A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.
For the last month I have been working at a local zoo, looking after 3 very demanding, very hungry female Asian Elephants. The last month has been a rollercoaster of emotions and opinions about the ethics and morality of zoos and I hope to outline those feelings to you now.
When I first applied for the work experience position I had what I would call a “typical scientific opinion” of zoos. That is, I thought zoos have a two prong strategy: to inform the public of the threats facing endangered animals (and hopefully gain some charitable donations), and to take part in breeding programmes to change population numbers for the better. Obviously I thought all this went on with the utmost care and consideration for the animals in question. This was my mind set when I started working at the zoo and in the vast majority of cases I was correct.
The elephants were fantastic. I remember saying on my first day that I wouldn’t have a favourite but that quickly changed when I developed a small soft spot for one of the elephants called Kate. Before I knew it I found myself sticking up for her in arguments, and throwing her that extra slice of melon or pineapple on the sly. After my first week I found myself noticing their hierarchy, day to day behaviour and individual qwerks. By the end of the month they knew my face, trusted my voice and (regardless of whether I was right or wrong) I felt like one of the family.
As well as the elephants I also spent a lot of time around the big cats. Similarly to Kate, I soon developed a soft spot for our Amur Tiger called Zam. Tigers are largely solitary animals, but they do come into contact with other members of their species from time to time. But what happens in a zoo environment? In the wild, Zam at least has the possibility that he might bump into another tiger, (hopefully a female!) but in the zoo, day in day out it is guaranteed he will never see a male or female of his species – no exception. This is where I start to question my opinions. There is no question Zam is a vital part of the Amur Tiger breeding programme, and the zoo continually provide enrichment for him but is he living his life to the full? Should we try and save endangered species for future generations of tigers, regardless of the cost, or burden it may put on the current generation? Zam may be very happy when he gets a scheduled visit from a female, but that female can’t stay with him forever – it isn’t in the nature of Tigers to live in breeding pairs. So for the majority of his time he will be on his own. It upsets me knowing how his life will pan out, with no where new to explore, no females to pursue or males to fight. These were my thoughts half way through the month, and they were depressing. But let us not forget successful breeding programmes do exist, and I believe it would be morally criminal to let these beautiful creatures go extinct without even trying to save them.
So what do I think now after my time at the zoo? Well in the case of the elephants: all 3 of them are too old to breed and 2 of the 3 are from the circus. The other has lived all but one year of her life in captivity. Since none of the elephants therefore possess the skills to live in the wild, I personally think they have a very good quality of life – and undoubtedly better than their life in the circus. In the case of Zam I am not so sure. He has certainly made it clear to me that my opinions on zoos a month ago were quite naive. I feel for Zam, but at the same time, the sacrifice he is making could be the difference between his species surviving or becoming extinct. I guess the real point here is Zam shouldn’t have to sacrifice his life in the first place. It is neither his nor his species fault. So what is the place of zoos? Perhaps the zoos will eventually manage to right some of the wrongs done to animals, and provide a home to those whom no longer have one. Perhaps they won’t. As I said, it would be criminal not to try and save these beautiful animals. Those of you lucky enough to spend long periods of time with endangered animals as I have will agree: heart strings are pulled, moral stances are questioned and finally a sense of guilt and shame overwhelms. These creatures suffer, and the sad truth is: in the most part it is our own species’ fault.