Seeing the big cats at the zoo is a guilty pleasure of mine. Why not just a pleasure, without the guilt? Because most of the cats at the zoo (tigers, lions, cheetahs, leopards, cougars, and jaguars) aren't native to southern Ontario, and part of me believes they don't belong here, not even in the trusted hands of expert zookeepers. There's the standard philosophical issue around whether it's fair to keep animals on display in enclosures, even if they were found injured and wouldn't have survived in the wild, or if they're part of breeding programs to bring back the species from near extinction - but I don't really want to get into that here. My concern stems from the resources required to keep animals in confinement, and whether our reasons for doing so are strong enough to justify the financial and environmental expense.
From feed to medication to staff, large (especially carnivorous) animals require lots of resources. For any of you who own medium to large sized dogs, this concept is likely familiar to you. How much chicken, pork, and beef does a typical zoo use on a daily basis to keep its animals well fed? How many vets and drugs does it take to keep them healthy? How are all of the droppings disposed of?
Most of the animals at the zoo can't handle this climate. Subsequently, they spend the late fall, all winter, and early spring indoors. My mind immediately races through the additional costs associated with that kind of a setup: building construction (materials, energy), heating (energy), lighting (energy), and cleaning (materials, probably toxic ones). I can't help but think about the world's impoverished living in slums, shantytowns, favelas, and tent cities - imagine what all of these resources could do for them!
There are other issues, such as the gas-powered zoomobile, which runs seven to ten hours a day, 364 days a year. Most visitors come by car because the public transit route is extremely long. The picnic tables are underused these days with so many families buying food on site in disposal containers. Don't get me started on the worthlessness of the gift shop!
Enough whining. What's the alternative? After all, zoos serve three important purposes: educating the public, conserving endangered species, and promoting better stewardship of our natural environment. My suggestion is to stick to those goals, but go local. In Montreal, there's a wonderful place called the Ecomuseum Zoo. The animals featured in this zoo are all indigenous to Quebec's St. Lawrence Valley, and the website says...
The animals that reside at the Ecomuseum zoo are all animals that could not survive in their natural environment. Most of our animals are here because they have injuries that would prevent them from surviving in the wild (i.e. They are unable to escape a predator or to eat on their own). All our animals come from accredited rehabilitation centers and zoological institutions. The Ecomuseum zoo is also a refuge for orphaned wildlife and other wild animals born in captivity. In these cases the animals have not acquired the knowledge or learned the behaviours necessary for their survival in the wild, so we offer them protection against predators, food, care and lots of love!
I'd like to see more of these types of zoos, even if it means no more tigers for me! I'm happy to settle for an Ontario bobcat or lynx, and of course the two little cats indigenous to my living room.