From under a hessian sack a calm, clever face looks through the bars with an air of rumpled bemusement. This shapeless shambles of long, thick hair and leathery skin seems to have accepted her place in the world, even while not quite understanding why she’s in it. Wearing her hessian headscarf, she sits in a Buddha pose, her long powerful arms folded in front of her, and watches the bizarre world of humanity pass her by.
The interior monologue of Mollie the orangutan is separated from us by a hundred years and the not inconsiderable language barrier between human and great ape. That’s hardly enough to stop us trying to read her mind though. Among the animal kingdom, orangutans have possibly the most expressive faces of all, and looking at this century-old photo of Mollie in her cage—the kind of bare, cramped affair that was standard for all zoos at the time—it’s nearly impossible not to speculate on what she was thinking. Was she saddened by her circumstances, or quite content, knowing no other way of life after coming to Melbourne when only a few months old? Did she think of herself as a prisoner, or was she simply entertained by the parade of humanity passing her each day? How close to human contemplation can an ape’s thoughts get, anyway?
Mollie was one of Melbourne Zoo’s greatest attractions, living in her little cage from 1901 to 1923. In an age when zoos specialised in anthropomorphising their residents, Mollie delighted thousands by smoking cigarettes—which she lit herself—and drinking alcohol. It was a health and safety nightmare—her penchant for tobacco led to her setting fire to her enclosure, after which she was moved from a wooden dwelling to a concrete one. The humanity of Mollie was a great part of her appeal—here was a wild jungle beast, acting in recognisably ‘civilised’ fashion. At the same time, the conditions in which she lived spoke clearly to the fact that, entertaining as Mollie’s adoption of human habits were, she was still just an animal, and according to the mores of the day, more a thing than a being. After Mollie died, she was stuffed and put on display at the zoo once more—eternally beloved by the public, forever a curiosity.
Times, as they tend to, have changed. Today a family of orangutans plays in Melbourne Zoo’s spacious orangutan exhibit, swinging from myriad ropes and poles set up around the grassy expanse. They climb to the wide windows where zoo visitors congregate, and while the people watch them, they watch back. They seem to revel in the attention, heaving and tossing about blankets and leftover food, pulling faces and playing peek-a-boo with the spectators. But if they tire of the attention, they can retreat to the farther corners of the space, or go inside their night den. It’s not only the space and the stimulating environment, but also this ability to choose to avoid the public eye, that Melbourne’s modern orangutan clan has, whereas Mollie didn’t.
As far as any untrained eye can determine, these animals seem happy in their home: active, curious, engaged with their surroundings, and healthy. But in the crudest of terms, they are still, like their ciggie-wielding forebear, prisoners. To those who object not just to the harmful conditions that modern zoos have worked hard to leave behind, but also to the very concept of zoos, a hundred years has not changed the predicament of Melbourne Zoo’s populace: they are jailed innocents, cruelly confined for the amusement of the one species arrogant enough to put its fellow creatures on display.
Not that we can really know how arrogant an orangutan is. Except in the broadest terms, we can never really know what animals are thinking of all, meaning that our true arrogance might lie in presuming to know what animals think about being kept in captivity. Or indeed, whether they understand the concept of ‘captivity’ at all.
When musing on philosophical questions such as this, a human quickly loses sight of more immediate realities. When I ask Melbourne Zoo keeper and primate specialist Fleur Butcher what she’d say to those who claim it’s cruel to confine such magnificent, intelligent animals, her response is immediate and decisive. ‘I’d say come to Borneo and see what I saw,’ she says. Butcher recently returned from a trip to the island, where she shared knowledge and expertise with workers at orangutan sanctuaries. There she saw great apes rescued from the pet trade: kept in horrendous conditions after being snatched from their parents in the wild. In the process, the parents are often killed and sold for meat. This is just one of the threats to the survival of the species: rampant deforestation has seen orangutan populations fall by around 75 per cent in the last century.
Without human action to halt the slide towards extinction, orangutans would be doomed. And those who’ve been to the front line, like Butcher, know that there are far worse fates for animals than life in a zoo like Melbourne. Here the animals are fed well, given the best possible health care and housed in habitats specially designed for their needs, including enrichment exercises to keep them active and stimulated. Moreover, they are in the care of people whose love and passion for animals is palpable: Butcher’s face shines as she talks about the personalities and family dynamics of her beloved apes. You get a similar reaction from any of the keepers, whether their charges are intelligent primates, majestic big cats, hyperactive meerkats or the stolid, phlegmatic giant tortoises. Every species is unique and a source of wonder to the men and women who consider it a privilege to work with them.
But of course zookeepers are not the only people passionately committed to the interests of non-human animals. The Born Free Foundation was founded by actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, stars of the film Born Free, in which they portrayed conservationists Joy and George Adamson and their famous rehabilitation of the rescued lioness Elsa, and Elsa’s subsequent return to the wild. The foundation works to protect wild animals and rescue them from unacceptable conditions. They work on many fronts: lobbying to end trophy hunting, fighting the illegal wildlife trade, improving the capacity for humans and wildlife to coexist peacefully, and more. But a major focus for them is zoos. Born Free rescues animals that are being mistreated in captivity, and seeks to expose and bring to justice people and organisations that keep animals in cruel or abusive situations.
The Born Free Foundation is one of many bodies that do excellent work saving animals from mistreatment, and act as a valuable watchdog to hold zoos to the highest standard of care. But their mission goes further than this: on their website the foundation’s aim to ‘phase out zoos’ is explicit. They state opposition to the exploitation of animals in any way—and this includes for the entertainment of zoo-goers. The message is a familiar one: the wild is where wild animals ‘belong’, and the wild is the only place wild animals should ever be found.
The tireless workers of Born Free are undoubtedly as dedicated to the welfare of animals as Melbourne’s zookeepers. It would be ridiculous to question the commitment to the cause of either those who care for animals in captivity or those who believe no animal should be in captivity. Yet their philosophies are in direct opposition, and it’s pretty hard to argue against the proposition that the wild is the proper place for wildlife.
Of course, the wild is shrinking by the day, and wildlife is going with it—a study published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned that we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Researchers described it as ‘biological annihilation’: the number of individual animals has halved since 1970, and of the land mammal species surveyed, almost half have lost 80 per cent of their range in the last century.
Given this, and the fact that overwhelmingly the cause of modern extinctions is human activity, shouldn’t we laud the ability of zoos to keep species alive? On the other hand, given the damage we’ve already done to animals through history, is taking them out of their natural habitats, rather than removing ourselves, justified? It’s clear that some zoos treat animals better than others, but is a truly ethical zoo possible?
As it happens, the CEO of Zoos Victoria wrote the book on ethical zoos—literally. Jenny Gray is the author of Zoo Ethics, a book that considers the challenges of running a zoo according to ethical principles in the twenty-first century. As she’s not only in charge of Victoria’s three major zoos—Melbourne, Werribee and Healesville Sanctuary—but also president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it’s no surprise that Gray comes down on the side of zoos. But the fact that people who run zoos wrestle with these questions more than anyone might surprise some, if not reassure them.
Gray’s background is not in zoology. With qualifications in finance and engineering, she was working for a bank in South Africa—‘making lots of money for rich people I didn’t like’, in her own words—when a position at Johannesburg Zoo became vacant and she recognised the time for a change. ‘I liked the idea of a place everyone wants to go,’ she says, ‘as opposed to … there’s many careers where you do good work but no-one really wants to see you. No-one wants the fireman to show up, because it means you have a problem. But people want to come here.’
From there she came to Melbourne, arriving a decade ago to run Werribee Open Plains Zoo. A year later the CEO of Zoos Victoria left and Gray stepped into the breach. She found herself heading an organisation that some believed had lost its way. Financial stress, falling visitor numbers and a series of allegations about mismanagement and animal mistreatment were taking their toll, and morale was low. Village Roadshow put in a bid to buy Werribee and build a theme park on it. Gray saw a need to change direction, to put forward to the government and the public ‘a very strong competing view on the table of zoos’.
The concept of the zoo has changed massively over the years. In the beginning it was simple: gather exotic animals together for people to marvel at. Melbourne Zoo began with such a raison d’être: whether it was orangutans smoking cigarettes or elephants offering rides, the point was to give the punters something to ooh and aah over. By the time Jenny Gray took over, such a simple view was way past its use-by date. Exploiting animals for human amusement wasn’t so popular any more—as seen by the decline of the circus animal act—and to revitalise Zoos Victoria for the future, the CEO knew that there had to be a purpose to the enterprise that was about more than entertainment.
That purpose, in a nutshell, was conservation. Worldwide, zoos have recognised the part they can play in not just exhibiting wild animals but also saving them. Gray explains that:
Zoos have reinvented themselves over and over again: first there was curiosity where emperors would bring out the lions and show them off, and education is only 40 years old in zoos. Zoos keep changing, and at the stage I was arriving it was very much one of those tipping points where the current model had got to the end of its life, which was zoos based around education, research, entertainment and a little bit of conservation … it wasn’t quite as front and central. The model we’ve gone with is to say, well, what if there were a zoo-based conservation organisation? Instead of being a zoo that supports conservation, what if we were a conservation organisation that works through zoos? That’s what we’ve been working on for nine years.
In practice this new focus takes a variety of forms. There are campaigns urging people to use recycled toilet paper to fight deforestation, and to blow bubbles instead of blowing up balloons, to keep those balloons from ending up in wild habitats. There are the beads on sale at the zoos, made by African villagers to provide an income stream and ease the pressure to eradicate wildlife for farmland. There is the recent Safe Cats Safe Wildlife program, which aims to educate cat owners about keeping their pets inside and away from the native species whose populations have been devastated by cat predation. There’s Don’t Palm Us Off, a campaign to raise awareness and push governments to make it mandatory to label products that use palm oil, the production of which is responsible for massive habitat loss for orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers, among many others. All of these are informed by Zoos Victoria’s work in behaviour change—Gray speaks in glowing terms of Monash Behaviour Works, which works with the zoo to devise ways to engage the public in conservation efforts.
Closer to home Zoos Victoria leads the concerted effort to save 21 critically endangered local species, including the mountain pygmy possum, the Eastern barred bandicoot, the plains-wanderer and the Lord Howe Island stick insect. Taking direct action in the form of captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild, it’s the most tangible example of the new direction taken under Gray’s administration. There’s little doubt that many of these species would have no future without zoos—indeed, the barred bandicoot is officially extinct in the wild, and the Lord Howe Island stick insect was believed to be no more until a small population was discovered in 2001 and captive breeding programs were begun to save it from annihilation. Multiple species are coming back from the brink thanks to the work of zoos. If keeping species that would otherwise disappear alive can be considered good for animals, then zoos are good for animals. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the conservation focus has been good for business. Gray admits ‘there was a bit of a fear that if we go all conservation-y, people aren’t going to support that’. But ‘the more conservation work we do, the more people come through the gates’. Saving species, it turns out, is popular.
Safari Live is a YouTube channel that daily live-streams footage from safari guides in Kenya and South Africa. It supplies the world with stunning scenes from the lives of the wild animals of Africa, with the guides there to provide educational commentary. Recently a zebra staggered slowly across the screen. Hanging from its midsection was its intestinal tract, torn from its moorings by a crocodile while the zebra crossed a river. As the agonised beast plodded wearily across the plain towards its inevitable death, a clan of hyenas began snapping at its heels. The hyenas bided their time, waiting for the zebra to weaken further, and when the time came swarmed upon it. Even with its guts dangling outside its body, the zebra put up a fight, kicking and biting futilely at the hyenas as they fell upon their feast.
At about the same time as the clan’s kill played out before an international audience, a small herd of zebra grazed peacefully on the grasslands of Werribee Open Plains Zoo. Nearby Werribee’s populations of rhino, giraffe, eland and ostrich went about their business just as placidly. The Werribee lion pride was safely separated from the herds, and there were no hyenas to be seen. None of these animals were in the wild, but the zebra with the external viscera may have had strong views on who was having the best life.
• • •
The comparison is an apt demonstration of an important factor in the ethics of zoos: the distinction between welfare at a species and at an individual level. Just as a healthy individual animal doesn’t mean the species as a whole is in great shape, the desirability of maintaining a species’ presence in the wild doesn’t necessarily mean a given single animal is better off in the wild than in captivity. ‘I think all the time we have to oscillate between species and individuals,’ says Jenny Gray. ‘A species is just a collection of individuals, but we think of them slightly differently, and each and every individual is living a life.’
Gray tells the story of the ducks at Johannesburg Zoo when she worked there. It came to management’s attention that the number of ducks on the zoo’s lake was declining at an alarming rate. Upon further investigation, it was found that every night the zoo’s otter was escaping its enclosure, catching itself a duck for supper, and taking it back to the den to chow down. The otter had a perfect chance to slip the bonds of captivity, but found its life in the zoo had everything it required.
It might be that not every animal would agree with the Johannesburg otter, but that’s the trouble with animals: we can’t ask them. There may be zebras at Werribee that, given the option, would take their chances with the hyenas, just as the great migrations of the Masaai Mara must contain at least a few herbivores that would love to move to Australia and not have to live in terror of claws and teeth any more. For that matter, the hyenas might wish they lived in a zoo and got a fresh meat delivery every day, rather than having to hang around waiting for dying zebras to pounce on.
We can’t read animal minds, but we can say for sure that life in the wild is no picnic. Animals live with the ever-present threat of predators, disease, hunger and encroaching humanity. Deer and wildebeest spend their lives on red alert for the hunters stalking them at every turn. Smaller animals crouch in the grass and pray they don’t get noticed. Even the apex predators have it tough: a few days without a kill and starvation rears its ugly head. Babies of every species are threatened by carnivores that don’t much care what they eat if it’s weak and easy to kill. Lion cubs are at risk from their own—a male taking over a pride will slaughter the cubs already there to ensure it’s his offspring that carry on the family name.
Compared to all that, the luxurious surrounds of Melbourne or Werribee may look like paradise. Or they may look like prison: after all, however well fed, well tended and well loved, zoo animals aren’t free. But then it’s an incredibly anthropomorphic attitude to believe that non-human animals have any idea what ‘free’ is. ‘We project our feelings onto animals,’ says Gray, ‘and so if there’s something we wouldn’t like, we think animals don’t like it. And that’s hard not to do, but it’s flawed.’
There are animals that will never thrive in captivity—there’s a reason no aquarium in the world holds a great white shark. Gray is at pains to emphasise that part of the business of running a zoo is constant research and monitoring, to ensure they are doing their very best to give their animals a good life, and to stay as aware as possible of what that means. In ethical terms, the most conservation-focused zoo can’t justify itself if it isn’t committed to the welfare of individuals within its fences. But it is certain that the majority of animals live longer in captivity than in the wild, and that animals in zoos are protected from the myriad perils that can make life painful and dangerous for their wild cousins.
But still, one fact has to be faced: for all the saved species, for all the comfortable creatures, zoos are still places of entertainment. People still go to zoos to stare, point and laugh at animals, and without the human desire to gawp, zoos would not exist. And this will always remain a sticking point for some: is it really right to treat animals as attractions, to reduce the magnificence of wildlife to a show?
One response, as articulated by Jenny Gray, is: ‘you’re not going to stop people’s fascination with animals … If good people aren’t running zoos, we get bad people running zoos.’ By this thinking, the chances of a world with no animals in captivity are basically zero, so supporting those who do it with the animals’ best interest at heart makes it more likely more animals will live good lives and fewer animals will be trapped in appalling conditions around the world.
But there’s a deeper reason why displaying animals for entertainment can be a noble enterprise, and it’s to do with our own connection to the world we live in.
I sit on a rock in the centre of Melbourne Zoo and gaze through huge windows at three massive cats reclining on the lawn. Three brother lions, imposing, majestic, but still so unmistakably feline that I can see the echoes of my own cat in them. I first saw these three when they were about six weeks old and so cute it hurt. Watching them grow up has been thrilling, and a privilege.
There is no other way I could have truly understood what a lion is. I can read books about lions. I can watch endless videos about them. But there is nothing to compare with sitting 20 metres away from a real live lion, watching him snooze in the sun, seeing him open wide to yawn and bound across the grass to play-fight with his brother. Through second-hand sources I can get an idea of a lion, but only when I see one in the flesh do I get the full sense of what that idea means.
Everyone knows how impressive a beast a rhinoceros is, but to ride the safari bus at Werribee, to see a rhino snort and snuffle and paw the ground as a warning to any bus driver who might get too close; to look into the astonishingly soft, gentle face of what at first glance resembles a colossal organic tank: that’s to make a connection that can only be made at close quarters. It’s to understand in a profound way that as animals on this planet, we and the rhinos are sharing something. We’re in this together.
All across Melbourne’s zoos, the same principle holds. You can see it when Indrah, one of Melbourne’s Sumatran tigers, pads across her leafy garden and dips a tentative toe in the water. You can see it when you’re nose-to-beak across the fence from an emu at Healesville Sanctuary. You can see it when Thieu the white-cheeked gibbon presses himself against the glass and peers at the strange people on the other side, who seem to entertain him as much as he does them. You can see it when a baboon holds her tiny child close as lovingly as any human mother could, or when a fur seal sweeps past the viewing area, shamelessly showing off its matchless aquatic agility.
To save wildlife on this planet will take people who care about wildlife on this planet. I have never been to Africa or India, America or Brazil—I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wild parts of my own country—but I’ve been lucky enough to see an array of creatures from all around the world, to witness the dizzying diversity of the animal kingdom in the flesh. I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to let my children see the same. Because of this we care about wildlife, not as an academic exercise but as a living, breathing phenomenon whose spaces we share and whose eyes we’ve looked into. We know the beings that share our world, and the only reason we do is that zoos exist, and have allowed us to meet those beings. We can call it entertainment, but it’s surely worthwhile if by bringing human animals into contact with their cohabitants, zoos keep our clever species from detaching itself from all others … from forgetting exactly what we are. •
Ben Pobjie is a Melbourne author and comedian who has written for Crikey, the Age and the ABC. His latest book is Aussie Aussie Aussie.