Chris Packham on zoos

The BBC Springwatch presenter shares his thoughts on zoos and their role in conservation.

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A new Warwick University study provides evidence that zoos help us to understand biodiversity and make us more aware of conservation issues. But zoos remain a difficult subject. Perhaps especially so for me, as my partner Charlotte runs one.

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I like ‘meeting’ animals – and recently at Paignton Zoo I had my best day in a long while, engaging with its tamarins, giraffes, zebras and a reluctant male golden pheasant. The excitement was no less vital than in the distant days when my tiny hands reached into the enclosures at Southampton Zoo (long since closed) to get pecked, scratched or bitten by things that otherwise only appeared in black-and-white photos or as poor illustrations in my library books.

Strange, given that the curious young naturalist grew into a man very sensitive to how we treat other species. So was this just a flash of nostalgic, selfish escapism? Unlikely, as the following weekend I got a real thrill from tickling one of Charlotte’s lemurs. It was a thoroughly mutual exchange – the lemur is a bit ‘nippy’ and his fortune was favoured by my brave fingers.

I’ve seen wild lemurs, but this purring prosimian pressing his fluffy armpit into my palm was a powerful moment. Because I touched him, smelled him, nearly got bitten by him. I liked him as an individual – ultimately, I ‘felt’ him.

Yet just a couple of years ago I similarly connected with a dolphin in a US aquarium, and was jolted not with joy but with a profound sadness and lingering sense of shame. The sentient, remarkable creature was incarcerated in a sterile pool where it performed circus tricks, and the ‘show’ failed to even mention wild dolphins, let alone their plight at Japan’s Taiji cove. It haunts me still – that dolphin swims in a sensory and moral vacuum.

This is the nub of it. There are species that should simply never be kept captive. Modern zoos have to be about education and developing an affinity for – and a real desire to conserve – wild life. Yes, I know some zoos preach that they are ‘arks’, protecting rare animals from extinction and captive-breeding them for potential release back to the wild. And with invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians there have been a few notable successes.

But among big, charismatic mammals there have been mainly failures. Disasters involving releases of lions, tigers, gorillas, rhinos and – dare I say it – giant pandas. These are vanity projects. There’s little safe ‘wild’ left for these ill-equipped individuals to return to, and little hope of them ever surviving. And when the day dawns, as it surely will, when there are no wild tigers or rhinos, what will their captive counterparts then represent?

For me, they will be reminders of our failure to conserve life – badges of shame, pale shadows of nature’s greatest masterpieces that should be burning bright in the forest of the night. So come on zoos, cut (most of) the ‘captive-breeding for release’ crap, be far more critical about what you keep, phase out unsuitable species and concentrate on good-quality education.

I’ve never been to a wholly good zoo. But I don’t want to close zoos down; this makes me want to improve them. In the UK, zoos attract 25 million visitors a year but get no direct public funding. The ludicrously decadent monster that is English football gets over £25 million of our cash, despite having a turnover of £300 million! Absurd.

So if you visit a zoo and consider it is not up to scratch, instead of fantasising about releasing all of the animals back into some utopia, why not ask what you could do to help? How can you positively influence its future so that new generations of nascent naturalists’ fingers get nibbled?

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