TODAY'S ZOOS: THE GREAT LIE

I have been working for almost thirty years in the world of zoos and zoological parks. Regardless of the name, to be clear, these are places where animals are kept in captivity. 


For a long time, one thing has really shocked me: The incredible gap between, on one hand, the evolution of the quality and professionalism of the majority of establishments where wild animals are kept, and on the other hand, the ignorance of the majority of the public about the way they are run.


I think that you, friends and future or regular visitors of the Parc des Félins are able to hear this lie! Because thirty years on, visitors are still asking the same questions:

Question 1: Where do you keep the animals in winter?
Question 2: Do you buy your animals in Africa?
Question 3 (the worst!): Your animals must be happy here because they reproduce!


The first question is just a simple misunderstanding of our planet's climate, due to the fact that unfortunately documentaries often only show beautiful moments. Very few people are aware that it can be cold in Africa, for example, you can go skiing near Marrakech, where the last wild Atlas lions would have died in 1956. 


The second and third questions are closely related and the majority of responses reflects the lack of communication by zoos in the media. This topic infuriates me! You are being lied to. Why? As I wrote in the beginning or this article, the quality of breeding in zoos has evolved considerably over the past two decades. This is both extraordinary and normal. An example: with my brother Thierry, at Cerza (a zoo in Lisieux, Normandy), we wanted to start breeding geladas, monkeys from the highlands in Ethiopa. At the time, there were very few in captivity, breeding was not very successful, there were very few babies, and their life expectancy was short. These monkeys are herbivores like sheep, whilst in zoos they were being given fruit to eat, which is not good for them! These days they are fed normally and live in large meadows in the open air. They can live for thirty years and have lots of (often too many) babies. Another example is the first birth of an Indian Rhinoceros at Cerza, which was a rare and exceptional occurence in a zoo. Moreover, we did recognise it as such. Today, the three species of rhinoceros kept in captivity reproduce on a regular basis and this is normal - it's our job!  I could cite many other examples: gorillas, red pandas, okapi, Brazilian and even Malayan tapirs, small South American monkeys such as lion tamarins, and many others which reproduce regularly in zoos around the world, as well as giant pandas, which breed regularly in China!


Here I should mention four important criteria.
• There are no more zoos being opened in Europe, or only a few.
• Most zoos, whether public or private, are expanding their animals' enclosures to improve their living conditions. This is obviously very commendable - small cages have always been criticised, and I completely agree with this! But as a consequence, the extra space is taken from adjoining enclosures, so there are fewer enclosures, so fewer opportunities for placing animals in other zoos.
• Zoo veterinary was a relatively new profession thirty years ago. Only Marie-Claude Bomsel at the National Museum of Natural History, François Hugues at Saint-Vrain Animal Park, and Thierry Petit, who started at La Palmyre zoo, were doing their best. Today, many zoos have a salaried veterinary. They have access to an international computer data base, and zoo veterinaries are grouped in associations such as the AFDPZ in France. The skill is there; they extend the life of our residents and reduce mortality. 
• Keepers are increasingly competent, aided by three training institutes and often working in colloboration with scientists.


So, you may be asking yourselves what is my point?


Today, zoos face a major problem: There are too many births! 

In any case, much more than what is needed to maintain captive populations, and with fewer places to keep them, as seen above.

I regularly hear the following question: "But why do you not release them into the wild?" 

I would like to do so - it would be the aim of our profession, but where? "In Africa or Asia. There's enough room." is the most common reply. This shows ignorance about these continents. Nobody wants to share their territory any more. Even less so their forests. And when the local populations are poor and any natural space where reintroduction would be possible is their only food supply, what can we do? I reply "We, who are so clever and like giving lessons to others, kill our own bears and wolves with the agreement of our leaders, who allow the slaughter of protected species here in France!"

The reintroduction of animals is almost impossible on a large scale, especially for large carnivorous preditors at the top of the food chain. So we, in zoos, what do we do? Well, we set up breeding programmes which are in fact more birth control programmes than anything else. We insert contraceptive implants and separate males and females during the mating period. And all of this because most zoos have become knowledgeable and know how to breed their residents. 


Extraordinary. Too many babies because of expertise. What's the big lie then? 


Births in zoos are nothing exceptional, and yet in the media we regularly hear this untruth, because a beautiful birth is the only way for zoos to catch the interest of the media, and some colleagues make the most of it. To comply with breeding programmes, some of the couples here in the Parc des Félins are put on birth control and then we hear about an 'exceptional birth' among the same species in another zoo. Sometimes this is annoying! And in my opinion it is a big mistake.


For decades, the majority of zoos have not been buying animals from the wild and no longer participate in the "great massacre". Animals kept in zoos are rigorously recorded in official records which are regularly checked. I am course in favour of this, and you can see in the Parc des Félins that each animal and its origin is noted on a sign on their enclosure. Zoos have gone from the bad side to good in a few decades, and today bring in additional revenues which are very important for the protection of animals in their natural habitat. It really is very satisfying to be able to answer this second question. 

To conclude, and in reponse to question 3, you should know that there is virtually no relationship between the well-being of animals in captivity and births! As proof, lion cubs are often born in circuses or in small, sordid cages. For animals, reproduction is primarily a survival instinct, an unconscious way of staying alive, to secure the future of the species. I have often discussed the subject with colleagues and my brother Thierry, member of the AFDPZ, which includes most of the largest zoos in France.


When zoos start to communicate about their qualities, the important work they do each day, the aid they provide to in-situ programmes, their research projects, their mission as a public service, their economic impact, etc.


For me, it will be a great victory.


Patrick Jardin