BOOKS: Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management, & Welfare

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2010:

Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management, & Welfare
by Geoff Hosey, Vicky Melfi, & Sheila Pankhurst
Oxford University Press (198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016), 2009.
660 pages, paperback. $50.00.

Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Manage-ment, & Welfare pulls
together the sum of current perspectives about what constitutes “best
practice” zookeeping into a single text. Though Zoo Animals might be
used as the basis for a single university-level course, it is
actually an entire curriculum for would-be zookeepers. Each of the
15 chapters could frame a course also including much supplementary
reading–and the recommended texts are listed, included specialized
web sites.


As the subtitle indicates, much of Zoo Animals focuses upon
the need to accommodate and encourage natural animal behavior within
the confines of an artificial environment. In addition to early
chapters specifically addressing animal welfare, almost every
chapter reminds zookeepers of animal welfare issues, including the
perceptions and misperceptions that visitors may develop if either
the conditions for the animals or the need to inform the public about
what they are seeing is neglected.
Several of the first chapters of Zoo Animals review the
evolution of zookeeping. Zoos in the 19th century turned away from
the menagerie style of exhibition, featuring often overtly cruel
popular entertainment, including staged animal fights, toward an
emphasis on scientific study of animals and public education. While
most zoos developed exhibits based on taxonomy, some of the most
progressive moved toward “naturalistic” exhibits presaging the
prevalent style of today.
The latter trend, however, was interrupted by what the
authors call the “Disinfectant Era,” in which an obsession with
maintaining sanitation subsumed all other concerns for most of the
20th century. Both animal welfare and visitor appreciation of zoos
deteriorated.
Ironically, the sterile environments of “Disinfectant Era”
zoos eventually proved detrimental to both the physical and mental
well-being of animals, as well as discouraging visitors from
returning. Animal behavior observed at such zoos turned out to be
atypical of animals in the wild. Captive breeding programs for most
species failed in environments that so poorly suited the animals.
Animals thrived, bred, and repeat attendance grew,
meanwhile, at the earliest semi-naturalistic zoos, even when they
were badly mismanaged.
By the time the rise of the animal rights movement directed
activist attention toward zoos, beginning in the 1970s, many of the
best-respected leaders within the zoo community were already
experimenting with redesign. Animal advocacy pressure helped zoo
directors to raise the funds to rebuild practically everything, to
the point that rebuilding at least one major exhibit per year is now
standard practice at major zoos. Few zoos exist today, at least in
the developed world, which have not been thoroughly reconfigured
within the past several decades.
This has scarcely resolved all animal welfare problems, but
the zoo community had already embarked upon a revolution in
architecture to accommodate animal needs approximately 15 years
before animal shelters began a similar transition in the last years
of the 20th century.
Part of the purpose of redesign was, and is, to keep
animals alive and well longer, and to encourage more successful
captive breeding of rare and endangered species. The 1973 adoption
of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
significantly inhibited the ability of zoos to continuously restock
themselves from the wild. For several decades the pretext of
breeding rare species for eventual reintroduction to the wild also
helped to shield zoos from activist criticism–but much of the zoo
community itself now acknowledges that the “lifeboat” concept of zoo
management is dated. Relatively few species have been successfully
returned to the wild, in part because even if zoo-raised specimens
retained the necessary suite of natural behaviors, their kind have
typically become rare in the wild in the first place because their
habitats have been transformed, and their survival depends upon the
activity of many other species who are also no longer there, or no
longer thriving.
Zoo Animals includes almost as much discussion of the
relevant philosophical questions as of practical zookeeping
procedures, in part because almost everything zookeepers do must be
done with attention to why. Keeping animals healthy and relatively
happy, for example, is not necessarily the same job as keeping them
“wild,” in situations where they have no need to either hunt or
evade predation, and natural reproductive behavior must often be
thwarted to prevent either overpopulation or inbreeding.
Inescapably, the metaphor of zoos as Noah’s Ark carrying
wildlife to eventually repopulate a depleted earth is yielding to the
reality of indefinitely maintaining collections of selected species
whose resemblance to actual wild animals may be mostly in external
appearance. The ark may never land, at least not here on earth.
The exercise might most resemble trying to keep animals alive in
intergalactic spaceflight, taking multiple generations to reach
planets orbiting distant stars.

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