Taking your kids to the zoo is one of those parenting rites of passages. Have baby. Must go to zoo. Our local zoo is in Edinburgh and I remember hopping on a 26 bus to drag my toddler son to the zoo only to find the hilly walks quite exhausting and the sleeping or hiding animals not that exciting to a two-year-old with a five-second attention span.
Quite simply, it was all a bit over-rated. Plus, I remember the stony silence that greeted me when I cheerfully shared my weekend adventures at the zoo with colleagues. Clearly, attending a zoo was no longer considered an ethical pass-time, and I had committed some sort of social faux-pas.
I’ll confess something here and now. I’ve never been a huge proponent of animal rights. It goes without saying that I don’t want to see unnecessary cruelty inflicted on any vulnerable creature but as far as causes go, there are others that ignite the fire in my belly more.
Since becoming a parent I’ve started to change, however. I don’t know if that’s because my maternal instincts have been sharpened and extended to cater for all living things or if seeing the world through a child’s eyes has made me more aware that we have to do more to protect it and the creatures that inhabit it.
Toby has developed a deep curiosity about and enthusiasm for the natural world. This has been in part nurtured by the fabulous Steve Backshall whose programme Fierce has been essential Tuesday night viewing in our house. It’s also been developed by his school project topic of rainforests, and we’ve enjoyed researching endangered species together.
He’s also been requesting all manner of exotic pets, and asking what wildlife we can expect to see on our forthcoming holiday in the Algarve. I’m not sure that sort of “wild life” is particularly family friendly. After giving Google a workout to identify the best places to see snakes, I realised that the Galapagos Islands, Australia and Madagascar might be some way off the holiday budget for next year so I had to make do with the next best thing: the zoo.
Return zoo trip
So we set off one sunny Sunday for our nearest animal park, Edinburgh Zoo. We had a plan having researched what animals we could find there, identifying the Southern Cassowary, the few reptiles they have there, the tigers, lions and Pygmy Hippo as must-sees.
We managed to tick quite a few animals off our list, and while some of the animal-spotting was a little disappointing or unsuccessful (animal absenteeism is surprisingly common), I was surprised at how close we could get to some of the creatures. The new-ish Budongo Trail is a generous enclosure for chimpanzees, cleverly laid out so that you can observe the apes at relatively close quarters while they enjoy space to behave as chimps probably should. Other enclosures allow you to walk through, which is a big change since my visits to the zoo as a child. We also took time out to attend the “Meet the Reptiles” session at which Toby got to hold a Royal Python. He wasn’t hugely impressed though, as he reminded me it was his fifth time touching a snake. I quietly hoped Toby didn’t hear the snake expert tell everyone that these constrictors were the ideal pet. Mmm, not in our house.
I have to admit I viewed our zoo trip through fresh eyes after the recent incident at Cincinnati Zoo. While I am in no doubt that staff at the zoo had little choice than to shoot the Gorilla to protect that four-year-old’s safety, it does raise fresh questions about whether we should put animals in that position in the first place. When you watch a majestic Sumatran tiger pace around in circles inside his relatively small space, you can’t help but think he would be better off in his natural habitat, doing what a tiger is designed to do: hunting. The young zookeeper tragically mauled to death at a Cumbria zoo would maybe agree if she had the chance.
However, there are some benefits to bringing humans closer with animals through zoos. Many of today’s zoos play a role in conservation and foster beneficial research partnerships to further our understanding about the animal kingdom, and sharing that knowledge with the general public can only contribute to the better attitudes towards the natural world.
When I paid my not small entrance fee, I resisted scoffing when the kind customer service assistant told me the price included a voluntary contribution towards conservation. Technically it’s not all that voluntary when you’re informed after the transaction but a donation towards a worthwhile cause seems just when you’re paying to see animals locked up for your own entertainment. If attending a zoo means supporting conservation projects then that in itself is a worthy reason to visit.
The conservation message was loud and clear throughout the park. Cynics may say this is a carefully calculated PR ploy to detract from the unethical side of zoo keeping. But, for me I found the information provided to be thought provoking and I was inspired to reconsider some of my laid-back attitudes to global environmental issues. It’s utterly shocking to see just how many of the creatures on display are labelled as critically endangered, and that the primary cause of their decline is human influence. It may be unnatural to see wild animals in cages but many of these wonderful species are under far greater threat out in their natural habitats.
Some species, such as the Arabian Oryx and Partula Snails, owe their existence to zoo breeding programmes but I’m unsure if such projects can ever be successful enough to reverse the astonishing reduction in numbers of some of the world’s most special creatures. Anyone who cares about animals may be more effective making different consumer choices, like avoiding products with palm oil – the production of which is a huge factor in deforestation and the subsequent threat to various species – rather than boycotting a zoo.
Educating the next generation
So I think a visit to a reputable zoo with a decent breeding and conservation programme is an essential part of a young wildlife lover’s animal education. In the absence of being able to jet off to Madagascar to watch animals in the wild, a visit to a zoo or a safari park is the perfect way to strengthen that bond between wildlife and human, and in doing so we’re building empathy with and understanding of the magnificent creatures we share our planet with.
It’s worth noting though, that if a zoo still leaves you uncomfortable or is a strain on the budget, wildlife is all around. A walk in the park or a local forest, or even in your street or garden can be just as thrilling for children if you turn it into a mission to hunt for birds, bugs or other signs of life. However we choose to nurture that compassion for living things in the next generation, it’s an agenda that needs to remain a high priority, otherwise our children’s children may only ever get to experience some of our best-loved animals in museums.