Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Are petting zoos cruel to animals?

The question gains prominence in the light of the recent shutting down of the Tiger Temple in Thailand, where you could walk a tiger cub and click selfies

Do close interactions with the animal world make us feel more passionately about them? Do they make us want to save them or make us more proactive about their protection? On a recent trip across Australia, I was struck by how many wildlife parks and zoos offered kids and adults the experience of hugging a koala, feeding a wallaby or clicking a selfie with a kangaroo. The latest rage right now across the Aussie continent is a selfie with this delightful looking marsupial called the quokka.

While the experience of getting up close with wild animals at a zoo may leave indelible memories of your holiday with your children and make for great Facebook posts, what is it like for the animal? The question gains prominence in the light of the recent shutting down of the Tiger Temple in Thailand, where you could walk a tiger cub, click selfies with it and cuddle it.

Around the world, zoos offer experiences with animals that bring you close to them. In China, you can cuddle a giant panda, in Adelaide, Australia you could hand-feed a giraffe, in Denver, US you can waddle beside penguins on their evening walks within the confines of a captive facility.

All these interactions may seem innocuous but what do they do to the animals? In Australia, at most of the wildlife parks I visited, the good news is that a clear set of guidelines that keep the interest of the animals foremost are highlighted and practised. The keepers are conscious of how long each person is holding a koala and whether the interaction is too stressful for the animal.

But perhaps what needs a more detailed examination is whether these experiences lead to any behaviour change or contribute to making us more aware of the species. Does hugging a koala or stroking a wallaby on its chin make me more likely to campaign for that species or the destruction of its habitat?

A 2014 study titled A Global Evaluation of Biodiversity Literacy in Zoo and Aquarium Visitors by Andrew Moss of Chester zoo and co-authors asked the same question. More than 6,000 visitors to over 30 zoos and aquariums across the world took part in this landmark study. Participants filled out pre- and post-visit surveys to evaluate their biodiversity understanding and knowledge of how to help protect biodiversity. The study found there was an increase—from pre-visit (69.8%) to post-visit (75.1%)—in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding.

Critics, however, state that the results of the study are a mixed bag and do not necessarily justify the existence of zoos as tools for education. Marc Bekoff, a professor at the University of Colorado, argues against zoos. “People clearly do not view keeping animals in cages for public display as defending biodiversity. They look to environmental groups to do that." Further, Bekoff criticizes the study; a 5% increase in knowledge is not substantive, according to him. For biodiversity to be saved, people must put that newfound knowledge to work, he adds.

The Born Free Foundation, too, critiques the concept of zoos and petting zoos—relying on captive populations lulls us into a false sense of security, drawing attention away from threats to wild populations and habitats which, if not protected, could be destroyed, leaving no viable location for return. The substantial costs of captive breeding could be used more effectively to protect these wild species and habitats.

My limited experience of hugging a koala at a wildlife park in Sydney, along with my two-year-old child, was not all that great. I was too conscious of whether the poor animal was feeling uncomfortable; I know I was as it dug its long nails into my hands. The animal continued to chew on some leaves even as my two-year-old squealed in delight. Yet I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. I am not too sure the contrived photo will go in the family album. More importantly, I am not even sure the memory of this moment of my infant hugging a koala will make her a champion of their rights.

That’s why, as I introspected on the experience, I thought of our Indian model of wildlife tourism. It has a complex set of problems from the focus on mega fauna to being too tiger-centric, but at least it promotes animals in their natural habitat. That to me is the real wildlife experience we must offer to our children.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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