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Free caged minds and stop building more zoos

Instead of building more zoos, we should focus on improving sub-standard establishments to ensure that they meet the necessary standards of housing, husbandry, welfare and health for the animals.

Mohideen Abdul Kader
3 minute read

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) would like to voice its concerns over a new zoo being built on a 20.2-hectare plot of land in Iskandar Puteri, Johor.

The objective of having a zoo is generally as a crowd puller. The idea of zoos as tourist attractions should be discarded as many of these animal establishments are totally ignorant about the proper care of wildlife, leaving the animals to suffer immensely. Also in question is the frequency of visitors to new zoos.

Contrary to the belief that zoos attract tourists, newly established zoos attract more than 80% of their visitors from within their surrounding community, and more than half are people who make frequent return visits. Those return visitors stop coming over time,  resulting in poor gate collections, and the zoo conditions deteriorate further.

In reality, most people only spend a few seconds at each display, waiting for the animals to do something “exciting”. They gain little, if any, true understanding of the animals.

Despite their professed concern for animals, zoos can more accurately be described as “collectors” of interesting animals than actual havens or homes. Zoos pride themselves on their collection of exotic species without any thought for space, which is often inadequate. Even under the best of circumstances at the best of zoos, captivity cannot begin to replicate the habitat of wild animals.

Politicians and proponents of zoos should not view zoos as places to amuse and entertain but rather address the question of whether or not zoos should exist, and if their existence would serve any purpose.

The point that needs to be emphasised is that in zoos and all zoological establishments like mini zoos, snake parks, aviaries, snake farms and butterfly parks, animal welfare standards are hardly met, often drawing public criticism. Zoos are built mainly for the convenience of visitors rather than for the comfort of the animals.

Placing an animal in an environment not suited for the species can cause stress and behavioural problems. Captive animals in zoos have been observed to suffer from zoochosis syndrome due to their removal from their natural habitat, frustration, boredom, lack of life in normal social groups and other stereotypic behaviours. CAP believes that wildlife should not be kept at all if their needs cannot be met.

Zoos are not breeding animals with the intent of replenishing threatened populations.  Babies are a crowd puller, bringing visitors through the gates. Yet they are also what zoos deem as "surplus animals". When questioned about what zoos do with their "surplus", the answer is always the same: "Exchange with other zoos."

This is highly questionable as many among the zoo fraternity have similar wildlife species. So do surplus animals really end up in our local zoos or are they exchanged with other worse zoos abroad? As a matter of fact, captive breeding gives the public a false sense of security about a species’ survival.

For wildlife to survive, the zoo community must shift its focus from keeping and breeding animals behind bars to directing attention to the root causes of why wildlife worldwide is in peril: habitat destruction, poaching, and the exotic animal trade. So long as there is no conservation of wildlife in the wild, captive breeding will not make any difference.   

Serious conservation efforts begin with humans' commitment to stop encroaching on wildlife habitats and collecting charismatic megafauna to be put behind bars as living trophies.

All too often, MPs, state excos and elected representatives seem fixated on the idea that these animal facilities in districts and small towns are the only form of major tourist draw. Such establishments run either by the municipal council, district council, state government or private operators reveal many bird and animal exhibits in cramped and barren enclosures where inhabitants are often exploited to perform tricks or used for photography sessions.

There are over 14 zoos and 20 permanent wildlife exhibition centres in Peninsular Malaysia and another one coming up – enough is enough!

Malaysia needs to stop building more zoos. Instead, we should focus on improving sub-standard zoos to ensure that they meet the exacting standards of housing, husbandry, welfare and health for all of their captive inmates.

Mohideen Abdul Kader is president of the Consumers Association of Penang.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.