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A Broken System- The Canberra Zoo and Aquarium

On Friday the 5th of October 2018 I, amongst a large group of chattering preschoolers and worn out parents, spent the day exploring the Canberra Zoo and Aquarium.

Like most adults who go the zoo sans any children, I was hoping to relive the excitement I had felt as a child on school holidays well over six years ago.

What I found there whilst wandering the dirt paths made me physically sick.

Enclosure after enclosure housed animals that paced along fences, or swayed on the tops of platforms.

That excitement I had felt as a child wandering the paths quickly vanished as a feeling of uneasiness replaced it.

The purpose of a zoo is clear, it houses animals that range from heavily populated to those at the far end of the endangered list, and by charging a fee upon entry it allows patrons to view animals they wouldn't normally see in their day to day lives. They then claim the proceeds from the visitors go towards breeding programs that aim to increase endangered animal populations, reduce the harmful factors the animals face in wild and raise awareness of the issues they face; therefore ultimately helping the global population of creatures.

But the zoo's mission is fundamentally flawed.

It removes animals, in the case of those not on the endangered list, from their natural habitats and exploits them in order to make a profit off of their existence. Take the American Zoo Association, across their 232 Accredited Zoo's and Aquariums they house 6000 species, of this only 1000 are actually endangered (AZA, 2018). Sure, they feed them daily, keep their enclosures clean and provide them with entertainment, but these are all man-made factors resulting in an animal that is now dependent on humans. These animals can never be returned to their natural habits, they simply wouldn't adapt in time to survive.

Take the Bengal Tiger, two of which are housed at the Canberra Zoo. Two square holes cut into the wall on the far left-hand side of the enclosure, through these holes food is provided, so near these holes is where the Bengal Tiger resides. The tiger is now completely dependent on humans, if placed back in the wild it would struggle to hunt and fend for itself as it has spent so long trusting that food will be provided for it from a special square hole in the wall.

These animals are not being aided by the zoo. They are being exploited.

But this fact is masked by a pleasantly disguised veil as stories of successful breeding programs, saviour of animals from poaches and changing attitudes towards the continuation of these animals lives blinds our vision.

A frighteningly large number of these animals are experiencing 'zoochosis,' a term used by animal psychologists that aims to describe the behaviour of animals in captivity due to boredom, anxiety and stress. Symptoms, as listed by are shown below:

- Circling

- Pacing

- Bar biting

- Excessive grooming

- Addiction

- Self-harm/Self-Mutilation

- Eating Disorders (including anorexia)

During my time at Canberra Zoo I identified the following:

1. The female sun bear, named Otay, was seen swaying atop her platform, this was explained by zookeepers as a continued habit, due to boredom, said to have been from her time with poachers, a habit they are working to remove. Otay has been at Canberra Zoo since mid 2007, this year marking just over 11 years since she first arrived and yet her habit remains.

2. The male white lion, named Jake, was displaying signs of unhealthiness, with greatly exposed ribs and a diminished howl.

3. The Tasmanian devil, named Lewis, was seen running laps around his enclosure without stopping for over 10 minutes, whilst I watched.

4. The two Sumatran Tigers, Ndari and Rahni, paced alongside their adjoining fence line, back and forth, seemingly endlessly as I saw them initially at approximately 11:15AM and then again at 01:15PM still repeating their track.

This; however, is just the beginning of my concerns with Canberra Zoo and Aquarium.

The zoo offers a range of 'encounters' with the animals they house. Ranging from a $10 feeding of a giraffe to a stay in one of their villa's which can end up costing you over $2000 a night. These 'special' experiences merely serve as an additional form of cash for the Zoo through exploitation of its inhabitants.

Your 'special' 15 minutes with baby cheetah Solo are merely a snippet of the hours Solo spends being touched and prodded by strangers throughout the day.

These animals do not have the freedom they are provided with in the wild, they do not have the ability to avoid situations that they do not want to participate in and they do not have the opportunity to defend themselves against those who wish them harm.

But that's not the saddest part. The zoo makes insane amounts of money from these encounters with their wild animals, most coming from the young, adorable offspring. What the public doesn't understand is that once the babies grow up the cash flow begins to slow as people lose interest.

In order to avoid losing money the zoo sells off these animals to other zoos, then turns around and promotes the next baby animal attraction.

These animals are pawns to the zoo. Replaceable.

Deals are organised to swap or sell off animals when the zoo finds no more use for them, but when no offers are made, the zoo must find other ways to make room.

In 2014, Copenhagen Zoo euthanized four healthy lions in order to make room for a single male lion being transferred in from another zoo in order to aid their breeding program (National Geographic, 2014). This came merely a month after the zoo made waves for its unethical killing of a healthy giraffe due to a surplus of the animals in their enclosure. Both incidents were defended by the zoo as being a normal occurrence. The zoo also responded by explaining that the animals were offered to other zoo's but that no requests were made.

Continuously we are bombarded with the empty claim that the well-being and survival of these animals is the zoo's main priority. But this claim is immediately lost the moment you realise that the non-endangered animals are just their purely for our entertainment; held in areas a fraction of the size of their usual space to roam.

For example, a cheetah thrives in dry savannas, areas with wide open plains such as deserts and grasslands. The Canberra Zoo provides cheetahs with enclosures that are longer than they are wide to aid their desire to run, but the Canberra weather does not suit the conditions ideal for a cheetah. Overtime this will cause an adaption that will inflict on the offspring of cheetahs raised in captivity, an adaption that ultimately alters what makes a cheetah unique.

Even the claim that the endangered animals are being saved by being held by the zoo is a heartless cry. These animals will breed and their numbers will improve, but at what cost?

The animals and their offspring will never be able to reconnect with their natural habitats, after generations of containment, of being bottle-fed and held in enclosures that bare only partial resemblance to their homes they will fail to adapt as they once did and that being only if they are ever even given the opportunity to return to their natural habitats.

The zoo does not work for the conservation and protection of these animals, they work for the conservation and protection of their profits. Former zoo Director David Hancock estimates that a mere 3% of a zoo's budget goes towards conservation (Animals Australia, 2018).

The numbers speak for themselves, currently 41,415 species are endangered yet even some of the largest zoo's, such as the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha houses merely 962 species of which 161 are endangered (Omaha Zoo, 2018). That's only 16.7% of their zoo population dedicated to endangered species, and it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the total number of endangered species out there.

If zoo's are really focused on their mission of conservation and protection of endangered species, then why isn't there a stronger focus towards this?


Zoo's are focused on running a business, a business defined by entertainment, not conservation.

END NOTE: zoo's cannot operate without funding, primarily produced from the entrance fee's citizens pay in order to enter the zoo. Change starts at the very bottom, boycott the zoo.

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