Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Does Your Local Zoo Have a Dirty Little Secret?

One of the big stories in the news today is that a depressed and distressed owner of a private zoo in Ohio opened up all the cages to release his bears, lions, tigers, wolves, and other animals on the public.... just before he shot himself in the head.

The call is already going out to ban all private zoos and only salute the public ones.

Not said: much of the stock in those private zoos can be traced back to the breeding and dumping of animals by public zoos and semi-public places like Busch Gardens.

As I noted in a post a few years ago:

Zoos routinely over-breed animals because tiger cubs and baby zebras boost attendance and generate profits. Cute baby animals quickly grow up, however, and that's a problem. It turns out that the world has more caged lions, tigers and zebras than it knows what to do with.

Now to be clear, zoos do not trumpet their actions and their economics. Instead, they trumpet the fact that they have a Species Survival Plan (SSP) which calls for sophisticated program of maintaining "valuable gene pools" so that endangered species "may be preserved for future generations through captive breeding."

O.K. True enough, as far as that goes. But every "Species Survival Plan" produces surplus animals. What happens to them?

Some of these undiscussed animals are moved to other public zoos, but some are sold off to private zoos where they may end up in backyard menageries or even canned hunts after passing through the hands of third-party dealers later on.

This is the dirty little secret of the zoo business, and it's not just a phenomenon of the private zoos, but the public ones too.

To be fair, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is now working hard to stop over breeding of zoo animals and the sale of excess animals to such venues as circuses. But this push is pretty new. Most of the backyard tigers, lions and Great Apes we have in America today are just one or two generations removed from commercial zoo and circus stock.

There's another problem with getting rid of private zoos in America: they hold a hell of a lot of animals representing a fair amount of genetic diversity. As this article notes:

More than 8,000 tigers live in the U.S., far more than live in the wild globally. Of the 8,000, only a few hundred live in accredited zoos. The rest live in backyards.

So, to put a point on it, getting rid of backyard tigers, in the absence of thousands of more zoos in the United States and around the world, is to green light the killing of more tigers in America than exist in the wild in all the rest of the world.

Are we ready to salute that?  Why? 

Some claim that many of the exotics in private hands are not "pure" subspecies of one type or another, and so they have no value and should be euthanized.

But why is one tiger that has 10% Sumatran blood running through it deemed to be worthless, while another tiger with a "pure" gene stock (cough, cough) is deemed to be priceless? Whiskey, tango, foxtrot. Subspecies are not species, and Mother Nature has no problem with out crosses and diversity, so why are we listening to the people embracing mass-death solutions and forced sterilization for animals that have slightly more diverse pedigrees? Does the Indian tiger with a little Sumatran blood kill a Sambar any differently than a 100% pure-blood animal? If the tigers are not finicky about patrolling their gene pool, and the Sambar are pretty certain it is all the same, and the offspring are all fertile, then isn't this all "theory trumping reality?"

And what about those public zoos? Are they really running picture perfect shops as far as animal welfare?

Nope, not a chance.

Nor are all the private zoos horror shows. Many have caring owners and some have very decent set ups. The notion that taxpayer-funded always equals "good," while privately-funded always equals "bad" is simply not true in the world of animals.

So what's the solution?  

Surely between "shoot them all dead" and "anyone should be able to get one," there is a place for mandatory training, mandatory licensing, mandatory insurance, mandatory inspection, and mandatory cash bonds with some animals still being held in private hands?

The good news is that this seems to be the direction that the world is going.

Will there be a long period of transition until we get there?

Sure.  Elephants live a long time, and so too do many of the big cats and large ungulates.

The transition will not be smooth, and a lot of private menagerie owners and zoo keepers are going to bitch and moan about the cost and the regulation.  I am OK with that

But should we ban all private ownership of all exotics and rush 8,000 tigers to their death prematurely because of this sad case in Ohio?  

Is the proper response to this tragedy to compound senseless death with more senseless death?



seeker said...

I was horrified to hear of this tragedy in Ohio. I know I'm a softy and the danger etc. but the fear those animals suffered while being hunted down must have been overwhelming. I hope the Mountain Lion at least makes it to a safe place. Yes, they were dangerous to the civilian population, but they were raised by humans and didn't know the rules of the game. This is my main problem with people owning large predators, they are not responsible enough in the day to day care giving. Most people are unable to properly care for PitBulls or Rottweilers, much less lions, tigers and bears oh my.

As for the purity of a sub-species, I'm sick to death of the elitist geniuses who forget that the first thing Mother Nature wants to do is outcross. I'll take a Mustang over a Thoroughbred any day of the week. Genetic purity is a joke and we ever get past that, we'd be a better place to raise our children.

Debi and the TX Predators.

Viatecio said...

Very well-written.

I too am especially concerned about the knee-jerk reaction that will happen in the legislature as a result of this. The person who has kept a boa constrictor will once again be in the limelight because of the guy who kept some big cats, and everyone who owns a non-typical animal (other than a cat, dog, horse or livestock) will be painted with the same little-kid "Let's make as much mess as possible with as little effort" brush. I know a woman up where I used to live who kept skunks and raccoons as pets, and have kept them successfully for many years. It concerns me that responsible people like her will be swept up in the tide of exotics laws that will come.

Not to say that I'm against lisencing, inspection, insurance, etc etc either, but it needs to be uniformly and done right. Remember, puppy mills are "inspected" by the USDA, and we saw the results of those inspections. Not pretty.

As an aside, I do not look forward to the release of this movie. Saw the preview for it when I went to see The Lion King 3D, and almost threw my glasses at the screen. Because that's all we need, is another sappy story of "No experience necessary, anyone can do it," complete with Disney-fied animals. "Secretariat" was saccharin enough.

PBurns said...

Oh Lord. I clicked on the link and.... what were they thinking??


Seahorse said...

Seeker, I don't know the details of the mountain lion in the Ohio case, but if it's always been fed by humans I wonder if it is even able to fend for itself? Maybe a bullet was better.

The whole thing is beyond messy, and had the "owner" not killed himself before setting these animals free I'd be inclined to make a trip to strangle his dumb ass myself.

Viatecio, before any new riding student of mine puts the first foot in the stirrup I include in my pre-riding chat, "This is not a Disney movie." It's come to that these days, geez.