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?