Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Orangutan called a "Non-Human Person," one that can be freed Part II

Yesterday, I wrote a post about an orangutan in Argentina that was recently freed by the courts after being declared a "non-human person." I found this interesting for more than one reason, and I wanted to share the second one today.

In response to this ruling, the head of biology at the Buenos Aires Zoo stated, "When you don't know the biology of a species, to unjustifiably claim it suffers abuse, is stressed or depressed, is to make one of man's most common mistakes, which is to humanize animal behavior" (see article here)  and I think this is an excellent and often overlooked point! I can't speak for this zoo because I've never been and I don't know anyone who has been. I can speak to my experiences at the Smithsonian National Zoo where I interned for several months as an undergrad.
Orangutan named Kiko crossing the O-Line at NZ

I would often hear guests complaining that the gorillas were just sitting there. "Why aren't they doing anything?!" Well, when you consider that gorillas are large herbivorous animals that spend much of the day foraging on leaves and another significant portion of the day resting and digesting those leaves, it makes sense that they're not always climbing trees and playing. Most primates spend very little time playing in the wild. I know the primates at National were extremely well cared for. They have enrichment time to keep them from getting bored, they have keepers who really care about them and have worked there for years, and they eat better than most humans do. Should apes be kept in zoos? Well, that's a hard question to answer.

I don't believe apes should be kept as pets or in the entertainment industry. They're not for our entertainment purposes and the idea of keeping a highly intelligent, huge, and strong animal in a home is absurd. Remember Charla Nash? Keeping apes in zoos may or may not be different though.

Zoos allow people to see and hopefully learn about many different types of animals they otherwise might never really learn about unless they can afford to travel. Watching a television program isn't the same as seeing a zebra in a zoo which isn't the same as seeing one in the wild. I saw a lot of children's eyes open wide when running up to see the gorillas feeding outside or the orangutans crossing on the O-Line, a series of long ropes and towers (electrified at the base so they won't want to climb down). Click here for a video of orangutans using the O-Line. I'd like to think these children (and adults) really enjoyed their time at the zoo but also learned a thing or too, including an appreciation for nature and wildlife. There's something magical about seeing an animal in the flesh.

Brown bear at National Zoo-Thankfully exhibits have improved greatly.
Historic Images of the Smithsonian
Now,  not all zoos are created equally. Some animals do live in very small confined spaces or receive inadequate care. I don't think large animals such as orcas should be kept in captivity at all. Just watch the movie Blackfish if you haven't already. That said, animals in zoos do tend to live longer than those in the wild. They receive medical care and lots of healthy food. They're also studied in a way that may not be possible in the wild. We know their lineages, we know exactly what they eat, we can watch them 24/7, and we can use cognitive tests as enrichment to understand their brains. There are definitely advantages to having zoos. Some zoos are centers of genetic or cognitive research. A few zoos even have excellent conservation science programs, funding scientists who study wild animals and initiatives that support the protection of wild animals and ecosystems.

Do these advantages outweigh the disadvantages of keeping animals in captivity? I'm undecided. Most zoos are aware of the problems they face. They want larger exhibits for their animals. They're trending towards creating the most natural environment possible. I hope this work continues and I hope zoos do more to ensure that visitors are actually learning when they come to the zoo. Do you stop and read the signs telling you all about a species or an issue? I'm not sure many people do, but creating more interactive displays, having keeper talks, and using technology may make the visit memorable and change perceptions. If the focus is on educating the public, conservation, and raising awareness about issues rather than making money, then zoos might be worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment