Prisoners Sans Crime: The Discomforting Truth Behind Animal Exchange Between Zoos

Prisoners Sans Crime: The Discomforting Truth Behind Animal Exchange Between Zoos

Chayanika Das | February 29, 2020 14:05 hrs

•    Assam State Zoo to receive chimpanzees and binturangs in 10 months

•    Animal rights activists voice their opinions on why these exchanges should not take place 

•    Zoo advocates and conservationists argue that zoos educate people

•    Animal rights activists believe that violating the rights of individual animals cannot be justified

•    Two major concerns of activists are -  animals should be captive-bred and exchange should only take place if the zoos can take proper care of the animals 

•    Tejas Mariswamy, DFO of Assam State Zoo reacts to the concerns of animal right activists

Guwahati zoo goers have good news as the Assam State Zoo is all set to welcome two exotic species - chimpanzees and binturangs - from Indonesia over the next 10 months. Animal exchange between zoos often takes place and has been going on since ages. It is great news for the zoo-goers but is it the same for the animals? While it is difficult for a layman to comprehend the dark truth behind these exchange programmes, animal rights activists have always voiced their opinions on why these exchanges should not take place.

Their major concern is whether zoo authorities will be able to provide the right environment for these animals and take proper care of them.

Arguments for and against zoos have been going on forever. While zoo advocates and conservationists argue that zoos educate people and protect endangered species, animal rights activists believe that violating the rights of individual animals cannot be justified.

Zoos teach people that it is alright to interfere with animals and keep them in captivity. Deprived of their natural habitat, animals are kept behind bars just for the sake of human entertainment and curiosity.
Problems with exchanges

Speaking to G Plus, senior animal rights activist Shubhobroto Ghosh, who has been researching on zoos for over two decades now, highlighted three major problems with the exchange of animals between zoos. 

“There are many problems with such exchanges. Firstly, it is very important to know the origin of the animals. When zoo authorities go for low hanging fruit then there is a danger. For example, if they get chimps from Indonesia, what is the source of the chimps? They might have gotten them from the wild. The guidelines and stipulations are much more relaxed and elapse between the two parties. So the origin of the animals is being suppressed,” said Ghosh.

Ghosh then went on to talk about the rights of animals and said, “An international movement is going on across the world which says that non-human species have rights. This movement is solely dedicated to a few set of species which show patterns of humans, like chimps or orangutans. So the philosophy of this movement is to not hold these species in captivity. That makes the Guwahati chimp deal morally suspect.”

His third point focuses on providing proper physical and mental stimulation to the animals. “Chimps are very intelligent creatures. So whether the zoo authorities will actually be able to give that kind of mental stimulation is questionable,” said Ghosh. 
“It is not only about physical stimulation. Feeding the mind is also very important. To what extent will the Assam State Zoo be able to provide the imported chimps with their animal husbandry requirements, behavioural requirements, physiological requirements, health and mental stimulation requirements? It is going to be both time and cost intensive way of looking after them. I personally do not think this exchange should take place,” Ghosh elaborated putting forward his concern for the animals being brought to the Assam State Zoo.

A brief history of zoos

A zoo is a place where captive animals are put on display for the entertainment of humans. Early zoos concentrated on displaying many unusual creatures.
Modern zoos were established during the 18th century. In order for scientists to study animal behaviour and anatomy, the modern zoo was created. The first one was build in Paris, France, in 1793.

“In the early 20th century, African and Asian humans were put in zoos for Westerners to gawk at. As unbelievable as that is now, we should be equally shocked that though we share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees—they, like Bonobos, are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom—they continue to be jailed in zoos,” Dr. Manilal Valliyate, CEO and Veterinarian of PETA India said in a statement.

After 12 years, the Assam State Zoo will be taking care of chimpanzees. Tejas Mariswamy, Divisional Forest Officer of Assam State Zoo said that the last chimpanzee died in 2007 due to old age. When asked about the preparations for the chimps, Mariswamy said that they are in the process of establishing a new facility for them.

Chimpanzees are intelligent species and have advanced social skills. Just like humans they too mourn the deaths of their friends and family. When animals are captured individually, their social bond breaks down and they get traumatised. 

“Today we know far more about all animals’ intelligence and emotional capacities than we did in the past making their imprisonment for cheap amusement wholly unacceptable. Just as we no longer jail humans for fun, it’s high time to relegate the jailing of animals for entertainment to the dark pages of history books,” Valliyate added.


Points to focus on before getting exotic animals

Parents take their toddlers to zoos thinking it is alright to teach children that putting animals in cages is fine. Not many realise that it is a lifetime imprisonment for the animals. 

Quoting the founder of Howletts and Port Lympne zoos in Kent, Ghosh said, “A zoo is not a proper place for a child to visit because you get the wrong messages and you grow up having been cultured to the concept that keeping animals in cages is fine.”

Animal rights activists are questioning whether it is right for an animal to be kept in captivity for the pleasure of the audience. They believe that leaving animals in the wild is more cost effective.

Anindya Sinha, professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies who is also a behavioural ecologist said that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kolkata zoo had brought seals from Canada and within a few months they died. Sinha mentioned that the visitors wanted the seals to move. So they had pelted them with little stones which the seals ate and died of stomach ulcers.

Raising two important concerns Sinha said, “The animals should be captive bred so that they are able to adjust better to captive conditions and the zoo authorities need to be sure about being able to take proper care of the exotic animals.”

Facilities for the new animals at the Assam State Zoo

Mariswamy told G Plus that two species are coming down from Indonesia – chimpanzees (two males and two females) and binturong (two males and two females). Right now only the zoo authority has approved this exchange. They are yet to take permissions from the Central Zoo Authority and government of India.

Reacting to the concerns of animal rights activists, Mariswamy said that the animals being brought from Indonesia are captive-bred. Talking about the facilities for the new animals, he said that the process is underway and that the enclosures would be big enough.

“Everyone is whining about keeping animals in enclosures but nothing is being done. Instead, we are going on occupying their space,” said Mariswamy.

“We have been taking care of sensitive species and they are now breeding. This is a sign of their good health,” he added.

He further went on to talk about the enclosures and said that the Assam State Zoo is now focusing on making a replica of the Savannah grasslands.

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