Tragedy struck at London Zoo earlier this month, when a critically endangered tiger killed a potential mate after being flown in in the hopes of increasing the rapidly declining numbers of the species.
Asim, a seven-year-old male Sumatran tiger, fatally attacked ten-year-old Melati at their first meeting just ten days after arriving at the zoo. In a statement, it was revealed that the tigers had been brought together ‘as part of the European-wide conservation breeding programme’. On Friday 9th, after the two animals had spent days in adjoining enclosures so zookeepers could monitor their behaviour, they were introduced to another. Asim quickly became aggressive, however, and despite efforts to distract him, he fatally wounded Melati.
Kathyrn England, chief operating officer as ZSL London Zoo, described the day as ‘one of the most difficult days of my long career working with animals’. The tiger team had a combined 120 years of experience between them and felt confident that the meeting would be a success, but ‘in the blink of an eye, with no obvious provocation, they turned on each other’.
“educative experience can transform a person’s mind”
This is obviously a rare and tragic turn of events. Less than 400 Sumatran tigers exist today, having been on the critically endangered list since 2008. Their natural habitats are ‘tropical broadleaf evergreen forests, freshwater swamp forests and peat swamps’, much of which have been under threat in their native Indonesia for decades. Deforestation, pollution, and hunting have all contributed to the rapid decline of such a beautiful animal, and breeding schemes like this are just one of many in a global effort by conservationists and scientists alike to save endangered species from extinction. Although this was obviously an unexpected incident, it perhaps calls into question the costs and benefits of zoos.
Zoos are a global entity, and provide great opportunities for learning for people who would otherwise never get to see the huge array of wonderful animals we share our planet with. Increasingly, zoos have served a ‘crucial role’ in animal rights—although it is perhaps unpleasant to see a wild animal kept locked up in a cage to be stared at by visitors, the educative experience can transform a person’s mind and encourage them to support conservation schemes, or to be more mindful about the products they buy and how they can effect such creatures.
“unfair or unsettling”
Zoos also allow for research to take place, which can increase protections for animals and teach scientists how best to care for them. They are a safe haven for endangered animals, and can, as the London Zoo intended, be exceedingly positive bases for re-population schemes which often release young animals back into the wild after ensuring they reach maturity in captivity.
However, we can all appreciate the negatives of zoos, too. There are multiple stories of zoos around the world which have mistreated their animals, and businesses like SeaWorld have repeatedly come under fire for exploiting animals as a means of entertainment. If you have ever been to a zoo, you will have likely seen a stunning creature behind a chain-link fence, and considered how unfair or unsettling it is that they are kept there. The psychological effect of confinement is the same in animals as it is humans. There is not only a biological negative to such institutions, but a moral one, too. While for many animals a zoo may give them a chance at life they otherwise would never have had, we must be conscious of how human activity has forced them to require saving in the first place.
Zoos which are run with the intention to conserve and educate, which provide sanctuaries for animals who would otherwise be hunted down or driven out of their natural habitats by humans, are a positive thing. However, there are plenty of criticisms about the business model of zoos, and the mistreatment of animals. Many argue that zoos as we know them should not be a public business, or that zoos should be largely phased out in favour of sanctuaries, which are simply large-scale, community-based spaces where animals can roam on a much freer basis while still receiving care and protection.
Regardless of what your standpoint is, you cannot deny that re-population schemes such as the one at London Zoo had positive intentions, and that the unfortunate incident is a tragedy felt not only by the zookeepers, but by the dwindling tiger population as well. It is a reminder that even despite our best efforts, awful things like this can still happen, and that more will need to be done to save animals from extinction.
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