This summer, Assiniboine Park Zoo is set to open a new $90-million polar bear exhibit, Journey Into Churchill, as part of a $200-million redevelopment. The zoo’s website says the new exhibit will "combine elements focused on research, conservation, education and public display to provide a venue that will bring the North to mainstream Canadians."
The work of Assiniboine Park Zoo in its efforts to aid both polar bears, as well as northern communities often affected by their unwelcome presence, is certainly commendable.
The problem I, along with many other Canadians, have is with the primary purpose of zoos, that "public display" of animals. At a time when much of the collective Canadian consciousness is moving away from industries and businesses that exploit or harm animals (the banning of gestation crates, boycotting of marine parks, closing of pet shops, etc.) more Canadians are seeing zoos as yet another institution that should be going the way of the dodo bird.
Like most zoos, Assiniboine Park Zoo has always operated with the apparent purpose of educating the public and conserving animal species. Times, however, have changed, and no longer can zoos hang on to the same rationales that once made them legitimate.
Modern technologies, such as the Internet and other interactive tools, along with our current knowledge regarding the harms of keeping animals captive, now render zoos unjustified and unethical. Interactive educational tools, such as those already found in modern museums and science centres, offer suitable alternatives to displaying live animals under the guise of education. In fact, a great portion of the new Journey Into Churchill exhibit will not feature any live animals. So, why have them at all?
In the case of one Assiniboine Park Zoo polar bear, Aurora, who was captured as a cub after being discovered alone in a residential area of Churchill, Assiniboine Park Zoo officials would have us believe they offered happily-ever-afters to both the bear and the community it was potentially threatening. Unfortunately, such a tale is just that, a tale.
The problem with relocating wild animals to zoos is regardless of monetary investment, natural habitats cannot be replicated in zoo settings. Zoo animals are infamously stressed and bored, unable to roam, hunt or engage in other important natural behaviours. Zoos do implement "environmental-enrichment programs," aimed at engaging captive animals in "natural" activities, but Winnipeggers need only visit the zoo’s notoriously neurotic pacing tiger, or lion, or black bear to see the limitations of such programs.
While zoos do offer refuge to animals that might otherwise die off, often due to humans encroaching on their habitat, they are unable to offer a life much worth living. So the question always remains, where then, should they go?
For polar bears, Environment Canada and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), along with other organizations, are working to fund protected polar bear habits and establish designated nature reserves, across Northern Canada and Russia. Just imagine what the Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area and Wrangler Island Nature Reserve could do for polar bears, with $90 million.
But what about those animals already living in captivity, unable to return to the wild? The solution, simply put, is to take the "public display" factor out of the mandate, and subsequently transition zoos into sanctuaries. The main difference between zoos and sanctuaries is the latter put the best interest of the animals over any and all desires of a viewing public.
Zoos have always been in the business of entertainment, not unlike circuses of the past and marine parks of the present. Exhibits are built with the human eye in mind (they are, after all, called exhibits) and animals are bred and acquired with public interest as priority.
It has been found time and time again industries focused on providing entertainment via the exploitation of animals, and on earning money doing so, are unable to make the well-being of their living products top priority.
It is time to end the unnecessary exploitation of animals for the sake of our family fun and entertainment. Assiniboine Park Zoo should be phased out, not expanded.
Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance culture writer and former Manitoban, living in Montreal. She discusses animal care and welfare topics, among other topics, in her weekly national column for Notable.ca.