Getting the show off the road

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2007:
Dancing bears, monkey acts, and big
cats leaping through hoops of fire are almost
history now in India, where such acts appear to
have started in Vedic times, spreading
throughout the world.
Some dancing bears, monkeys, and circus
lions, tigers, and leopards are still on the
back roads, or are stashed in sheds by
exhibitors who imagine that the Wild Life
Protection Act of 1972 might be repealed or
amended, but for most the show is over.
The Supreme Court of India turned out the
lights on May 1, 2001. Six years later, the
significance of the Supreme Court ruling against
traveling animal shows is just becoming evident,
as the possible foundation of a paradigm shift in
Indian and perhaps global attitudes toward
keeping wildlife in captivity.

More than 280 lions, 40 tigers, and
scores of aging ex-performing bears are living
out their lives at Central Zoo
Authority-accredited Animal Rescue Centres near
Agra, Bangalore, Bhopal, Chennai, Jaipur,
Tirupati, and Visakhapatnam. Other are being
The lions, tigers, and bears at the
rescue centers are the last captive generation of
their kind. None have been legally bred in six
years. Because no more big cats and bears are to
be bred for show or sale, the pretense of
captive breeding can no longer be used as legal
cover for taking more from the wild.
Capturing bears, monkeys, lions, and
tigers for exhibition was outlawed in India by
the Wild Life Protection Act 1972. Before 2001,
however, the law was often circumvented by
poachers who killed mothers, stole babies, and
sold the babies to exhibitors as captive-born.
There is still a small market for
captured baby bears and big cats to be smuggled
abroad, or to be kept as illegal pets, and
there is biomedical research demand for rhesus
macaques, but exhibiting animals for
entertainment requires visibility. Some
exhibitors still take the chance of acquiring and
exhibiting a bear illegally taken from the wild,
but in much of India, to visibly possess bears,
big cats, or monkeys is now to court arrest and
confiscation–unless one happens to be a
biomedical researcher.
Someone in every crowd has a cell
telephone camera. Every Internet café offers the
opportunity to electronically transmit evidence
to law enforcement agencies-and to People for
Animals, the largest Indian animal rights group,
or to PETA-India, the largest PETA overseas
subsidiary, or to local animal advocacy groups.
Helping to encourage intervention on
behalf of captive wildlife are hundreds of school
animal rights clubs, encouraged by local
chapters of PfA. Several thousand school
children in each major city have been taught to
be vigilant against animal abuse, including
traveling animal acts, for whom children are the
primary audience.
With the cities becoming dangerous venues
for illegal exhibitors, only those who work the
most remote rural areas have much chance to stay
in business, moving from village to village,
hoping to bluff down anyone who asks questions
with the pretense of having government permits
that do not exist.
The Kalandar circus clan, whose seasonal
wanderings with bears and other animals named the
wall calendar, are beginning to taking up other
employment, after centuries on the road.
For the Central Zoo Authority, keeping
ex-performing animals at accredited Animal Rescue
Centres is–depending on which members
speak–either the beginning of a transition of
mission, or a distraction from promoting species
conservation, in the global mode of the past
several decades.
The contradiction between operating
mostly off-exhibit hospices for ex-performing
animals and promoting captive breeding to attract
paying audiences is causing Indian zoo management
to reconsider and debate what their roles should
be in the 21st century.
While American and European zoos have
mostly rejected animal advocates’ hope that they
should evolve into sanctuaries, the Animal
Rescue Centres are sanctuaries. Though mostly
not open to the public, they are among the
best-known and most praised zoo projects in India.
Ahead is the question of what the Animal
Rescue Centres should evolve into, after
facilities built to serve for decades outlive
their first animal inhabitants.
Should they become off-exhibit
conservation breeding facilities? Adjuncts to
the existing zoos? Or should they continue in an
expanded sanctuary role?
The rising discussion in India challenges
an appearance of consensus reached among the
international zoo community after the United
Nations-brokered Convention on International
Trade In Endangered Species in 1973 officially
ended worldwide the so-called “Bring ’em back
alive!” era of wildlife capture for exhibition.
More than half of all the animals who
were captured to be brought back alive did not
survive capture and transport, putting the
survival of many rare species in jeopardy.
To counter growing public recognition
that capture for exhibition was a major cause of
species endangerment, and to avoid the risk of
U.S. zoos running out of crowd-pleasing species,
the American Zoo Association advanced the notion
of zoos becoming conservation breeding
As this idea gained popularity,
international zoo associations jumped on the
bandwagon, even though conservation breeding in
zoos was then mostly just a hope. Only one
species, the North American bison, had ever
been restored to the wild from zoo stock.
The AZA created Species Survival Plans
for many of the rarest animals in captivity,
consisting of stud books and breeding exchange
agreements. Zoo publicists encouraged the idea
that some descendents of animals in the Species
Survival Plans might eventually be re-introduced
to the wild, to replenish extirpated populations.
Some species have been reintroduced using
zoo specimens, notably the blackfooted ferret,
Mexican grey wolf, red wolf, California condor,
and golden lion tamarin. (The North American
grey wolf, taken off the federal endangered
species list in March 2007, was reintroduced
using wild-trapped animals.)
Mostly, though, the Species Survival
Plans have been means of perpetuating captive
populations of animals who cannot be replaced
from the wild–except under hard-to-get
conservation research permits. These have been
most prominently used to import panda bears from
China through breeding loans that have paid China
up to a million dollars a year per bear couple,
while producing very few offspring born outside
of China.
Captive breeding as a conservation
strategy is still a shaky concept. Both Asian
and African elephants, for example, are in
steep decline in captivity because zoos have not
managed to curb infant mortality. Captive-reared
animals of many species turn out to lack
parenting skills and any semblance of ability to
fend for themselves in the wild.
Conservation breeding still resonates as
a raison d’etre with the public, but while
touting the few successes, U.S. and European
zoos have gradually shifted the emphasis of their
conservation programs–beyond public
education–to field work.
The prevailing current concept among
zoological conservationists is that zoo animals
are ambassadors for their wild kin, helping to
raise funds to study wild populations and
preserve wild habitat.
But the amount of money actually raised
for field work is small compared to the cost of
operating a zoo.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, by
far the largest zoological contributor to
overseas programs, in 2005 spent about $95
million to run the four New York City zoos and
the New York Aquarium, allocating $48.5 million
to field work: 34%. Conservation International,
funding similar work, raised and spent nearly
twice as much without running a zoo.
Spot-checking major zoos’ IRS Form 990
filings, ANIMAL PEOPLE found no others spending
even half as large a percentage of budget on
external projects as the Wildlife Conservation


Indian zoos rhetorically embraced the
species survival breeding concept without quite
understanding it. Unable to induce many
genuinely endangered indigenous species to breed
in dreary steel-and-cement cages that often date
back to British rule, and typically working
independently of international Species Survival
Plan protocols, some Indian zoos prolifically
produced hybrid animals whose births brought
headlines, yet no authentic conservation value.
The Chhatbir Zoo in Chandigar, for
example, bred more than 80 African/Asian lion
hybrids. After the offspring of the original
pairings mostly failed to thrive, and more than
30 died in 1999 and 2000, the program ended with
the sterilization of all the males. As of
September 2006 there were 21 survivors still at
the zoo.
The Delhi Zoo specialized in producing
albinos of a wide range of species, much to the
frustration of People for Animals founder Maneka
But at least one bizarre breeding
experiment was stopped early by the Central Zoo
Authority. Circa 1989 the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai
acquired a “hobra,” a male hybrid of a horse and
a zebra bred by a circus. After the CZA ordered
that hybrid animals could no longer be exhibited,
the hobra lived for 16 years in a 30-foot-long
enclosure at the zoo hospital. He died at age 24
in August 2005, thwarting a two-year PETA
campaign to have him sent to a sanctuary.
Indian zoos still have a minimal role in
authentic Species Survival Plans. Most still
fall well short of international standards–but
the Central Zoo Authority has tried to encourage
improvement. The CZA hoped that closing the
notoriously deficient Pratep Sinhav Udyan Zoo in
Sangli in 2005 would send a message to other bad
zoos to shape up.
But the Central Zoo Authority has limited
ability to close zoos, no matter how bad they
are. The fundamental problem is that closing a
zoo requires having somewhere else to send the
Better zoos usually lack the space to
take in more animals, especially those of large
and abundant species. The American Zoo
Association and European Zoo Association model
for zoo self-improvement begins with reducing
collections, so as to provide better conditions
for the remaining animals. But contrary to
American and European advice, acceding to public
expectations, Indian zoos do often try to accept
all animals in need.
At the Delhi Zoo, for instance, Bindu
Shajan Perappadan of The Hindu reported in May
2006, 30 of the 134 resident species were
represented by more than 150 rescue cases,
including six sloth bears, two leopards, and
three elephants.
“The Delhi Zoo has been taking in rescued
animals, including monkeys, donkeys,
elephants, reptiles, and birds, all year
round,” director D.N. Singh said. “These
animals cannot be kept with the other inhabitants
due to the fear of them transmitting infections
or causing fights, though some rescued animals
have been exhibited after a quarantine.”
Singh complained to The Hindu, he said,
after being “burdened with responsibility for an
elephant,” rescued by People for Animals, who
“was being regularly beaten by the mahout with an
iron spike. The elephant was found in a
malnourished state, dehydrated,” with foot
injuries and osteoporosis, “which makes her
unsuitable for display. We are not a rescue
center,” Singh emphasized.
Responded Central Zoo Authority member
secretary B.R. Sharma, “While evaluating the
Delhi Zoo, it was observed that it was being
used as a rescue centre despite not having
adequate space. We have written to all the
states,” Sharma said, “informing them that in
case they are short of funds for setting up [an
official Animal Rescue Centre], CZA would
support them with 100% funding, so that there is
no pressure on the zoos to keep rescued animals.”
The availability of funding for Animal
Rescue Centres of course gives zoos a strong
incentive to become more seriously and
deliberately involved–like the Birsa Munda
Zoological Park near Ranchi in Jharkhand.
The Birsa Munda Zoo was already
considering adding an Animal Rescue Centre,
reported the Indo-Asian News Service, but “The
project picked up momentum [in August 2006] after
six big cats were shifted to Visakhapatnam,” by
order of the Central Zoo Authority, “following
the death of six others due to disease.”
The disease was babeosis, a tick-borne
infection similar to Lyme disease, borealosis,
ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
These diseases notoriously produce symptoms that
masquerade as more familiar conditions.
“All of our animals are healthy,”
insisted Birsa Munda Zoo veterinary director
Dinesh Kumar, to Telegraph of India writer Arti
Sahuliyar. “It is only the rescued animals
brought from outside who carry diseases,” said
Allowed Sahuliyar, “The officials here
really have no reason to rejoice when rescued
animals are brought. With no adequate
facilities available for their treatment, the
zoo is more like a dumping space than the
protective shelter it should be. Home already to
about 500 mammals and 300 birds, the zoo is
hardly in a position to look after them. The
animal hospital has doctors and caretakers, but
no permanent compound, lab technicians,
pathologists, equipment, or X-ray facilities.”
Birsa Munda Zoo director Deepak Singh
told Sahuliyar that the zoo was short 41 staff
positions. “We are trying to make a quarantine
ward so that rescued animals, brought from
outside, can be kept there and not be mixed with
the herd here,” Singh said.

Future roles

The need for Animal Rescue Centres is big
enough that expanding the rescue network could
become the focal job of the Central Zoo
Authority, and the star role of the leading
members, as it already is for some, including
the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in
Visakhapatnam, one of the few Indian zoos which
can claim global stature.
The possibility that zoos might refocus
on rescue inspires animal advocates but dismays
zoo directors, many of whom have hoped to
emulate western zoo management.
As the former circus animals now
populating Animal Rescue Centres die, more
animals from substandard zoos might take their
places. This too is a controversial idea, as
many zoo directors would prefer to avoid
inheriting other zoos’ problems, and have
misgivings about seemingly participating in
cannibalizing colleagues.
Underlying the management level anxiety
is that for more than 30 years, professional
stature in the zoo community has centered on
managing successful breeding programs. The rarer
the species whom a zoo induces to breed, the
higher the prestige of the zoo. First-tier zoos
produce Species Survival Plan offspring; others
exhibit their genetically redundant surplus.
To focus on housing older animals from
closed circuses and bad zoos would be to gain the
opportunity to lead the zoological world in
developing knowledge about geriatric wildlife
care, but elder care–though increasingly
recognized as necessary in western zoos–does not
attract media attention to nearly the extent as
does holding cute babies.
Even after there are neither former
circus animals nor former zoo animals left to
house, the Animal Rescue Centres may still have
a role, taking in big cats and other wild
animals who come into conflict with humans and
livestock–as many Indian zoos already do, if
the animals are captured alive.
Recently the public and political demand
for facilities to house problem wildlife has
expanded to include street-dwelling rhesus
macaques, who resist relocation to rural areas
by returning to cities, and rogue elephants,
amid exposés of cruelty at the “elephant camps”
run by state forestry departments.
Originally built to house working logging
elephants, the elephant camps now hold several
hundred permanently out-of-work elephants. Many
were addicted to alcohol by their former mahouts,
as a reward to keep them working. Some were at
least once returned to the wild, but failed to
re-adapt, after long captivity.
Most of the present Animal Rescue Centres
were built to house predators. If monkeys and
elephants are added, new facilities will have to
be constructed.
Relocating rogue wildlife to the Animal Rescue
Centres appears to be politically popular, since
it would take the onus off of public officials
for killing rare animals.
In theory, zoos managing Animal Rescue
Centres could combine the new job of housing
dangerous wildlife with their declared mission of
captive breeding, hoping to eventually replenish
wild populations in protected habitat. Tigers,
for example, could be reintroduced to the
renowned Sariska tiger reserve, from which they
were poached out in 2003, if Sariska can be
restored to a viable size, prey base, and
level of security.
Yet there is so little chance of
reintroducing any species now kept at Animal
Rescue Centers, against against strong local
political opposition to reintroduction of
predators, that the centers would probably
remain care-for-life sanctuaries, whether or not
they fully accept the role.
Further, some conservationists worry
that if politicians get the idea that all
dangerous wildlife can go to Animal Rescue
Centres, encroachment into protected habitat
will accelerate, until the centers become as
overcrowded as the zoos whose capacity they are
augmenting, and all reserves go the way of
But some animals are being released from
Animal Rescue Centres, including nearly 100
sambar and spotted deer, 800 star tortoises,
and numerous birds who have been rehabilitated by
the Animal Rescue Centre at Kodanad, in Kerala
state. This rescue center, however, is
operated by a state forestry department mini-zoo,
not a full-scale zoo–and the deer were born on
the premises, from a handful of ancestors who
were fenced in to attract visitors more than 20
years ago.
The Supreme Court of India ruling of May
1, 2001 only freed tigers, lions, leopards,
monkeys and bears from performing and traveling
with Indian circuses.
Effecting a paradigm shift in the roles
of zoos and perhaps in Indian wildlife
conservation policy was scarcely envisioned in
reportage at the time–except by People for
Animals founder Maneka Gandhi. Then Indian
federal minister for animal welfare, Mrs. Gandhi
has long recommended that zoos should exist only
as sanctuaries and educational institutions.
As a newspaper columnist before entering
politics, more than 20 years ago, observing
zoos rushing to embrace conservation breeding as
their purported central purpose, Mrs. Gandhi
predicted that captive breeding would probably
only perpetuate the practice of producing cute
babies for exhibit, doing nothing to rejuvenate
wild populations.
Within India, she was right. Not one Indian
species has been reintroduced from zoo stock.
Ruling in Mrs. Gandhi’s favor, the
Supreme Court dismissed a decade of litigation by
the Indian Circus Federation, and upheld a 1991
order that the tigers, lions, leopards,
monkeys, and bears in their possession must be
retired, issued by Mrs. Gandhi when she was
minister of forests.
Mrs. Gandhi suggested that taking in the former
circus animals would be part of reforming the
mission and operation of zoos, in part by
increasing the obligation of the national
government to assist the work she saw as zoos’
legitimate role.
Mrs. Gandhi personally directed only the
first part of the federal response to the Supreme
Court ruling, while being rapidly
transferred–with the animal welfare
ministry–through several different cabinet
posts. A bizarre coalition of science and
superstition, representing both biomedical
researchers and practitioners of animal
sacrifice, ousted her from the cabinet and
stripped her of the animal welfare ministry in
But by then the aftermath of the Supreme
Court ruling had gained independent momentum.

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