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What zoos don't want the public to know

When Little Joe set off last month on his adolescent gorilla version of an excellent adventure, his escape from Boston's Franklin Park Zoo set something else loose too -- all our misunderstanding of wild animals, captive animals, and zoos. This healthy animal wasn't "prowling" in order to menace humans, as some reports implied. And he certainly wasn't expressing dissatisfaction with his current digs, another misconception. He was being a wild and crazy guy, looking to explore his world.

But Little Joe did a huge favor for his fellow zoo animals by reviving the debate over his plight and theirs. Some wondered if he should be returned to the wild. That notion shows how thoroughly disconnected most of us are from the realities of keeping captive animals. Their lives are as different from their wild cousins as ours is from Tarzan's. Little Joe would be as clueless and vulnerable as we would be if dropped down in a malaria-riddled, danger-filled forest.

Bringing captive animals back to the wild is so difficult and complex, in fact, that of 145 full-fledged scientific reintroduction programs involving 126 species over the past 100 years, it is estimated that only about 16 have succeeded.

The bottom line is that zoos -- many of which are high-minded, resourceful, inventive leaders in the world of conservation -- are never going to see their charges returned to nature. Instead, these animals will live out their lives in spaces far smaller and less interesting than the ones they would occupy in the wild. As a result, huge numbers of zoo animals have basically gone stir crazy.

This is the zoo community's dirty little secret.

Even if we look only at the best zoos in the country -- the 150 or so "accredited" zoos (including most big city zoos) and ignore the thousands of smaller and often sordid roadside attractions that fall under the "zoo" banner, the problem is rampant. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a brain chemistry expert at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine has estimated that one-third to one-half of animals in the top zoos suffer from what is scientifically known as "stereotypic behavior" -- monotonous, ritualistic actions like pacing or head-bobbing which are never seen in the wild.

Since I reported this estimate in my 1997 book on zoos, many high-ranking zoo officials have harrumphed at that figure. But none has ever risen to the challenge of countering with his own. There are some small, sporadic, and horrifying reports in zoo literature, like the one from 1991, which reveals that 60 percent of captive bears exhibit stereotypic behaviors in public, though zoos don't want to let that particular cat out of the bag.

Eradicating such problem behavior will take a massive effort (and there is a great and terrible temptation to simply dope it away with antidepressant drugs). Zoos tend to be short on physical space, but they can increase "psychological space," by enriching the impoverished lives of captives with hidden food sources and games that introduce novel scents or the recorded sounds of other animals. But the practice is labor-intensive and therefore costly, and most zoos, like our own, are strapped for cash. The task falls to overworked -- though enormously committed -- keepers who most often simply don't have the time.

The result is tigers who pace the same number of steps out and back in trance-like patterns, monkeys who groom themselves to baldness, gorillas who endlessly engage in "R&R" -- a cycle of regurgitating and reingesting their meals.

In the aftermath of Little Joe's escape, it has come to light that some of the country's zoo gorillas are given mood-altering drugs. And a new study published just this month in the esteemed journal Nature reinforces what everyone in the zoo world already knew: that big carnivores like polar bears and tigers with larger ranges suffer greatly in tight surroundings.

These truths are not an indictment of zoo people. I would put most of the zoo professionals I've met right at the top of my list of heroes. They get paid next to nothing, yet they are dedicated, brilliant scientists who have contributed vastly to our knowledge of animals. Their hard work and discoveries have helped the world of conservation in a thousand different important ways. What they do helps us, as a society, too. Being close to animals, having reverence for nature is healthy and good and vital.

But here's the rub: We have to give something back. If we demand that zoos provide a better, more naturalistic -- not just prettier -- life to its captives, then we'd better be willing to pony up the cash for it. Our own zoo has seen its meager state budget slashed, and there are threats that the cuts will go deeper. How much enrichment can possibly go on then?

It's time for zoos to speak openly and honestly about the situation, to stop protesting that the studies of others are flawed, and start conducting their own. We stand, with zoos, at the crossroads in our relationship with nature. Throughout history, zoos have invariably revealed more about the societies they were part of than about the animals they displayed. To future generations, what will ours zoos tell about us?

Vicki Croke is author of "The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future."

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