From Conquerors to Custodians: In Defence of Zoos, Ambassador Animals, and Captive Breeding (Part II)

Series Contents:
Part I: Introduction – In Defence of Zoos
Part II: The History of Zoos & Animal Welfare Organisations

PART II – The History of Zoos & Animal Welfare Organisations

This is Part II of the Conquerors to Custodians series where we will explore a brief history of zoos, and detail the various facilities and organisations that manage and monitor them.

We’ll start this article with a brief history of zoos and animal parks in general and then as applies to South Africa. Even though zoos are historically common and significant in human history, our understanding and ethical treatment of animals has vastly evolved and what was acceptable even 50 years ago is no longer even considered in many ecological circles. To that end, I do not condone all zoos and, in fact, there are many that should be shut down immediately, but there are several that are worth supporting. I will also be talking about the organisations in place to keep check on such facilities, including animal welfare groups, zoological associations, studbooks, and conservation permit associations.

The Ugly Origins of Zoos

The first official zoological garden (the precursor the modern zoo) opened in London in 1828 for private, scientific study at first, and then opened for the public in 1857. Prior to this, was the menagerie which has its roots as far back as 3500 BCE in Egypt and differed only in the sense that zoological gardens were built with scientific study in mind. Menageries were often only built for the benefit of the wealthy or politically powerful, such as a royal family or businessman, with no access to the public allowed. Eventually though, some menageries began to use their animals for display and profit.

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The London Zoo is the world’s oldest scientific zoo, having opened in 1828.
Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (1842-1915) ~ Menagerie (The Animal Store)

Unfortunately, zoos have a sordid past that involves much animal neglect and cruelty, but sometimes it was ignorance that caused the harm, as keepers at the time simply had no idea how to care for the animals they were often given by scientists or the wealthy. As they had no, or very little, knowledge of their original environments, eating habits, mating habits etc, the animals often did not survive long.

Part of this awful past included “Human Zoos” where “natives” from so-called “exotic areas of the world”, most notably African, North American and Asian peoples, were displayed in a similar manner to exotic wild animals – all for the amusement of the European and US crowds. A particularly vivid example of this is the saga of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” who was on display in France until her death in 1815. It wouldn’t be until 2002 that her remains would be recovered from the French government by South Africa after a lengthy repatriation process. She was laid to rest in South Africa on Women’s Day with full honours.

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Towards a more Ethical Zoo

Zoos continued to evolve and after World War II an ethical shift began to grow worldwide for the protection of animals and the environment. The sheer scale and horrors of World War I & II seemed to have changed something in the generations who found themselves affected by the war and changes in attitude and approach began to spread.

Following this shift, and thanks to the development of global communication technology, researchers began to realise that, not only was humanity harming its environment on a scale never before realised, but that animals were thinking, feeling creatures that also deserved protection, understanding and study – not exploitation and cruelty. The movement was fledgling, and did have roots as far back as the mid-19th century, but it picked up momentum as more and more research came to light and the public became aware of the plight of animals and the environment.

Florence Harding was the First Lady of the United States from 1921 to 1923 and a passionate animal rights activist.

In the past 20-30 years, most zoos have seen a radical transformation wherein animals aren’t simply display pieces but are the key to helping people connect with their environment in a safe, and educational manner. Unfortunately, many zoos around the world still follow the old ways and are notably cruel or neglectful, but they are also becoming the target of ethical revisions and will hopefully evolve with the rest of the modern zoological movement. The modern focus for many zoos now seems to be the education of the public and the re-connection between humanity and nature. A laudable goal if ever there was one.

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San Diego Zoo is known worldwide for it’s advanced approach to animal welfare, enclosure design and ethical standards.

Colonial Conservation in South Africa

South Africa is known the world over for its natural beauty and diversity of flora and fauna and, prior to European colonisation, the inhabitants of Southern Africa, the Khoisan and Bantu peoples, lived in relative harmony with their surroundings. Resource use was influenced by religious and cultural beliefs and practices and it was rare for an area to be sucked dry of resources, forcing the local people to either die out or move on.

There is evidence that hunter-gatherers and farmers would rotate territories and fields in order to allow the spaces to replenish over a given season, so too is there evidence of the Bantu peoples rotating farming and herding grounds for similar purposes. However, sites such as Great Zimbabwe are prime examples of what happens when a culture overuses the resources of an area without sufficient planning.

Artist’s rendition of the building of Great Zimbabwe

1652 saw the beginning of European colonisation in Southern Africa and by 1656 Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of the Cape Colony (which would go on to become Cape Town), had established hunting regulations for colonists as well as the indigenous peoples. But it was not until 1811 that resources would begin to come under protection. Until that point it was something of a free-for-all, under colonial stewardship, which saw huge swathes of lands stripped of their resources or demarcated for colonist usage – of course, any native inhabitants found in those areas were forcibly removed.

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Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in South Africa, an oil-on-canvas painting by Charles Bell.

In 1811 the British colonial authorities (who had had inherited the Cape Colony from the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars) established measures to conserve woodlands and forests in the coastal areas of parts of South Africa. Rapid deforestation in other British colonies had increased the awareness of and need for conservation of resources and by the mid-19th century there was an active conservation movement in South Africa. In 1886, the first game reserves were developed in the Tsitsikamma forests of the south-eastern coast of South Africa, but these reserves would see the local peoples driven from their homes and lands, as well as hunting, farming, and grazing lands, in the interests of conservation.

Ironically, many of the native peoples were seen as irresponsible savages who would overgraze or deforest an area if left to their own devices and in 1913 and 1936 the Native Land Acts established legislation to ensure indigenous people were allowed on only 13% of available South African land, and most of that was uninhabitable.

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A sign common in Johannesburg in 1950’s Apartheid South Africa.

South African Zoos & Animal Parks

The first animal facility we should focus on here is the the Kruger National Park. One of South Africa’s most well-known environmental facilities and one of the largest game reserves in Africa, it was established in 1898 as a series of protected spaces that finally became South Africa’s first national park in 1926. Despite the abysmal human rights record up until this point in South African history, many colonial conservationists also saw the merit in preserving the South African environment and sought to establish a large preserve. Though it is still marred in its history as being established as a colonial conservation initiative, with indigenous people forcibly removed to the borders of the park, as well as originally being used as a space for wealthy individuals to hunt big game at their leisure, in modern times it has often been used as benchmark and testing ground for conservation practices and is at the forefront of anti-poaching initiatives.

One of the first advertisements for the Kruger National Park in the Illustrated London News, June 1926

The second animal facility we should mention is the first zoo in South Africa, which was founded in Pretoria in 1899. The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, also known as the Pretoria Zoo, was noted for being one of the first zoos to make a fundamental movement towards making enclosures for animals as natural as possible. Until this point most enclosures for zoo animals were concrete blocks and iron bars which were rarely maintained properly, but under the directorship of Dr Frank Brand, the zoo modernised in an ethical manner with conservation ethos at its core. Dr Brand also made strong cases against using animals as entertainment pieces and banned the practice utterly from the park. The zoo has continued to grow under new leadership and is considered currently one of the best zoos in the world.

Pretoria Zoo postcard, circa 1910.

The third animal facility on this list is the Cango Wildlife Ranch (CWR) which started as a crocodile show farm called the Cango Crocodile Farm in 1977 in Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Cango comes from the Khoikhoi word “kango” which means “wet mountain”, probably referring to the local Cango Caves which were often filled with water in the rainy season.

At the time, the farm was a place where crocodiles were bred and sold until it was bought in 1986 by Andrew and Glenn Eriksen who converted it into a conservation facility. From this, grew the Cheetah Preservation Foundation and the primary ethos of the CWR which is “conservation through education”. They are a facility that does captive cheetah breeding, research, public awareness for conservation purposes, and animal encounters through their ambassador animal program.

They are one of only four animal facilities in Africa endorsed by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the other three being the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), The Pretoria Zoo, and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe, Uganda.

We will be discussing the CWR and their ambassador animal programs in more detail later in this series as their facility is exactly the kind that is often targeted by interest groups and therefore is extremely relevant to this series. We will also be discussing facilities with similar captive breeding and conservation programs, as well as facilities that do animal touching/encounters, and we will attempt to tease out the “rights and wrongs” of such practices and facilities.

There are, of course, several other zoos around South Africa and many zoos worldwide we could discuss, however this section was just to give a brief overview of certain zoos and facilities in South Africa for historical context and for the sake of this series.

Animal Welfare Groups & Zoo Regulation Bodies

So far we’ve spoken about the how zoos came to be, the colonial past of environmental conservation in South Africa, and some of the most important animal facilities in South Africa. The reason we’ve done this is for historical context. It’s important to understand the history of why such facilities have come to be and especially in the South African context. There will be some aspects that resonate with facilities and organisations in other parts of the world, but there will be some items that are specific to South Africa. It’s important then, to also understand the regulatory bodies that govern animal facilities in South Africa and worldwide as I believe many activists don’t understand in what way these facilities are regulated and the rules and laws that protect animal facilities and their animals.

For this section, I will not be discussing groups like PETA, Greenpeace and the WWF. The reason is two-fold: the first is that they are NGO’s and work “outside” of established regulations and guidelines for the most part in a given country. Which, fair enough, that is the purpose of an NGO, to do what a government can’t or won’t. However, that also means that they can easily fall prey to corruption or shoddy research and practices, thus it is also up to us, the public, to be aware and call them out if we see trouble.

The second reason is that, even though conservation NGO’s have done some amazing work for animal rights and conservation worldwide, several have less-than-stellar track records in many aspects. There are many recorded instances where some of these organisations will go to extreme lengths and end up harming conservation efforts, even going so far as to kill animals, and/or even ignore serious environmental issues for the sake of maintaining donations. I could spend a significant portion of this article detailing these issues, however that is not the purpose of this section, although I do suggest starting research on the above here, here, and here.

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Though these organisations have done some incredible work, it is still important to know WHO is setting the agenda for an organisation and what their goals are.

In terms of South African organisations, we will not be discussing the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance (SAASA – which consists of Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani which are all owned by the same organisation) as they are not internationally regulated and seem to have been formed purely to prop up their existing animal parks independent of established regulatory bodies. We will also exclude the South African Department of Environmental Affairs as, though conservation facilities and animal parks largely have to conform to their regulations, their stance on trophy and canned-lion hunting is unacceptable, and their implementation and enforcement of environmental policies is abysmal. Thus requiring other organisations to pick up the slack in South Africa; and it is these organisations we will be discussing.

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Wild Welfare is an excellent example of a charity organisation that does stellar work. They work with zoos and conservation organisations to improve their education, staff training, facilities, and animal knowledge all for the betterment of the animals in care of the respective animal park

Most countries have some form of SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and South Africa is no different. Despite a lack of governmental support, this wonderful organisation works to ensure facilities and establishments properly care for their animals. They aren’t always successful in prosecuting a case but they have excellent public trust and reach, and use this to great effect to raise awareness of issues. That being said, more could be done to help them regulate animal facilities, but without government backing, there is only so much they can achieve. You can support them here.

In South Africa’s Western Cape, we have Cape Nature Conservation, and I am mentioning them specifically because they impact and regulate the Cango Wildlife Ranch directly amongst other facilities. Though they can be draconian and inflexible in the implementation of their rules in some instances, it is not without reason as biodiversity in the Western Cape is very tenuous. This has fueled their conservation ethos and they are notoriously hard to please. Most facilities that find themselves on the wrong side of CNC often end up shutting down soon after. They do regular inspections, along with the SPCA, and ensure mandated standards are met and adhered to or improved if found lacking.

The Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (Paaza) was formed in 1989 at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (Pretoria Zoo) and focuses on regulating zoos, animal and conservation facilities across the African continent. They represent 70 institutions across 12 African countries. Being a member means a facility has met their operational standards and is now part of an international body that self-regulates and frequently reevaluates ethical  practices to reach modern standards and animal welfare. This also includes standards of educating the public and connecting them with their environment. In short, an institution doesn’t require an accreditation from Paaza, but having one is an excellent indicator of quality and ethical standards.

Examples of what such organisations have managed to encourage: enrichment activities are now being enforced across member facilities to enhance animal mental and physical health and well-being by giving them constant activities and attention

Species360 is an NGO founded in 1974 that “maintains an online database of wild animals under human care” and the only NGO considered for this list due to their function. They service over 1,000 animal-based organisations in over 90 countries and specialise in zoological data collection and management. Organisations such as these are vital for tracking records and animal management between facilities and allow facilities to communicate records effectively between each other for record-keeping and regulation.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is one of the most important organisations listed here. It was drafted as a result of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1963 and officially formed in 1975. It aims to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants.” It works by enforcing certain controls and regulations over international trade in endangered species. It does have it’s limitations, for example it only focuses on trade at the species level and “does not address habitat loss, ecosystem approaches to conservation, or poverty; it seeks to prevent unsustainable use rather than promote sustainable use”.

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Milestones for CITES regulations since its formation.

Luckily, these limits are evolving along with the organisation’s focus, but for any zoological facility that hosts endangered animals, being part of this organisation is paramount. Why? Because, unless the facility is a sanctuary that specialises in receiving and rehabilitating animals, most zoological facilities need to “trade” animals with each other in order to ensure their own survival as well as that of the species they are supporting – but without regulation, it can get messy and corrupted very quickly. We will discuss this in more detail later in the series.

The final organisation we will be discussing is the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza). Founded in 1935, Waza is an “umbrella” organisation that focuses on ensuring that the zoological facilities under it’s auspice follow modern standards and ethos when it comes to the welfare of the animals under their care. They also partner with their member organisations to encourage research, conservation and education initiatives to improve standards world wide. They have over 1,300 core zoos in their membership and this creates an excellent centre for growth and dialogue for the betterment of facilities and animal welfare. They also work with organisations such as CITES to ensure trade is legalised, standardised, ethical and orientated to the betterment of the facility and the species in question. Organisations such as these have high ethical standards and survive by ensuring their members maintain such standards throughout their membership.

To cap this article off, is this excellent video by D-News on the pros and cons of zoos and the importance of accreditation:

Read Part I “Introduction – In Defence of Zoos” here

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