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Issue 13

The End Of The Zoo: Has The Pandemic Changed The Way We See Zoos?

Aritro Sarkar
In 2020 – 2021, when you and I have had to forcibly stay indoors, the idea of captivity itself has come to be belatedly resented, although it took the human experience of a generational pandemic for that to happen. In that light, how do we look at zoos, as venues premised on this very idea of confinement. How do we rethink them?

Yadunandan’s last moments, in all likelihood, were spent in panic. Having accidentally wrung his neck around the rods of the treatment centre at the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru, his desperate attempt to extricate himself, saw him twist his neck twice. The male giraffe died within minutes of asphyxiation. According to The Hindu, the staff at the park have launched an inquiry into the lapses that led to the demise of Yadunandan on 19 September. He had arrived in April 2020, as a gift from the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Garden, Mysore. 

Yadunandan’s unfortunate death may just have been an accident, but it points to a larger issue around animals and captivity, increasingly being highlighted by animal welfarists. The primary site of animals in human captivity – the zoo, they say, needs to be rethought. 

Can we – should we – do away with them altogether?

Absolutely! We need to do away with zoos outright!”, insists a source (who prefers to remain anonymous) who works closely with animal welfare in Bengaluru. “In any case, going to the zoo during and after the pandemic feels like visiting a Covid patient’s home. But it’s not just the loneliness and sense of isolation that the animals feel, there are far deeper problems that exist in zoos in India and the world over.

THE ZOO’S COLORED LEGACY

The practice of keeping animals in captivity started out as a menagerie – which comes from the French word ‘menage’, meaning ‘to keep house’. A menagerie was a private collection of animals, generally owned by the elite, who would put them up on display. Many of these sites were open to the public, but humans and human pride would very much be at the centre of this exercise: as Gary Bruce writes in Through The Lion Gate: A History of the Berlin Zoo, humans captured animals and “put them on display to satisfy our own curiosity.” The first ‘modern’ zoo, with scientific classifications of animals, was set up in Paris in 1794, at the Jardin des Plantes, following which. a zoo was also set up in London’s Regent Park. 

While royalty from Egypt to India were known from ancient times, for taming wild animals and keeping them in captivity, the empires of these European nations used their violent prowess to ship ‘exotic’ animals from Asia and Africa all the way home. By displaying these animals in the zoo to a broader public, these countries would underline their might as imperial forces. Often these exhibitions would display ‘exotic’ human beings to bewildered European audiences as well. 

The shift from menagerie to zoo was an exhibitionist turn that animal captivity as a concept took: zoos were to be more accessible to the general public. They became, “important public places mostly for the lower middle class, labourers, poor people and women,” according to Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history and Vice Chancellor, Krea University. This enabled a zoo to be turned into an arena of wildlife education. Common people could now learn about plants and animals, while staying in their own urbanizing areas. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2015 offered a new World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, while also clarifying the contours of two centuries of human-animal interaction in the West. “First, in the 1700s and 1800s, at a time when blood sports and blatant acts of cruelty remained common and perfectly legal, reformers sought to stamp out cruelty as part of a broader programme of social progress. This led to the criminalising of deliberate cruelty and the banning of recreations such as bull-baiting and dog-fighting in many countries.”

“Then during the 1900s, with the large-scale institutionalised use of animals in food production and biomedical research, the key problem of animal ethics was perceived not as acts of cruelty, but as the use of animals for utilitarian purposes in ways that resulted in deprivation and curtailment of their freedom”. 

The report continues: “This gave rise to radical ideas, such as animal rights and animal liberation, which opposed all ownership and use of animals. It also gave rise to concerns about the welfare or ‘quality of life’ of animals in human care, and to a combination of scientific and philosophical attempts to understand what constitutes a good life for animals.”

IS INDIA SAYING BOO TO ZOOS IN 2021?

Prosenjit Dasgupta in his book, 10 Walks in Calcutta, mentions a local zoo set up in 1854. Today, with over 150 zoological parks and nature centres across India, from March 2021 -2022, the Central Zoo Authority of India, is currently celebrating 75 zoos, with specific focus on 75 species across India. Their theme: Conservation to coexistence: the people connect. In October 2021 alone, this includes a week each of public outreach activities at three nature centres in Gujarat (Indian fox at Ambardi Wildlife Interpretation Zone, Greater Flamingo at Sayaji Baug Zoo, Bar headed geese/Lesser florican at Indroda Nature Park and the Peafowl at Haryana’s Pipli Zoo) “The education concept is a lie. People don’t come to the zoo for education. Most visitors at zoos are there to picnic, or there for entertainment”, maintains the source from Bengaluru.

A joint report in 2020 by Wildlife Institute of India and the Central Zoo Authority, on Management Effectiveness, Evaluation of Indian Zoos, makes a counter numbers claim, “In India, rough estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces with over 80 million visitation numbers annually.” A 2020 TERI led case study of the Delhi Zoological park also confirms that 77 % of all earnings are from recreational activities.

WHAT CAN A RETHINK MEAN?

Are private zoos a solution then, akin to the one Reliance is aiming to build in Gujarat’s Jamnagar? Not according to the source, who insists, “zoos are the problem. At least in government zoos, you can file RTIs and find out things. Plus, how will so many species from all over the world survive in the heat and humidity of Gujarat? We can use this pandemic experience to generate more attention among the public, in order to raise awareness on these issues that zoos have.

Zoos anyway need rethinking. The old cage system is out of modesty. Captive collections may not die but need to be rethought”, says Dr. Rangarajan. “In any case, specialist captive collections are not new. Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey bred rare small creatures, and in India, the Sakkarbaug Zoo helped breed Asian lions.” 

The animal welfarist goes one step further. “Going forward, zoos should make a list of animals who can be released into the wild, and then they should actually be released into the wild”. Zoos can, “house injured animals who can’t make it in the wild, and thus also be a site for veterinary practice, because where else can vets be trained for the wildlife but animals in zoos?” 

Perhaps, the 45 year experience of one of the country’s longest volunteer programmes at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust also points to a middle ground, benefitting both conservation and public connect. Raising several generations of humane volunteers keen to understand animal life, 400, 000 people visited in a year and the fee helped in funding conservation. Not only were they able to bring the croc back from near extinction, but also released 1500 of them in the wild, across India.

The pandemic’s rupture can also mean taking further stock not just for ourselves, but for a new tandem with our fellow species of the planet too.  And that means no more captive Yadunandans dying, by accident or poor design.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.  

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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