Are We All Poachers?

First of all, to those of you that follow this blog I apologize for my absence the past couple of months. I’ve been busy with a myriad of tasks but hope to settle back into a routine now.

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What does the future hold for this young rhino?
Copyright Cathy Pemberton 2012

Are we all poachers?  This of course is, and was meant to be a provocative question. As many of you know I am extremely concerned about the rampant poaching that is occurring in Africa. Elephants are being slaughtered by the thousands for their ivory tusks[1]. Reports are now coming in about the killing of rhinos. Powdered rhino horn is a valued “male enhancement” and medicinal product in much of Asia. Just 2 weeks ago the western black rhino, a subspecies of the African rhinoceros last spotted in 2006, was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.[2]  Those of us in the western world that would never consider purchasing artworks carved from ivory or consume powdered rhino horn to improve our sexual prowess are rightly offended by the killing of endangered species and the destruction of habitats that is occurring today in Africa.

However, reality is seldom so neat and clean. Saturday’s issue of the San Francisco Chronicle contained a front page article by Meredith May titled “PAWS helps aging elephants.” [3] This article describes the work of Pat Derby (dec. Feb. 15, 2013) and Ed Stewart in operating the Performing Animal Welfare Society. Today PAWS operates three animal sanctuaries in Galt, Rancho Seco and San Andreas, California. Pat and Ed were originally animal trainers and created PAWS as a rescue sanctuary for abused performing animals.

mercury-cougar-1a

Mercury – Sign of the Cat

I first met Pat in the mid 1980s shortly after she opened the first sanctuary in Galt, just outside of Sacramento. As a trainer she had worked on television shows such as Daktari, Gunsmoke, Lassie, Gentle Ben and Flipper. She also trained Chauncey and Christopher, the cougars that starred in the Lincoln Mercury “Sign of the Cat” car commercials. The facility in Galt was small, only a few hundred acres, but it was clear that Pat was passionate about correcting the abuses of animals that she had seen and giving them a place to peacefully live out their lives. She campaigned relentlessly until the time of her death to eliminate the abuses of performing animals that were (are?) rampant in the industry. Does public demand for animal entertainment represent a form of “poaching”?

Jack Hanna

Jack Hanna

The article in the Chronicle got me thinking about the role of zoos in the world today. Most people will attend a zoo and find it to be a very enjoyable experience. And there is no question that seeing an elephant up close is infinitely more impressive than seeing one on television. In fact, zoos today pride themselves on their scientific breeding programs, their educational programs and their wildlife conservation efforts. We even have celebrity zookeepers such as Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, with their own TV shows proclaiming the value of zoos in promoting environmental awareness and conservation.

Paul Chinn - SF Chronicle

Paul Chinn – SF Chronicle

Yet I’ve always had an uneasy feeling that such proclamations contained a good deal of self-serving  rationalization. Zoos are centers of civic pride in many communities. We remember catch phrases such as “the world famous San Diego Zoo”. Are we really maintaining zoos to educate our populace and preserve the species? Or are the educational programs simply there to justify what already exists. Zoos have dramatically improved over the years, eliminating the confined metal cages and replacing them with simulated natural environments. Yet these are still woefully short of what wild animals, such as elephants, need and would experience in a natural environment. While there are still some animals captured in the wild and placed in zoos, most of the animals are bred in captivity and transferred between zoos. But as Ed Stewart of PAWS stated “Each time I hear another baby elephant is born in a zoo, I think, “That’s another 50-year jail sentence.'” 3 Some zoos have in fact shut down their elephant programs. The latest to do so is the Toronto Zoo. With a donation of $800,000 from game show host and well know animal rights activist Bob Barker the last 3 elephants will be transferred from Toronto to PAWS Ark 2000 facility in San Andreas. Is it time we shut down all of them?

Hence our ethical dilemma. Is the keeping of wild animals in zoos the ethical equivalent of poaching? In terms of numbers of animals certainly not. And the fact that the zoo animals are alive while the poached animals are dead is an important difference. Even though I can’t help but feel that the promotion of zoos perpetuates the acceptability of captive wild animals, at the end of the day, I must reject my conjecture that we are all poachers for enjoying the captive animals in the zoo. However, we must be cautious. We must continuously examine our actions and motives and make sure they withstand rigorous ethical scrutiny. At the first whiff of rationalization we must sound the alarm and take action. You can start by checking to see if your zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) by clicking here:
http://www.aza.org/current-accreditation-list/

A list of non AZA accredited facilities can be found here:
http://www.zoology.msu.edu/uploads/documents/nonAZAaccredited2012.pdf [4]

If you are interested in supporting conservation and efforts to prevent poaching there are many fine organizations. If you are interested in PAWS their website is: http://www.pawsweb.org/index.html

A few of my other  favorites are:

World Wildlife Fund,
http://worldwildlife.org/

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust,
https://www.facebook.com/thedswt?hc_location=stream


[1] Record poaching drives African elephants into decline
For Release: Jun 21, 2012
Jennafer Bonello
jenna.bonello@wwfus.org

[2] Western black rhino officially extinct
By William Holt | Yahoo! News – Thu, Jun 27, 2013
http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/news/western-black-rhino-officially-extinct-150259423.html

[3] PAWS helps aging elephants, Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 2013

[4] The presence of a facility on this list does not assure that the facility is inadequate or non-compliant. It is a starting point for investigation.