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Sanctuaries vs Zoos

Sanctuaries vs Zoos

(This post was inspired by Jo-Anne McArthur's book Captive, which I strongly recommend getting your hands on here)

Before we go into the differences and why (spoiler alert) sanctuaries are better than zoos, let’s look at the arguments, both for and against, zoos and aquariums.

Zoos & Aquariums

Zoos and aquariums have been viewed as a staple of education and conservation for a very long time throughout the world. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, there are currently over 10,000 zoos and aquariums around the world. They are also often known by other names, such as "animal parks," "menageries," "zoological gardens" and some are even starting to call themselves "sanctuaries" too.

The common arguments in favour of zoos are:

1. Zoos provide as educational resource

2. A zoo provides a protected environment for endangered animals

3. Zoos can provide a place for the humane treatment of rare animals

4. Zoos can be an economic resource for a community

5. Zookeepers are trained with specialized knowledge about their animals

6. Zoos offer animal activities to maintain natural instincts and movements

7. Preservation efforts at zoos can stop extinction events

8. Veterinary care is readily available at most zoos

So, those are the regular arguments we hear in favour of zoos and aquariums, but once you start to delve into the truth, you realise just how much of those claims are nothing but works of fiction.

You didn't need a zoo to learn about Woolly Mammoths

1. Zoos absolutely can, and sometimes do, educate people about animals. However, museums and galleries also achieve this, without ripping anybody from their families for humans to gawk at from a distance. More and more we are seeing interactive exhibits at museums, there is so much video documentary footage and stunning photographs of any animal you would find in a zoo, that you don’t need to see them in a zoo to understand them. As an example, we all know what a Woolly Mammoth looks like, what they ate and probably how they behaved, yet nobody has ever seen one in real life.

2. The vast majority of animals imprisoned in zoos are not endangered, estimates in 2000 found that just 5% of species in zoos around Britain were endangered and less than 1% of animals are endangered and have been reintroduced into the wild. Sanctuaries also provide a protected environment, for animals who are/were in immediate danger with a lot less of the negatives.

3. We all experienced lockdowns throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and many of use struggled with the isolation and our mental health, now imagine being stuck like that for your entire life. Now imagine that other people are able to look through the windows of your house and just watch you for 8hrs per day, pointing at you and staring at you. That is the reality for animals at zoos and aquariums. There is nothing humane about an animal who would usually roam hundreds of miles, sometimes in a day, being confined in a few dozen metres of caging (tigers, orcas, elephants etc.). Enclosures in UK zoos and safari parks are on average 100 times smaller than the minimum home range for animals in their natural habitats.

According to a 2016 documentary called “Should we close our zoos?”, between 3,000 & 5,000 perfectly healthy animals are deemed “surplus” and called by zoos across Europe (including the UK) every single year, how can that be deemed humane treatment?

4. Yes, zoos do act as a tourist attraction and provide a boost the local economy in which they are based, but so do museums and galleries, and they contribute considerably less cruelty to the world.

5. One of the wonders of education is that it can be shared. There is absolutely no reason that current zookeepers couldn’t share their knowledge with others outside of zoos. However, I would argue that the vets at Virunga National Park and other reserves in Africa are considerably better qualified, even the armed guards many of these parks are forced to employ will probably be better at dealing with the animals. Zoology is a very important subject and skill in understanding the natural world we inhabit but those who study it claim to love animals and then go and contribute to a system which imprisons and tortures those same animals.

There is also the unfortunate truth that, no matter how well trained the zookeepers are or how much they care for the animals they are responsible for, they are still limited by the facilities and habitats provided for the animals, which are woefully inadequate.

Guards at Virunga National Park take a selfie with two gorillas

6. Zoos absolutely do not offer habitats or activities anything like their natural behaviours. As mentioned in point 3 above, animals which usually have a territory of hundreds of miles are limited to a comparatively tiny cage or pool. Carnivores are given dead carcasses at particular feeding times, dolphins, monkeys, orcas and many others are trained to do tricks in order to entertain, none of this is natural. Every decision is taken for them, what to eat, when to sleep, whom they mate with, where they live, all are decided by humans.

Many animals suffer psychologically in captivity and begin to exhibit behaviour such as pacing, bar licking, rocking, head-bobbing or standing in a corner facing a wall. There is also the issue of lifespan when in captivity…

7. As discussed in point 2, the vast majority of captive animals are not endangered. However, to put out that fire still further, only 3% of British zoos’ expenditure goes towards conservation projects in the field. Worldwide, 400 pandas have ever been bred in captivity, only 5 have ever been released and, of those, only 3 survived. “Efforts” in zoos have failed to save even the most “prestigious” animals, like the White Rhino. The crux of the matter is, no number of cages is going to save the wild. As long as humans continue to destroy their natural habitat, these animals will continue to go extinct.

8. While most zoos have a vet on site, they are still tied to a business which makes decisions based on finances. The simple fact is, animals in the wild and at sanctuaries/reservations life far longer and more natural lives than their imprisoned counterparts. African Elephants in zoos have an average lifespan of just 17 years, whereas elephants at Amboseli National Park live an average of 56 years, some even up to 70 years old, meaning most elephants in zoos are mere children. Orcas have a similarly sad story, SeaWorld will try to convince the tourists that their orcas live just as long as the wild ones. However, the truth is that in 2019 when Kayla died in captivity at the age of 30, she was the oldest captive-born orca in history. In the wild, the average life expectancy is 50, possibly up to 80 or even 90 years-old.

Here is what Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute said to National Geographic in a 2019 article: “It’s basic biology,” Rose says. A captive-born orca that has never lived in the ocean still has the same innate drives, she says. “If you have evolved to move great distances to look for food and mates then you are adapted to that type of movement, whether you’re a polar bear or an elephant or an orca,” says Rose. “You put [orcas] in a box that is 150 feet long by 90 feet wide by 30 feet deep and you’re basically turning them into a couch potato.”

As you can see, no matter what the level of veterinary care available at zoos, animals simply suffer miserable lives and die early deaths in captivity, no matter the species.

Hopefully you can see just how bad zoos are for animals and why, as vegans, we really can not be supporting them in any way. Next, we will look at the differences between zoos and sanctuaries.

The Differences

The differences between the two starts with their very creation and reason for existing. Sanctuaries aim to rescue and rehabilitate animals who have been injured or who are in danger and to give them a safe home for life. They are often run as a charity and therefore their focus is solely on the animals.

On the other hand, zoos are created to entertain humans. They are a business, run for profit first and foremost. This results in life and death decisions being made on a financial basis, the most important animals at a zoo are the humans.

After that, a major difference is how they acquire the animals. Sanctuaries will only rescue and take in animals in need. This can include injured wildlife, confiscated pets, animals rescued from labs or circuses etc. Zoos will buy, sell and trade animals and even steal them from the wild, as log as the animal can entertain and bring in visitors, they will take it.

The final big difference is breeding. As mentioned above, zoos will buy, sell and trade animals and breeding plays a part in this. Publicly they claim it is to help survival of the species, but in reality, it is usually money motivated because, as highlighted above in point 7, very few animals in zoos are endangered and even fewer are ever released into the wild. Sanctuaries on the other hand, will not breed the animals they rescue. This does three things, it stops the already injured/traumatised/struggling animal from having to put her body through further stress and suffering, it means more animals can live together peacefully, and it stops another animal being born into a world that abuses and exploits them.

Why Sanctuaries?

So, we have debunked the lies zoos tell us and we have looked at the biggest differences between zoos and sanctuaries. Now let’s take a look at why you should support genuine sanctuaries.

First of all, in the interest of not being totally unbalanced, there are a couple of issues with sanctuaries, certainly in the UK. The first is that they are not regulated specifically. They are, of course, covered by the Animal Welfare Act, the RSPCA etc, but there is no formal regulation, no licences, no inspections, nothing of the kind. This can lead to some issues, mainly in the form of places which are really zoos or wildlife parks calling themselves sanctuaries and thereby misleading visitors or potentially others who stretch themselves beyond their limits to the detriment of the animals in their care, this is very rare though.

Secondly, as their focus is on the animals and they are, usually, charities rather than businesses, they are, more often than not, reliant on public donations as their primary source of income. Unfortunately, this means that during times like we are currently experiencing (Covid-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis etc), their income can drop drastically and in extreme instances this means the animals could potentially suffer, especially when unexpected vet bills arise too.

Now for the positives! The flip side of this approach with money is that the animals will nearly always get the treatment they need, no matter the cost. Allowing all animals to have an equal chance at a free, happy life.

They are run by people who genuinely love and care for the animals and attract volunteers who feel the same way. This results in animals who, by all rights, should be terrified of humans, feeling completely safe and loved and, for the first time in their lives, being able to be their true selves and show off their personalities.

Sanctuaries can actually educate people without exploiting the animals to do so. Animals at sanctuaries, any type of sanctuary, have a lot more space and freedom than their zoo counter parts so can easily stay away from people if they choose to. Most sanctuaries are not generally open to the public, only doing a limited number of pre-booked open days each year with guided tours where the visitors learn their rescue stories and connect to them on a more intimate level. It’s really important to remember that, if it wasn’t for the sanctuary, each one of those animals you can see would be dead. Sanctuaries are literally what the name suggests, a place where animals can peacefully retire for life.

In the UK, the majority of our sanctuaries are for rescued farm animals. As a photographer, it is one of my greatest pleasures to visit these sanctuaries and captures the personalities of the residents and share their stories. I love my spooning cuddles with Jeff at Dean Farm Trust in Chepstow. I love the way all the sheep and goats at Pear Tree Farm in Somerset follow me around the sanctuary. I love the way Twiglet playfully chases me around her paddock while I’m trying to take her photo at The Farm Animal Sanctuary in Worcestershire. These guys, and many more are why you should be vegan and why you should visit and support sanctuaries rather than zoos.

Tiny black pig running towards the camera
Twiglet the Piglet
Cuddles with Jeff

P.S. In order to support these sanctuaries, you have a whole host of options available to you. You can donate directly to any sanctuary through their website, you can attend an open day at your local sanctuary (usually by booking through their website), you can buy prints, calendars or clothing through my website or you can simply react to and share their posts on social media, making more people aware of the work they do and, hopefully, increase awareness and knowledge around animal rights and veganism.

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