Brian Major | January 08, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Envisioning an End to Animal Captivity
The headline featured some promising and even revolutionary news: “Costa Rica Is Shutting Down all Zoos and Freeing Every Animal in Captivity.”
Unfortunately this header was merely a hoax. It turns out the potentially landmark announcement was just another inaccurate flight of Internet fancy. Contrary to the article from the higherperspectives.com website, Costa Rica is not closing all of its zoos.
A TicoTimes.com report in fact found the August 2015 piece in online publication True Activist was actually based on a two year-old Trehugger.com article. That piece was itself was linked to a 2014 Tico Times item which ironically reported the Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry’s failure to implement such a plan.
It seems Rene Castro, a former environment minister of the famously ecologically sensitive nation, announced he would allow contracts with nonprofit organizations in charge of the country’s two urban zoos to run out. Under Castro’s plan one zoo would transition to a biological education center while the other became a forest reserve.
Castro later told reporters his ultimate plan was to free every animal in captivity in Costa Rica. “It is a gradual process, but eventually we hope that there will no longer be animals in cages anywhere in the country,” he said. “We don’t want animals in captivity or enclosed in any way unless it is to rescue or save them,” he added.
Yet in a development that would prove inevitable had Castro’s power play occurred in the U.S., the nonprofit organization operating the zoos took the dispute to court, alleging breach of contract. The group, FUNDAZOO, ultimately won the lawsuit, allowing it to continue managing Costa Rica’s zoos for another 10 years.
Perhaps shamed into action, FUNDAZOO has in turn launched a renovation of the Simón Bolívar Zoo in Barrio Amón, in part due to criticism of conditions including crocodiles who’ve spent “years lying cramped together in a dingy moat” and an African lion “lazing away his days in a dismally small, concrete pen.”
Such situations illustrate the stark insensitivity inherent in the practice of placing animals in captivity for the purpose of exhibition. In many ways, a zoo is an equally indefensible – albeit less extreme – means of exploiting an animal as hunting one for sport.
Last year’s killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe rightfully resulted in global outrage. But was that brutal act measurably less humane than the practice of condemning wild animals to what are in effect jail cells to satisfy the curiosity of blithely amused travelers?
To be sure, we are all endlessly fascinated by the incredible beauty of the natural species that populate our planet. Yet as my colleague James Ruggia so aptly points out, our fascination at times has developed into a dangerous human fantasy of a personal relationship under which the human “civilizer” pulls all the strings. Is the concept of locking an otherwise free creature in a cage for the enjoyment of others even remotely civil?
Costa Rica is by no means alone when it comes to contemporary travel destinations whose animal displays raise troubling issues. Last year an Oxford University study called the Cayman Turtle Farm, one of the destination’s best-known attractions, “one of the cruelest wildlife attractions in the world.”
Tim Adam, the facility’s director, has called the Oxford research “pseudoscience.” What is not disputed however is that the facility houses “hundreds” of indigenous Cayman green turtles, which in their natural environment dive to great depths and swim huge distances, in large tanks that until recently were unshaded.
The 2013 documentary Blackfish similarly questions the impact of captivity on killer whales at SeaWorld, another facility created for traveler entertainment.
Thankfully the advent of eco-tourism, under which travelers have become more aware of their ability to play a role in protecting and preserving natural species, and the efforts of “non-extractive” travel organizations like andBeyond, which work for and rely on the survival of wildlife, provide hope for a future. Their efforts promote more respectful methods for interacting with the exotic species with which we share the earth.
Another contemporary example is provided by the Westin St. Maarten, one of a handful of several Caribbean resorts that allow guests to observe the nesting habits of Hawksbill sea turtles. The resort recently posted video of 130 new hatchlings making their way to the ocean from Dawn Beach.
With a little luck and perhaps a changing global mindset, the turtles’ brief moments among humans will satisfy the travelers’ desires for interaction while also allowing the turtles to do what they were born to do – freely roam the world’s waters.
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