I’ve been thinking recently about the debate that swirls around zoos, pitting animal rights advocates on one side against zookeepers, scientists and many of the general public on the other. I have to admit it had been years since I visited a zoo, with concerns about animal rights and the moral issues involved in keeping wild animals in captivity the main things that kept me away.
But I had heard good things about Singapore Zoo, and about the changed thinking that was now commonplace amongst zoos in many parts of the world, so I decided to take a closer look. I’m glad I did.
The most pressing argument against zoos is that no matter how well designed the enclosure, and how well meaning the handlers, a zoo life is never going to match the alternative life, lived in nature, inherently free and though often dangerous, no doubt a much richer and more fulfilling experience for any animal.
The original argument for zoos revolved mostly around the great entertainment gained by us humans in seeing wild animals up close, in an environment that offered no danger and could be enjoyed — with one’s grandchildren, no less — at little cost. But as animal rights advocates made their case more strongly this rationale grew less convincing, and many people, me included, took zoos off their attractions list.
Falling attendance numbers and the well understood reticence of many to visit zoos on moral and ethical grounds led zoo operators to invest heavily in new enclosure designs, and in programs that stressed the building of bonds between humans and our cousins in the wild. Education of the visitor became a crucial element of zoo programs, while well funded scientific programs designed to study, preserve and manage natural habitats were not only undertaken, they were pushed to the fore of the zoo visitor’s experience.
The result of these trends are easily seen in Singapore: there were dozens of school groups in attendance the morning I visited; the enclosures were thoughtfully designed, spacious and respectful of the inhabitants’ need for privacy, as well as the visitors’ desires to catch a glimpse of the occupant. And details of preservation programs were all around, giving visitors the clear impression that some small part of their admission fee was helping these amazing animals survive better in the wild.
I left Singapore Zoo with a clear view that zoos have now got the balance right; that human entertainment can indeed be balanced with animal rights, and the price these individuals lions, tigers and orangutans are paying is well justified by the benefits that flow to their kind, wherever they might be on the other side of the fence.
Viator offers zoo-related tours in many destinations worldwide. Search on “zoo” on the Viator.com site for a complete listing.
- Rod Cuthbert