Irresponsible and out-of-touch - one British zoo's latest stunt to attract more visitors is such a bad idea, I hardly know where to start.
Drayton Manor Zoo, in Staffordshire, is now offering people the opportunity to take selfies with red pandas, tapirs and several other of its captive animals, as well as sit in on “training sessions” with zookeepers.
Irresponsible, because it normalises a Instagram-led trend that has dreadful implications elsewhere, such as at the grim zoos in Thailand where chained-up tigers are poked and prodded for the purposes of ‘roaring selfies’, and the illegal capturing of wild sloths for tourist photo ops in South America. Indeed, World Animal Protection (WAP) has revealed research concluding that been 2014 and 2017, there has been a 292 per cent increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram, and that at least 40 per cent of these are unethical, i.e. that invovle someone hugging, holding or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal.
Drayton’s head of zoo operations tells Telegraph Travel that the welfare of their animals is of “utmost importance”, and I’m sure that compared to those Thai zoos, it is. But aside from this assumption that its visitors will be able to distinguish between a well-run facility on home soil, where photos are permitted only in a carefully controlled environment and no physical contact is permitted, and a deeply problematic one abroad, the most frustrating aspect is their justification for this stunt: that it helps conservation.
It's what all zoos peddle. Drayton's managing director William Bryan states: "This isn’t just about the public being able to interact with the animals but also to learn about them and the vital conservation work that occurs here at the park’s zoo.” London Zoo, in turn, claims to "inspire future generations through amazing experiences with animals."
What are they conserving exactly, other than creatures in cages? What specifically does learning about them achieve for their cousins in the wild? And I'm quite sure the red pandas in the background of your selfie couldn't care less how 'inspired' you are - what good is it to them?
Zoos have never been about conserving wild animals, but rather the exact opposite: plucking them from the wild, sticking them behind bars, and charging people to look at them. Traditionally, they were born from the profiteering of a very natural human need: to peer at things that are exotic or unusual. Before zoos, there were human freak shows, and further back in history still, Roman coliseums. An element of performance has always been a key selling point.
Drayton says their newly promoted red panda training sessions involve “positive reinforcement to encourage specific behaviours, such as standing still for weighing”, but really, is this necessary? Again, no matter how innocent it sounds, or its assertion that the animals aren’t “forced” to take part, it risks justifying the “taming” of wild animals, in the same way that Seaworld has in the past, and that’s very rarely a good thing.
I will concede that most of the people who run and work for zoos, certainly in the western world, do so because they love animals and genuinely believe they are in some way doing them a service. In certain ways, granted, they are.
It is true that some animal species, through breeding programmes in zoos, have been brought back from the brink of extinction - dozens around the world continue to go extinct every day, incidentally, though only the cute furry ones win our swansong. But to rescue a species from dying out is only honorable, surely, if they're re-released into their original habitat; not if they simply achieve what's known as 'extinct in the wild' status. Again, I cannot make my peace with rescuing a dwindling wildlife population only to bottle it and put it on show.
The best zoos do, in their defence, donate funds to associated charities that work on the ground elsewhere to protect wild animals in-situ, Drayton Manor Zoo being one of them, with its contributions to the Red Panda Network in Nepal, for example. That's a good thing. But for every zoo that syphons off a portion of its profit to such organisations, there are infinitely more that don't. “Fewer than five to ten per cent of zoos and aquaria are involved in substantial conservation programs,” Katheryn Wise, WAP's UK Campaigns Manager told Telegraph Travel today in regards to BA Holidays’ new animal welfare policy .
Zoos are still, I'd argue, doing more harm than good. Keeping exotic animals in glorified prisons is bad enough. Letting well-meaning gawpers into their pens to 'say cheese' with them does not necessarily transmit the message: "here I am with a red panda - save the red panda!", but rather: "look at me, look how cute! Next time you're on holiday, you can do the same".
If you earnestly want to do something worthwhile for the plight of animals, don't spend £10 on a ticket to the zoo. Cut out the middleman and hand it directly to a charity that's drawing lines of protection around them in the wild, not taking pictures of them in a box.