Zoo-logical

Wild Mammals in Captivity
June 14, 1996

No one likes to see the big cats pacing up and down incessantly in maddening boredom behind heavy bars, as they were in the older, conventional menageries, and even attempts to contain such animals - as well as the public who come to see them - by substituting moats for bars are repugnant to some. Nevertheless many of the wonderful forms of life with which we share this planet are doomed to extinction without zoos of some kind or another, and the more sensitive must ask themselves the question: no zoos or no animals? It is downright tragic that in some parts of the world there exist organisations dedicated to the abolition of zoos or menageries of any kind - for with the extinction of our zoos would go our last feeble chance of saving many of the extraordinarily varied forms of life with which we share this planet.

It can be a relatively simple task, as with Pere David's deer at Woburn, when the native and exotic environments suitable for these animals are virtually identical. All the Duke of Bedford had to do was to preserve the deer from persecution - easy enough on a strictly private English estate. It is a different matter if you have to create a fragment of a tropical rainforest environment to rescue from oblivion such animals as the lemurs of Madagascar or the sloths of South America.

If, for the sake of argument, we grant that animals must be kept under some form of artificial restraint, then zoos should be staffed with those who have made Wild Mammals in Captivity their essential textbook rather than a mere handbook. This is the only up-to-date and comprehensive manual on the problems of and the solutions to keeping and handling wild mammals outside their natural environment.

The book has no fewer than 76 contributions dealing not only with the animals themselves but also with handling those who come to see them and who are often the cause of the problems the book addresses.

Vandalism, for example, has always been a problem. At London Zoo I would cheerfully have thrown in the humourist along with the tennis ball he cast into the gaping jaws of the gentle bull hippo called Neville, who died in agony of gastroenteritis weeks later, the ball being discovered on autopsy. Then we had the 12-year-old Camden Town entrepreneurs, one of whom was discovered to have dug a hole under a fence on the zoo's perimeter and was charging his friends admittance at substantially reduced fees. The same community once surprised zoo authorities with its ability to produce common English grass-snakes, needed in winter to feed a king cobra, a species that lives exclusively on other snakes - until it was discovered that the urchins were stealing the zoo's own stock of this hibernating species from an unguarded open-air enclosure and selling them back to us.

Many zoos have now banned the feeding of their animals by the public. Reindeer, for example, will readily eat bread but die of it, many primates will eat practically anything thrown at them by visitors, but in doing so acquire tuberculosis, a major killer in all zoos, and other diseases to which, unlike ourselves, these primates have no inherited resistance. The banning of feeding animals by visitors was never an easy decision: experienced keepers at the London Zoo predicted financial disaster if it was done, for visitors enjoy watching animals eat their often highly unsuitable and even lethal offerings. And the keepers were probably right, given the well-known financial troubles of the London Zoo; the result of a drastic decline in the numbers of visitors, together with the competing appeal of television animal documentaries.

Wild Mammals in Captivity addresses most of these problems with extraordinary care and detail. It deals with rabies, for instance, that most hideous and incurable (though not unpreventable) disease the United Kingdom has so far successfully kept at bay through stringent laws, but is still terrifyingly common where I live in India; with nutritional sources, often an intransigent problem with rare species; and with what to do in an emergency, such as the escape of a dangerous animal in a crowded zoo.

Kathy Carlstead's discerning and sensitive section on "environmental enrichment" in her essay on "The effects of captivity on the behaviour of wild mammals" emphasises that larger, more natural-looking exhibits do not necessarily enhance an animal's sense of well-being. Indeed the reverse may be true, as in the case of what used to be called the ungulates, the larger hoofed mammals. Used to large spaces away from visitors, they may panic and injure themselves when approached before they have become adapted to a new environment. Large mammals surprisingly often do better in the smaller confines of London than in the wider spaces of Whipsnade.

The appendix on interzoo breeding loans is perhaps the most important section, given the need to save rare species in captivity. An example of how successful this can be is that of the beautiful Arabian oryx, a few of which had been preserved in various zoos around the world and were eventually brought together in Arizona with so triumphal a breeding success that many were returned to their native Arabian deserts.

Sexual behaviour and reproduction are not, as is commonly supposed, entirely the result of pure instinct. I knew a young male chacma baboon that grew up alone in captivity, without the company of other baboons. When he had matured and was put in with a female of his own species in oestrus he became tremendously excited as she continually presented to him, but instead of mounting her he sat beside her and masturbated furiously, not knowing what else there was to do. And I have known even a gay gorilla and a gay orang-utang - the latter attacking and severely biting a female companion of my own species I brought to see him. Female primates commonly reject their young for the same reason: they have never had the opportunity of learning from others of their species what they are supposed to do with the little things. Hand-rearing is therefore the only approach, and here again this magnificent manual gives the soundest detailed advice.

One could have wished, perhaps, for a little more on the problems of handling visitors to zoological collections, but, as Lee and the late Gerald Durrell so rightly stress in their splendid introduction, too many governing boards are still appallingly ignorant of the purpose of the work they are doing, still under the impression that the main function of an animal collection is to entertain those who pay to see them, which explains "why giant pandas can still be peddled around the world's zoos like piebald prostitutes".

A French aristocrat once invited to stay with an English nobleman was particularly impressed with the long avenue of stately oaks lining the drive up to the manor of his host. On returning to France he summoned his head gardener, described the avenue of trees and told him he wanted the same thing on his estate. "But, sir," said his gardener, "it takes generations to grow trees like that." "In that case," said his master, "there is not a moment to be lost."

Compiling Wild Mammals in Captivity took only ten years, not generations, but for those whose vocation leads them into intimate contact with wild but captive animals, there is not a moment to be lost.

Harry Miller, a fellow of the Zoological Society, lives in Madras.

Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles and Techniques

Editor - Devra G. Kleiman, Mary. E. Allen, Katherine V. thompson and Susan Lumpkin
ISBN - 0 226 44002 8
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 640

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