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Sweden Journal: Tragedies at the Zoos

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Screenshot from TV4's Kalla Fakta

Over here in socialist paradise (a.k.a. Sweden), the public reads the news and watches their television in horror. An investigative journalism team at TV4 has just aired a special on Kalla Fakta (Cold Facts) catching the director of the Parken Zoo in Eskilstuna in several lies over treatment of the animals and the fate of several rare and valuable endangered species in the zoo’s custody. It’s a sad, tragic, but important documentary. Although seemingly one-sided there is no disputing the video evidence (trigger warning for those sensitive to images of dead animals) and the contradicting stories from the Director herself (who has now been suspended over her “incompetent statements”). You can watch the program subtitled in English below. It’s 22 minutes but I feel it’s worth your time.

This tragedy brings back to light, though, the role of zoos in environmental education and as centers for conservation. While the situation at Parken seems to be extreme it is by no means an isolated event. Just days before the release of the Parken details, Öland’s Djurpark – also in Sweden – was in the spotlight with reports from former employees that animals that were beaten to death by staff, starved to death or not given the necessary treatments cause they couldn’t afford veterinary care of no longer had room for the animals. Additionally, the park’s guest workers were put in cramped quarters and fed with food donated to the park by local grocers intended for feeding the animals – all the while the zoo was claiming half of their monthly post-tax paychecks of 12,000 kronor ($1800) for food and lodging. When workers expressed they want to live somewhere else they in effect treated as resigning.

Parken’s and Öland’s actions are the result of bottom-line thinking, cutting corners to save as much money as possible at the expense of the animals in their care and, in the case of Öland’s Djurpark, at the expense of their foreign guest workers. They knowingly conducted operations that were illegal in the eyes of the law and immoral in the eyes of their supporters. Not only that, but they slaughtered species who populations are so low in the wild that the IUCN classified them as endangered. The best estimates for endangered tiger populations in 2010 were 4000 individuals, while Bongo populations in Africa are estimated to be declining more than 20% over 3 generations (about 21 years); moving their IUCN listing from near threatened to the edge of vulnerable.

Nearly every country has private and public zoos or wildlife parks/sanctuaries; many have dozens, such as the United States. How many situations where the portrayal of conservation at these places is maligned with the actual practice of conservation there? Keeping wild animals for any reason is a resource-intensive business and building a conservation and educational mission on top of the animal care adds more complexity. Both for-profit and non-profit zoos and animal parks face the difficult balance of generating interest and visitors to the zoo – i.e. with new species, exhibits and attractions – with maintaining their conservation mission and the welfare of the creatures in their care. This is undeniable, especially for publicly subsidized zoos. Breaking stories about animal neglect, abuse and flagrant misuse of conservation missions destroy public trust in the idea that zoos are places where people learn about animals from all over the world and carry out important work in the conservation of biodiversity.

Or maybe zoos are an outdated idea that is untenable in our current age? What do you think?

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +. Editor's Selection Posts on EvoEcoLab!

Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. tuibguy 8:26 am 10/20/2012

    It’s really hard to watch videos like this because I expect more from zoos than to treat animals as “inventory” to be disposed of when new models need shelving space. The fact that the animals destroyed are so close to extinction is disturbing enough, but even if they were a well-populated species the idea of starving animals to death because of a lack of awareness of their dietary needs is unconscionable. If we are going to continue to have zoos, the people who run them should be dedicated to making sure that the animals have the best care available, or not be in business at all.

    I am divided on the utility of zoos. I do think that people should be able to see and experience wildlife that would otherwise be remote, so that wildlife in trouble is something more real than a video or a picture on a Facebook wall. I see that many zoos have made an effort to create as natural of environments as possible so that the animals can stretch and roam, but this situation in the Parken Zoo is an example of the profit motive taking over the utility of zoos for education.

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  2. 2. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 9:41 am 10/21/2012

    Right, there are certainly examples of stellar zoos. The NC zoo in Asheboro is one of my favorites. On the other hand, I have witnessed an appalling concrete hell in Wilmington, NC with emaciated looking animals. I think part of the problem is that oversight agencies are opt in and do little monitoring. I think this is the case in Sweden and if I’m not mistaken, the AZA in the US is opt-in.

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  3. 3. Mythusmage 8:40 pm 10/23/2012

    If you want to be in charge of any endeavour you need to accept one thing, the possibility of embarassment. Be ready for difficulites, and honest about it. No matter how careful you are at hiding troubles word always gets out.

    And remember, it’s not your zoo, you’re only a caretaker.

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