Animal rights organization calls phasing out zoos and conserving more wilderness instead
Lots of the “cute” things animals do in the zoo – like elephants “dancing” or bears walking around in circles – are actually signs they are losing their minds. It’s called “zoochosis.”
When wild animals are locked in spaces much smaller than and different from their natural habitats they become bored, frustrated, lonely and desperate, and their compulsive, repetitive behaviors are an attempt to cope.
The term “zoochosis” coined in 1992 by Bill Travers, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation – a wildlife conservation organization. Through its program Zoo Check, Born Free acts as a watchdog for zoo-animal rights and attempts to influence public opinion away from keeping wild animals in captivity in favor of protecting their natural habitats.
The foundation’s website lists several abnormal and unnatural behaviors observed in zoo animals, which are not found in the wild, and which serve no apparent function or purpose. Examples include:
Pacing and Circling:
Licking walls and Biting bars:
Head Bobbing, Weaving and Swaying:
Overgrooming and Self-Mutilation:
Vomitting and Regurgitating (A form of bulimia, possibly due to an unnatural diet):
Playing with and Eating Feces:
These behaviors are not found in the wild. The foundation refers to animals exhibiting these behaviors as “zoochotic.”
Other forms of “zoochotic” behaviors the foundation lists are:
Apathy – where an animal is abnormally passive and does not react to stimuli. Occurs particularly when social animals are separated from companions.
Abnormal mother-infant relationship – where mothers attack, abandon or kill their offspring, or where mothers wean offspring too soon or too late.
Prolonged infantile behavior – excessive crying or vocalization, lack of social confidence, lack of secondary sexual characteristics.
Abnormal aggressive behavior – This can be the result of overcrowding, threats by social dominants, isolation from companions or pressure from zoo visitors.
In the past experts have theorized that the obsessive, repetitive behaviors were a way for the animals to release stagnant energy accumulated from being cooped up rather than running around chasing and killing prey.
“The animal evolved to perform those behaviors, so those behaviors still have to be performed,” behavioral neuroscientist Matthew Parker explains in the short documentary film Zoochosis. “So the animal has all this energy it has to displace in another way.”
“My theory is that it results from brain dysfunction that is a result of stress,” Parker said.
The film argues that while some zoos do a decent job of creating artificial “enrichment programs” to improve the animals’ quality of life, even the best zoo can never recreate their natural habitat.
“There just might be some species we should not keep in captivity, and the polar bear might be one of them,” said Geoff Hossey, honorary professor of zoology at Bolton University.
The typical zoo enclosure for a polar bear is about one-millionth the size of it’s natural home range, Hossey said.
Lions and elephants are two other animals the documentary argues should definitely not be in zoos. These large mammals spend around half of their days engaged in “stereotypic” or “zoochotic” behaviors when held in captivity.
The Origins and Future of Zoos
“Zoos have their origins in the ancient menageries of kings and emperors, but ‘modern’ zoos evolved in the 19th Century,” it says on the Born Free Foundation’s website. At that time wild animals caught on safari were given to wealthy friends as gifts, and kept on display as a status symbol. Confined to small, barren cages, little thought was given to their physical, social or psychological needs.
“We’ve seen a massive change in zoos in he last 30 years,” zookeeper Aaron Whitnall – whose family owns several zoos – says in the film.
The changes are mainly due to pressure from animal welfare organizations, changing public attitudes and updated zoo regulations have, according to Born Free.
“Every keeper in the world will admit, if we didn’t need zoos we wouldn’t have them,” Whitnall said. “We don’t necessarily want to see these animals in captivity. It’s just there isn’t a wild anymore.”
Whitnall said the public mindset is that “the wild” is still a massive area that no one encroaches on, but thanks to an ever increasing human population, that is not the case.
“Rhinos are under 24-hour surveillance wherever they are,” Whitnall said. “A lot of [wild] places are now fenced in. A lot of these animals have bodyguards. That isn’t wild … That’s what zoos need to open the public eyes about more in the coming years – that we’re kind of too late, in a way, to save the natural world.”
Whitnall said seeing an animal in captivity can “look horrible” to a lot of people, so zoos become “easy targets” for people, whom he says should be more concerned about the animals’ ever-shrinking natural habitats.
It is often argued that many of the world’s 10,000 zoos – which host 175 million visitors a year – are playing an important role in educating the public about wildlife conservation, as well as sending portions of their ticket sales to the cause. But the Born Free Foundation argues there are better ways:
“Increasingly, zoos have tried to re-position themselves as centers of conservation and education. The Born Free Foundation believes that the conservation benefits claimed by zoos do not justify the keeping of wild animals in captivity, and challenges the effectiveness of captivity-based conservation and education.”
The documentary suggests parents and schools use virtual zoos and animal documentaries to educate children about endangered animals species.
“We can learn as much about lions by studying them in their captivity as we can about men by studying them in their prison cells,” said Virginia McKenna, founder of the Born Free Foundation.