Hello! I’m Samantha Stocks.

I’m a writer based in Bristol, UK.

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Interview: Daniel Turner of Born Free on zoo captivity

Daniel Turner, Senior Operations Officer at Born Free, speaks to Wildwatcher about his and Born Free’s view on wild animal captivity, an issue that has become increasingly topical since Knut the polar bear’s death on 19th March at Berlin Zoo.

Prior to Knut’s death, behavioural problems were reported owing to his upbringing in captivity. Do you think there is a way to avoid behavioural problems in adult animals who have been brought up in a captive environment? Or do you think this is impossible in such circumstances?

Daniel Turner: Abnormal behaviour, such as pacing, swaying, rocking and even self-mutilation (often observed in captive animals), usually results from a restrictive and artificial environment that lacks opportunities to encourage natural behaviour and mental stimulation. Initial boredom within the captive environment – which usually lacks the complexity of the natural habitat of a species – often manifests itself into abnormal and usually repetitive behaviour with no obvious function as the animal seeks to cope with the situation. Reversal to a natural state is sometimes possible with the inclusion of apparatus, feeding devices and other forms of environmental enrichment, which in effect will ‘occupy’ the animal and encourage exercise and natural behaviours. However, should an animal be exposed to such depleted and restrictive living conditions for such a period of time that the abnormal behaviour becomes neurotic, reversal becomes less likely.

Born Free has talked about the establishment of a Polar Bear Rescue Centre in Northern Europe. Has there been any progress made with this?

DT: There is currently no plan to establish a sanctuary for polar bears. The Born Free Foundation hopes to influence the policy of European countries, EAZA and the zoos themselves to agree to no longer keep this species. For those that survive in European zoos, the answer is to improve their conditions and perhaps, if deemed viable, to seek an alternative and appropriate, but already existing facility where animals could be rehomed until their demise.

Between March and May 2011, four polar bears that were housed in European zoos (Lovech, Highlands Wild Animal Park, Berlin and Budapest) have died. Those few that remain are kept in completely inadequate conditions and many display abnormal behaviours, generally due to a lack of mental stimulation. Polar bears are clearly not suitable for zoos. Their current state is often depressing, their survival uncertain and despite the requirement on EU zoos to conserve threatened species, keeping polar bears in zoos is not the solution to their apparent decline in the wild.

The Born Free Foundation has campaigned for years to phase-out the keeping of polar bears in captivity and thus far, this has mainly fallen on deaf ears. A sanctuary for this species may well be a possible, yet problematic approach, but whilst this species is kept and owned by zoos, there is little hope, other than the possibility that no more polar bears will be taken from the wild for zoos.

Please tell us about the breeding problems you have discovered among polar bears in light of Born Free’s EU Zoo Inquiry 2011.

DT: The EU Zoo Inquiry 2011 has included the assessment of a number of polar bear enclosures in different Member States of Europe. All were noted as completely inappropriate environments for the species. Not one zoo evaluated in the project exhibited young animals: a clear indication that this species does not breed well in captivity. In fact, of those births that have been publicised by European zoos, the majority have been marred by problems such as infanticide, mother rejecting offspring (and the hand-rearing of animals) and premature death.

Are there any zoos that you hold in high regard in terms of their animal care and conservation efforts?

DT: Inevitably, some zoos do better than others in relation to compliance with their legal obligations. All EU zoos are required to be licensed, regularly inspected by competent authorities and to meet the requirements as specified by national law, which should have incorporated requirements of the EC Directive 1999/22.

The EU Zoo Inquiry 2011 has, however, identified that even these ‘better’ zoos are often not meeting all the legal requirements, and actions related to conservation of Threatened species, public education in species conservation and appropriate animal care, in particular, are often identified as minimal. A lot more needs to be done by associations such as the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), national governments and the European Commission to ensure zoos comply with national requirements and adopt the stipulated role of conservation centre. One answer is fewer zoos, higher standards and viable species conservation efforts. We are a long way from this being a reality.

What do you think is the future for zoos?

DT: Born Free Foundation and ENDCAP, a European coalition of NGOs of which Born Free is a member, would like to think that zoos could be phased-out with time, for government authorities and zoo operators to recognise that conservation attempts for the majority of species are not viable in captivity and to consolidate existing captive populations of animals whilst maintaining high standards in animal husbandry. However, whilst at this current time we are dealing with unknown numbers of zoos, many of which are unlicensed, and most of which do not comply with legal standards, as well as the fact that millions of animals would be displaced should zoos have to close, our current efforts, such as the EU Zoo Inquiry, have to focus on the short term. Born Free and others continue to strive to encourage the improvement of zoo regulation, by assisting competent authorities and influencing policy makers, and further, seeking to end the keeping of certain wild animals, like the polar bear, in captivity. This is the only way to ensure that the current chaos is resolved.

Long-term, I would like to think European society will eventually recognise that the keeping of wild animals in zoos is not the answer to maintaining healthy wild populations of species and halting biodiversity decline. Common practice and experience has recognised that conservation efforts are better fought and won in the wild. Furthermore, that advances in science and technology can ‘recreate’ a virtual animal or natural world, replacing any educational benefit linked to exposing live wild animals to the public. This has to be the way forward if the human race truly does respect animals and their inherent needs, as well as the conservation of the world’s biodiversity.