Animal advocates and zoos seek common ground

The Swiss Animal Protection Society, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, held a wildlife conference in Zurich last week exploring trends and problems in modern zoo keeping. I was honoured to have been invited to speak alongside representatives of the animal welfare and zoo communities in Switzerland.

It was encouraging to see how much the groups had in common. There was agreement, for instance, that zoos need to demonstrate clear and meaningful conservation objectives in addition to ensuring that the welfare of the animals is given the highest priority.

The general consensus, illustrated by a ‘before and after’ by film maker Mark Rissi, was that zoos in Switzerland have come a long way in the last 15 years. Good practice examples cited were the Andean bear enclosure at Zurich Zoo, the communal facility for wolves and brown bears at the Goldau Animal Park, the wild cat enclosure at Langenberg and the ‘bison wood’ in the Dahlholzli animal park.

Of course one might expect Swiss zoos to be amongst the best in the world and Swiss animal protection legislation is considered to be amongst the most progressive. Perhaps just as important, Swiss zoo director Heini Hediger called more than 60 years ago for zoos to provide environments that meet the behavioural, physiological and psychological needs of captive animals based on the natural history of the species.

Even assuming that the two most basic criteria are met-- that every zoo can demonstrate a meaningful contribution to the conservation of species in the wild and that all zoo environments are designed to provide optimal conditions for wild animals in captivity--the existence of zoos, even the best ones, poses a moral dilemma for many people. The dilemma was highlighted by keynote speaker Frans de Waal whose research supports the assumption that altruism and empathy are not exclusively human attributes. As we come to understand how many other species have rich and complex inner lives it places ever greater responsibility on us to treat them with respect and kindness.

The more we learn about animals the clearer our own obligations to them become. The Swiss Animal Protection Society took an important step last week by inviting the animal welfare community and the zoos to share their perspectives and to work together. There was shared understanding that the well-being of a species is the sum of the well-being of individuals and if we demonstrate a lack of regard for the welfare of an individual animal it is hard to claim concern about a species.

I am looking forward to continued engagement with the zoo community and optimistic about the future for animals as the acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of animals increasingly becomes incorporated into policy, legislation and society.

-- CM

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