One of the zoo world’s grandes dames, the Alaska Zoo’s 27-year-old African elephant, Maggie, is being sent to a sanctuary in California to live out her days in peace. I could not be happier: Female elephants are highly social animals, but Maggie has been living alone since 1997, when her companion elephant Annabelle died.
News of Maggie’s upcoming release got me thinking: I wonder how Knut is doing?
If you’re saying, “Knut who?” you’re not alone. Only recently, Knut—a polar bear cub born at the Berlin Zoo—appeared on more cover pages than Britney and Paris combined. He captured the hearts of people worldwide, but what have you heard about “the people’s polar bear” lately?
This is the zoo industry’s dirty secret. Zoos breed animals because babies bring in big bucks. But as the animals get bigger, crowds grow smaller. Visitors lose interest and move on, while Knut and other animals born in zoos languish behind bars—warehoused, sold or bartered like damaged goods.
In zoos, “cute and cuddly” only counts while it lasts. Even though he’s less than a year old, Knut has already lost his primary caretaker—his “replacement mom”—because he is now too big to be handled. But like all babies who long for nurturing and comfort, Knut howls in misery at the loss of the only companion he’s ever known. Plans are in the works for Knut’s eventual transfer to another zoo, where he’ll be used in a breeding program. One can imagine zoo accountants mentally tallying gate receipts for Knuts II, III and IV.
Adult animals in zoos are routinely discarded like yesterday’s trash. The Andean bears who lived in the cage where Knut was transferred were unceremoniously dumped at another zoo to make room for the baby. No television cameras were present on that occasion. Reports of a Swiss zoo that recently killed two endangered lion cubs—simply because it didn’t have room for them—garnered little attention.
Here at home, a chimpanzee named Edith was torn away from her primate family at the Saint Louis Zoo when she was just 3 1/2 years old. Over the next 37 years, she was shuffled around to five different facilities. Today, Edith is wasting away in a filthy enclosure at a Texas roadside zoo. Orangutan Rusti, born at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, spent years at a hideous hellhole in New Jersey before anyone intervened.
The sheer avarice propelling these breeding programs sentences countless animals to equally grim fates.
New Jersey’s Cape May County Zoo made $6,000 on the sale of two giraffes, Twiggs and Jeffrey, to an animal broker—who then sold them to a tawdry traveling circus. The owners of Minnesota’s Bearcat Hollow were charged with conspiring to sell more than $200,000 worth of endangered or threatened tigers, grizzly bears, leopards and other animals—in violation of federal law. Prosecutors indicted the owner of the misnamed Amarillo Wildlife Refuge on four counts of attempting to sell two clouded leopards and a white tiger and falsifying documents pertaining to the sale.
Many animals are worth more dead than alive. Some zoo cast-offs end up at canned-hunting facilities, where they are easy marks for hunters seeking a new trophy for the den. Organs from exotic animals are commonly sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and hides and heads are mounted and sold to collectors. An investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into a South Dakota zoo called Bear Country USA revealed the sale of more than $26,000 worth of bear paws, gallbladders and other body parts—taken from animals at the facility.
As long as baby animals keep bringing paying customers through zoos’ gates, this vicious cycle will continue. Instead of patronizing zoos, caring people can help animals by supporting groups that work to preserve habitats or sanctuaries that rescue and provide humane, lifetime care for exotic animals—without breeding them or discarding them once the “cute factor” has worn off.Lisa Wathne is a captive exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.