAZA) and the Centre for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) based at the Detroit Zoo in the USA. Other invited participants were mostly zoo-people but also included the foremost ‘anti-zoo’ advocates in the USA such as Mark Bekoff, Lori Gruen and Jessica Pierce. It was a unique meeting, in my experience, and conducted in an atmosphere of calm discussion, without descending into personal abuse or rancour. It isn’t easy to say what the concrete outcomes were, but all agreed that it had been a worthwhile, and enjoyable, meeting that should be repeated in a few years’ time, perhaps on this side of the pond.

The anti-zoo advocates are animal rights activists with a fundamental ethical view that keeping animals in captivity is wrong under any circumstances except, perhaps, for rescues from terrible conditions; and that utilisation of animals as commodities is also wrong and unethical. A problem with the balance of the debate was that the extreme opposite of that view was not presented. Hunters from Southern Africa (‘if it pays it stays’) or Chinese gourmets (‘we eat anything with four legs except a table’) who have an absolutely utilitarian view of animals were not represented. The result was that the zoo people appeared to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the animal rights people; in fact, we’re not, mostly we have a kind of wishy-washy personal ethic somewhere in the middle!

Another issue for the zoo people was that the animal rights people presented no hard evidence in support of their case. In a sense, why should they, if the whole debate is an ethical one? The zoo people take the view that the ‘ethical’ outlook only stacks up if suffering can be proved. If it cannot then there isn’t any and the ‘ethical’ view becomes irrelevant. As a result there were lots of presentations and discussions about the evidence, or otherwise, for animal suffering in zoos. The short answer is that the evidence either way isn’t completely clear yet but there are so many clever and thoughtful people working on it that some unambiguous answers are going to emerge over the next five to ten years. A particular pleasure for me was the realisation that the WWCT’s Field Conservation & Research Department has played a big part in the careers of several of the most prominent people involved in gathering the evidence. This confirmed what I have always known, that the WWCT’s zoos are right up there when it comes to the best zoo animal welfare practice on the planet.

The Congress once again highlighted the tension that exists within the zoo community over the use of euthanasia/culling as a management tool. There is a strong (and growing?) schism between the Austral-American view, that the practice is unacceptable, and the European one that death is nothing to do with welfare and that culling is a humane and sustainable way of managing populations of animals in perpetuity. There are, of course, dissenter zoos from within each of those regional consensuses but, broadly speaking they hold good. The schism extends further, too, in the management of older animals in zoos. In North America, even very old and sick animals are kept alive in circumstances where, in Europe, the consensus would be that ‘putting to sleep’ would be a kinder option. Cleverer people than me might have an explanation for the sociological reasons behind these divergent views but I can’t see any easy way that they can be reconciled.

Why does it matter? Because anything that happens in any zoo anywhere in the world has potential repercussions for the entire world zoo community; we all get tarred with the same brush. The ‘European’ view, which, of course, we support, is that failure to manage our animal populations in a humane and sustainable way risks losing them altogether. That would undermine the conservation and advocacy work that zoos do, and hasten the day when they become merely rescue centres. For me, that would be a bad and sad thing.

Finally, I should say that Ron Kagan and Stephanie Allard of the Detroit Zoo did a fantastic job in setting up and hosting the meeting and for the first time ever I thought that vegetarian cooking actually can produce great food!

Simon Tonge, Executive Director, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust

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