By Noemí Rodríguez Batanero
InfoZoos biologists analyze determining factors for the physical and mental health of the inhabitants of zoos, such as that the habitat is as similar as possible to the place where the animal lives in the wild, and a composition of groups similar to that which would occur in freedom. The photograph of a monkey cub in a Canarian zoo trying to climb a tree painted on the wall of a completely transparent cage or the image of a white rhinoceros circling for hours in a Valencian park sums up the feeling of frustration that in too many times wild animals suffer away from their natural environment.
Spanish zoos and dolphinariums continue to be far from the conservation and educational objectives that justify the existence of this type of park today. At least, that's how the European Commission considers it, which a few months ago denounced Spain before the Court of Justice of the Union because several Spanish regions did not comply with the Zoos Law, six years after it was approved. The NGO InfoZoos, a national benchmark in the fight to achieve quality zoos - seeking both the welfare of animals and fidelity to the educational role of these centers - continues to carry out several inspections of zoos in some of the Communities included in the complaint against the Kingdom of Spain and, with some exceptions, has discovered that the zoological parks of one of the European countries that has more centers of this type continue to present alarming deficiencies.
One of the main objectives of InfoZoos is the promotion of a critical - but at the same time rigorous and constructive - vision of zoological parks. "We believe that knowledge and the exchange of ideas is the fundamental element that has to allow us to have the necessary elements to support our opinions, and thus remove them from preconceived ideas or prejudices of one sign or another," says Alberto Díez Michelena, spokesperson of this NGO, thanks to whose work several zoos that persisted in unacceptable conditions have been closed. Two good examples of this are the Almendralejo Zoo (in Extremadura) and the Granjas Koki (Toledo), which alarmed Spanish society with images of injured and “stored” animals, as if they were products, in small, dark cages and dirty. Other centers have renovated their facilities and have looked for better parks for wild animals or animals that could not be kept in optimal conditions.
“Many of these zoos begin as a private collection of farm animals to which, little by little, exotic animals from centers that are closed or that have been confiscated at customs are being added. Faced with the impossibility of finding a suitable enclosure for them, many times the authorities resort to these small parks that end up overflowing ”, they explain from the NGO.
Some others are strongholds of municipal exhibitions, such as the mini zoo in León, which decided to get rid of the primates it owned and remodel the obsolete facilities for bears. The Magdalena Park, in Santander, on the other hand, has clean and adequate facilities, but nevertheless, it does not participate in programs for the conservation of threatened species (neither in the zoo itself nor in the natural habitats of said animals), nor does it develops an educational program or guided tours for the public who come to the park. These two factors are precisely those that are most clearly defined in the Spanish legislation on zoos, transposing a European Directive from 1999.
The supposed educational and conservationist function of zoos loses much of its meaning in dolphinariums, where animals that are not in danger of extinction live locked in pools. According to data from the latest studies carried out by InfoZoos in six Spanish dolphinariums, a high percentage (between 85 and 95 percent) of the activities to which the cetaceans of the Spanish dolphinariums are subjected are not faithful to the pedagogical and educational objectives. conservation required by the Zoos Act. "These centers function as 'circuses' where animals perform a series of repetitive acrobatics, the result of unnatural learning and completely removed from their natural behaviors," the organization laments.
“The function and image of these living beings, wild animals that turn into mere clowns, are distorted. Nothing is further from the education or conservation that is requested from the European Directive, which clearly establishes that zoological parks must basically be centers committed to the rehabilitation of species, which provide knowledge and contribute to the improvement of the state of conservation of wild animals ”, says Díez Michelena.
Activities such as feeding the cetacean, surfing on its back or caressing it, which require contact with the trainer and even with children in the public, are not natural to the species, however moving they may be at first glance. Therefore, not only are visitors not taught anything about the biology or characteristics of these marine mammals, but they are also deprived of living in an environment similar to their habitat and of behaving as they would in the wild, something that can happen to create strong stress and frequent death for them.
Several scientific studies have already shown that large marine mammals such as whales or dolphins suffer the consequences of living far from their natural environment, impossible to reproduce in a water tank. These physical and psychological deficiencies are reflected in a shorter life expectancy, reproductive problems and even aggressiveness. Also, constant contact with chemicals in the water and excessive exposure to sunlight generates skin lesions.
In some other cases, it is the environmental quality conditions that are not met. The most alarming deficiencies are the lack of access to clean water and food, the lack of sufficient space to be able to rest and perform the necessary exercise and a great load of stress generated by the proximity with the public or with other animals, whether they are prey or predators. Likewise, InfoZoos biologists also analyze determining factors for the physical and mental health of the inhabitants of zoos, such as environmental enrichment - that the habitat is as similar as possible to the place where the animal lives in freedom - and a composition of groups similar to the one that would be released. The photograph of a monkey cub in a Canarian zoo trying to climb a tree painted on the wall of a completely transparent cage or the image of a white rhinoceros circling for hours in a Valencian park sums up the feeling of frustration that in too many times wild animals suffer away from their natural environment.
"We have managed to close or improve some centers, but there is still much to do to ensure that zoos become something more than enclosures where animals are kept with no more meaning than mere exposure," they recall from InfoZoos. Hopefully, with the work of this type of organization and an effort on the part of the different administrations, zoos will cease to be menagerie of the 21st century and will become a real source for education on the importance of preserving biodiversity.
Noemí Rodríguez Batanero - ANDA - National Association for the Defense of Animals