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Sweden Journal: Tragedies at the Zoos

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[caption id="attachment_659" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Screenshot from TV4's Kalla Fakta"][/caption]

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?

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

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