A stink was recently raised in the UK media about Knowsley Safari Park near Liverpool having left animal carcasses lying about (in a non-public area) untended for some days. Articles were accompanied by pictures taken last year by a former staff/publicity photographer. Knowsley Council looked into the allegations against the Safari Park in September 2010, and the Merseyside Police investigated use of firearms by the Park. Investigations were concluded satisfactorily according to all parties involved as reported in the Liverpool Daily Post.
Other reports were more accusatory – the Daily Mail quotes the photographer as saying that such carcasses resulted from “culling” of excess animals rather than having to be put down as a result of injury or ill health and that animals were used for target practice by untrained staff. The Park denies the culling, mentions that it "endeavours" to place surplus animals in other institutions, and accuses the photographer of staging the photographs.
But all of this is not really to the point – there is a much bigger issue that was not addressed, and it has to do with surplus animals generated by zoos and safari parks.
The Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS), for example, estimates a surplus of 7,500 animals at any one time, and suggest that culls do take place. There are just not enough zoos to absorb all this excess they themselves create. And this is where the zoos need to look inward – if there already exists a surplus, why keep breeding more animals?
For sure, zoos need to ensure they maintain their collections, and it could be argued that a limited amount of breeding is necessary to ensure a pool of replacements as older or sick animals die. But zoos go well beyond such basic requirements, and perhaps the biggest reason they do so is because of the very high demand from the public to see baby animals.
Besides media reports of animal abuse, what gets a zoo in the headlines? The birth of a baby tiger, elephant or giraffe? You bet it does. At Knowsley, two baby white rhinos have already been born and a third is imminent, to which the director said "And if another calf is born successfully over the next couple of months the three big babies will be a fantastic attraction for visitors in what is our 40th anniversary year."
So the public want to see baby animals and the zoos need to provide them. The problem with this supply and demand is that the animals grow up and the zoos are stuck with the not so baby animals anymore. Remember Knut the polar bear in the Berlin Zoo (above)? He was worth 5 million Euros in extra income when small, and attendance figures were the best in the zoo’s 160+ year history. Knut is now big and not cuddly, and one wonders where he will be “placed” to make room for the next baby white bear in the breeding cycle.
Zoos are struggling. They are expensive to maintain, and the number of zoo-goers is waning. Zoos also have to compete with each other for attendance. Zoos are businesses and in case of the large ones, corporations. They employ tens or scores or hundreds of people. Safari parks and zoos have often been asked – to what extent are you fulfilling a conservation function rather than an entertainment role? That is to some extent up to the boards of directors to answer but in large part also up to the investors.
So the real question is this. Are zoos and safari parks independent entities that can run their own business ventures, satisfy their clients according to a business evaluation, and be allowed to exist in a free-market environment? The answer to that is a little bit yes and mostly no. Knowsley and all others are dependent on a licence to operate an animal facility. They are also dependent to some extent from regulation of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA). They also fall under the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). But where are the regulatory bodies and indeed CAPS and Born Free and a host of others when it comes to profit and loss margins, employment, and what sells for the remaining public? Perhaps zoos need to be advised better and criticized less.
To me, the bottom line of the carcass story comes down to the following. If the public want baby animals then they need to accept that zoos will breed animals and end up with a surplus. If BIAZA and EAZA want to maintain the concept of zoos as conservation entities rather than as businesses then they should perhaps become better partners – in their present regulatory function they are pretty much useless. If zoos want to run their organizations as businesses they should be forthright and say so. If the media want to get involved they should engage better journalists to discuss the deeper issues. Who will be first to jump in?
Right now it is too much of a mess and a muddle, and destined to end up as another one of those momentary issues disposed in the convenient bin of short attention spans.
Picture credit Knut: http://jcwinnie.biz/wordpress/?p=2235