Written by The Star on 25 Apr 2008 with 0 comments. Be the first!
Many of us have visited zoos or animal theme parks before. Whatever our intentions were - e. g. the kids love animals, we wanted to take part in a conservation effort, etc - doing so may have made us an accomplice to animal suffering.
Captive animals often live in less than ideal conditions. Some animals are housed in cramped cages and routinely abused to entertain visitors. Short of closing down the zoos and circuses, what can we do to prevent the mistreatment of animals?
We can choose to stay away from these "attractions". But perhaps it's more important to learn to spot the signs of an animal in distress and report to the relevant authorities. Zoo checks are, in fact, conducted by animal welfare groups.
One such group is Singapore-based Acres (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society), which in February conducted an undercover check on Zoo Negara.
Basically, the experts look at the state of the enclosures, whether there is sufficient shelter, space, furniture and enrichment, and whether the animals display abnormal behaviour.
Acres uses an evaluation checklist known as the Five Freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst; thermal and physical discomfort; injury, disease and pain; fear and distress; and the freedom to express normal behaviour.
Another important component is to ensure the safety of visitors, said Acres' director of research and education, Amy Corrigan.
"From the checks, we can evaluate if visitors can easily climb over the barrier or reach through a wire-mesh cage and endanger themselves," said Corrigan from the UK.
It was Corrigan and her colleague, Anbarasi Boopal, head of programmes at the Acres Wildlife Rescue Centre, who conducted the Zoo Negara check.
Due to time constraints, Acres focused on a few species: the primates (siamang, white-handed gibbons, chimpanzee and orang utan), big cats (Sumatran tiger, Gir lion and leopard), bears (Asiatic black bear, Brown bear and Malayan sun bear) and elephants.
And so, on a sunny morning one day, I tagged along to watch how a zoo check is done.
"Winnie the Pooh" and her bear friends were all housed in grotto-style enclosures with dry moat barriers in front. The Asiatic black bears were grossly flabby and one of them suffered from extreme fur loss.
Both the bears seemed lethargic. Other than a small pool, the enclosure was devoid of any physical structures like climbing frames, trees, streams or pools.
In the next enclosure, two massive brown bears were pacing in circles at the edge of an empty pool. The larger male bear had bald patches on its body. Round and round these two went in their enclosure.
"Pacing is a classic case of 'stereotypic behaviour' - repeated behaviour with no function - and it's the animal's way of coping with stress," said Corrigan.
"Also, some animals self-groom excessively causing their fur to be pulled out, or play with their tongues."
Such behaviour is due to lack of space, stimulation, food or social/sexual partners.
"Fur loss can be due to stress, an allergic reaction to food or a skin infection. These animals should be under veterinary care. One of the brown bears has pink scabs on his feet - perhaps a result of repetitive pacing on the concrete surface," Corrigan pointed out.
If nothing is done to alleviate the stress, the animal will eventually give up - a term experts call "learned helplessness". They will become lethargic and spend the whole day snoozing.
Space and stimulation
The Malayan sun bears had it slightly better.
An artificial tree trunk sat in a leafy enclosure and seemed to be a favourite of the bears.
Two of them were resting on the "tree" and were partly hidden from public view. After 10 minutes, we saw the two bears wanting to climb up the tree, ending in a standoff and plenty of growling.
"The enclosure is too small for four adult bears and there's not enough resources for them," observed Corrigan.
We moved on to another enclosure and saw yet another pair of sun bears.
"Often in zoos, you can see many individuals of the same species, we feel it's better to have one or two individuals but give them the best enclosure possible for a much better quality of life," remarked Corrigan.
One of Zoo Negara's leopards was in the news four months ago for clawing a young girl who got too close to its cage.
When we visited the enclosure, there were lots of signs warning people not to cross the barrier. But really, there was nothing to stop anyone from clambering over the 1m-high wire fence and poking their hands through the large wire mesh.
Apparently, a moronic visitor once threw an umbrella into the cage just to provoke the leopards.
The female leopard paced a figure of eight restlessly. It appeared she had been doing this for a while because the grass had been worn down.
"But the leopards' environment is good. It's spacious with lots of greens, resting platforms, and logs for climbing and grassy substrate (ground)," observed Corrigan.
"There are two leopards so they can interact with each other. However, further studies may be needed to tell why the female is really stressed," Corrigan summed up.
A "decent" enclosure
The popular tigers had one of the best enclosures in the zoo - lots of dense vegetation, bamboo and trees, and a large pool for them to swim in. They had shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.
Dense foliage allowed them to hide from the public eye if they chose to. There were tree stumps, a suspended log and scratching post to stimulate them. A pulley system was used for feeding the tigers, whereby they had to jump up for their food.
"However, the glass barrier is too low. If the tiger swims in the moat, visitors can lean over and touch it. It's dangerous for the tigers and humans," warned Corrigan.
I'd never seen elephants sway their bodies and heads so vigorously over and over again until I came here. Two of them were chained under a sheltered area in the main enclosure while one male elephant was kept in an indoor enclosure with only its rear visible.
There was a pool but it was empty, and the dry moat with steep sides could pose a danger for the elephants if they slipped.
"It's a first for me to see an elephant swaying whilst eating," said Corrigan, concerned.
'One day, they might decide they have had enough and go on a rampage. In most developed countries, zoos like London Zoo and Detroit Zoo have phased out elephants. Studies have shown they shouldn't be in captivity - you can't give them the family group, a big space to roam and natural vegetation to graze on."
"Studies have shown pacing behaviour can be eliminated if the animal is moved to a better habitat or larger enclosure," said Corrigan.
Even if funding is an issue, there are still ways to improve an animal's well-being without breaking the bank.
"With bears, you can drill holes into logs, put some honey in and make them use their tongues to get it out, like in the wild. Or smear peanut butter, or put different smells in different areas," suggested Corrigan.
"Bears are inquisitive so it's easy to provide enrichment but it has to be changed frequently."
Corrigan explained that enrichments like logs, branches and scratching posts are important because they encourage captive animals to behave as close as possible to their wild counterparts, while feeding enrichment encourages natural foraging behaviour.
Most sub-standard zoos or theme parks use concrete flooring for the enclosures, she said disapprovingly.
"With a concrete ground, the animals can't dig or forage, and if they tend to pace, they get abrasions and sores on their feet which can lead to infection. Also, concrete radiates heat in hot weather and cools down rapidly in the cold," she pointed out.
Soft substrates like earth, sand, grass or woodchips are preferable and don't cost a bomb.
Generally, it's better for zoos to stock native animals because they are adapted to the environment, Corrigan suggested. Also, many zoos these days do captive breeding programmes so it's easier to reintroduce them into the wild.
"It seems crazy to breed polar bears in the tropics and say they will be released into the wild one day, and dealing with the logistics of shipping animals across the world," argued Corrigan. "And if you see them in an unnatural setting, what do you really learn about their natural behaviour?"
One of the things we noticed was that there were hardly any zookeepers patrolling the grounds.
"You need the presence of the staff to make sure people don't throw things at animals, tease them or make too much noise. In many countries, people see animals as entertainment and clowns, so they'll clap, shout, make funny noises to try to get a response, which is stressful for the animals."
Ideally, Corrigan added, zoos should have an open concept so that bars and cages will not block the animals' views and they can get stimulation from their surroundings.
Overall, Acres is encouraged by Zoo Negara's ambition to become a world-class zoo and phase out the keeping of animals in cages by 2015.
"We have successfully worked with several zoos in the region and we look forward to working with Zoo Negara to continue to improve the welfare of the animals in their care," said Corrigan.
"Zoo Negara can set an example for other zoos in the region to follow."
Changes are taking place
One month after the Acres check, we dropped by Zoo Negara's director's office to present our findings. As it turned out, the zoo was already a step ahead.
Last September, the South-East Asian Zoo Association (Seaza) audited Zoo Negara on its ethics and welfare standards. The zoo managed to obtain the Seaza certification, which is valid for five years.
"I'm very open to third-party audits. As I've said, to be the best, you have to listen to feedback and continue to improve," said Dr Mohammad Ngah, zoo director since 2005.
Since the Seaza audit, Zoo Negara has made a few improvements like adding furniture and enrichment to enclosures. Every three to four months, enrichment is changed.
"We need a lot of manpower to change the enrichments, hence we need more volunteers to help out," said Dr Mohammad, who has a doctorate in physiology.
There are 100 keepers at the zoo and 23 supervisors. Staff training here is done by vets and curators. There are 480 animals species and 5,305 animals. The zoo costs RM7mil to run annually, and 80% of its income comes from ticket sales. Most of the money is poured into repairs and maintenance, and feeding the animals.
To date, it hasn't received a single sen from the Government, under the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP). But the zoo is soldering on.
"The orang utan are no longer used in animal shows. We also plan to phase out the use of high-profile animals in animal shows and instead focus on animals such as birds, or those that display only natural behaviour. We also plan to have more interactive sessions,"said Dr Mohammad.
It's good to hear that the elephants may be freed from their chains soon.
"We realise that the elephants don't belong in their space here and we don't have the money to enlarge the space," said Dr Mohammad. "I'm a pragmatic and practical person, if we can't provide for them, we have to let them go."
"Also the risk of elephants attacking humans is high," he added.
Mohamad said he has sent his team of vets and curators to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang to discuss the transfer of the elephants.
The Seaza audit also revealed the poor welfare of the bears, so the zoo has started increasing furniture in the enclosure.
As for the leopards, a private corporation has sponsored the installation of a hotwire fence inside the pen to prevent the leopards from getting too close. Work has finished on building a higher barrier for the tiger enclosures.
"We have started monitoring the female leopard's pacing behaviour and are experimenting with different enrichments and furniture," Dr Mohammad informed us.
To deal with the lack of manpower, the zoo is seeking volunteers to become "interactive officers," guides and zoo patrollers (a programme for kids under 12 years old) on Saturday and Sunday.
The zoo, Dr Mohammad said, runs internal staff training every week. Every third Saturday of the month, it holds a public seminar run by experts from universities, vets or NGOs to discuss topics related to zoos and wildlife.
Overseas volunteers, mostly zookeepers and curators, also help out in enrichment programmes for two to four weeks at a time.
"We have also initiated an animal enrichment programme by inviting four vets from Taipei Zoo (in Taiwan) to conduct the programme," added Dr Mohammad.
If the current management's open-mindedness and initiatives are an indication, a world-class zoo in Malaysia in 2015 may not be so far-fetched, after all.
For more information, call Mary Tan at (03) 4108 3422/7/8 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mistreatment must not be condoned.
With the help of Acres, we compiled some tips on how you can be kind to the animals.
Look out for:
A stressed animal: Pacing (or swimming), licking or biting cage bars, showing unnatural aggression towards other animals in the same enclosure or lethargy are some typical signs of captive animals.
Tiny enclosures: Carnivores show the most stress in captivity, based on a 2003 Oxford University report. Species like polar bears, elephants, whales and dolphins are known to suffer particularly from the constraints of captivity.
Animal shows: In the wild, cockatoos don't cycle, bears don't dance and orang utan certainly don't play golf. It's not natural to make them do tricks, especially since training stints may include beatings, food deprivation and drugging.
Animal photography: Everybody wants a zoo souvenir, but some of these "models" may have had their teeth and claws pulled out to minimise the risk of attack when you get up close. Some animals are drugged to keep them docile.
Animal rides: Elephants,ponies and camels are forced to take tourists for rides in scorching temperatures. Often, the animals are badly treated or beaten into submission, are malnourished, old or even pregnant.
Try to make a difference
Do not patronise attractions that exploit or cause animal suffering. If you suspect poor animal welfare:
Record the evidence - take photographs or record it on a video camera, noting the date, time and location.
Express your concerns to the establishment (zoo, wildlife park, etc).
Inform your tour company/travel agent.
Write to the local media to raise awareness on the issue.
Report to the relevant local authorities.
In Malaysia, you can call the Department of Veterinary Services at (03) 8870 2000 (http://agrolink.moa.my/jph/). Offenders can be prosecuted under Malaysia's Animals Ordinance 1953. Or call Perhilitan (Department of Wildlife & National Parks) at (03) 9075 2872 ext 118.
The Zoo Negara zoo check is sponsored by coach company Aeroline, Corus Hotel Kuala Lumpur, conservation group Wild Asia and Acres.
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