Sanctuaries or Animal Jails? ; Few Zoos Get It Right, Many Are Unbearable

By Valigra, Lori | The Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sanctuaries or Animal Jails? ; Few Zoos Get It Right, Many Are Unbearable


Valigra, Lori, The Christian Science Monitor


Jumbo may have been one of the most revered, and largest, elephants ever seen in captivity, but the animal star, who lived in the mid-1800s, endured a lifetime of hardship: He was sold to various institutions, nearly starved to death, and, finally, killed by a runaway freight train.

Even when he was treated comparatively well, at the London Zoo, for example, his keepers didn't seem to understand his dietary or health needs. The giant pachyderm's daily diet included 200 pounds of hay, two bushels of oats, one bushel of sweet biscuits, 15 loaves of bread, three quarts of onions, and occasional buckets of apples and nuts. But it also included buckets of cakes and candies, and even hefty swigs of whiskey.

The unnatural diet, devoid of the roughage of bark and roots that elephants usually eat to wear down their teeth, likely caused Jumbo to suffer from impacted molars, a fact discovered only 100 years after the elephant's death by examining his remains.

When he was alive, the painful molars likely prompted Jumbo's apparent fits of madness, which ultimately led to his sale to American circus ringmaster Phineas T. Barnum.

Jumbo is one example that David Hancocks uses to describe the paradox of zoos, which many times end up being small, dirty jails for the very animals they intend to protect.

Hancocks, a 30-year veteran of designing and directing zoos and current director of Victoria's Open Range Zoo in Australia, opposes the rank conditions and poor standards that remain today in many zoos. But he manages to balance his writing with ample examples of zoos that do things right.

One example is the Bronx Zoo in New York city, which integrates natural habitat exhibits with worldwide conservation programs to both educate the public and preserve the animals. Another is the Woodland Zoo in Seattle, which constructed a gorilla area with trees to climb, places to hide, and a complex landscape with ample vegetation to explore. The result is a habitat that relieves the boredom that sometimes gives rise to aggressive behavior.

While wild animals - the more exotic the better - have entranced humans for thousands of years, mankind has been largely insensitive to their needs, from food to living quarters that provide diversions to keep their minds keen.

Hancocks traces the origins of zoos from the Sumerians, who started the first zoos 4,300 years ago, through the Romans, who butchered thousands of animals for their own amusement. …

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