These days zoos are minor players in the wild animal trade. Other forms of global exploitation have far surpassed them. About 80 to 90 percent of primates used in medical research, for example, are taken from the wild. The international trade in ivory has devastated elephants, and the trade in rhino horns has devastated rhinos. Many cats are endangered for their furs, and many birds, reptiles and fish are endangered for the trade in pets.
No matter the end use, the result is the same, a loss of freedom, a loss of life, a loss of contribution to the community and to the landbase.
Some animals do reproduce in zoos. This is good news for zoos, because, as Vicki Croke notes about the only thing that really matters in the world of commodities, “Baby animals attract visitors, so each zoo birth is money in the bank.”
But this creates another problem. Croke continues, “every birth also brings another animal to house. Often an older, less attractive member of the species must go to make room. Also, certain species become ‘hot,’ shoving others out of the warmth of the limelight and onto surplus lists.”
These “surplus lists” are long indeed. Croke gives the numbers: “Accredited zoos and aquariums [accredited by the AAZPA, American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums] produce perhaps eight thousand surplus animals a year. Now, consider that accredited zoos make up only a fraction of all zoos—10 percent of the fourteen hundred licensed—and it’s easy to figure that eighty thousand animals could be considered surplus each year.”That’s just in the United States. That’s more than two hundred every day, all year round.
It’s hard to know exactly what happens to these “surplus” animals. For the most part zoos are not particularly forthcoming. This could be because a significant portion of these “surplus” animals—perhaps more than half—are killed. This includes healthy, young endangered animals such as Siberian tigers.
Zoos usually decide what to do with “surplus” animals based on “what the market will bear.” Consequently, many thousands of other “surplus” animals per year are sold to circuses, animal merchants, auctions, individual pet owners, “game farms,” “hunting ranches,” and “trophy collectors.” At least one “safari organizer” bought jaguars, leopards, and lions from zoos then used the same plane to transport hunters and prey (in crates in the luggage compartment) to the “safari” site. One of the organizer’s associates described the hunt: “Sometimes the cats don’t want to be free, but run back in the cage. The animals were afraid, that’s why they run back into the cage. What he [the organizer] does is send the hunter to fish in the river, send the jeep with his men and they run the cat up a tree and then he’d go get the guy and let him shoot it.”
One businessman took the “safari” solution one step further by simultaneously directing the Fort Worth Zoo and owning the “Premier Wildlife Ranch.”
William Hampton, the owner of another AAZPA-accredited zoo, came up with an even more ingenious money-making scheme. For several years he bought and traded U.S. zoo animals, until a member of a local humane society discovered a fenced compound with crates bearing the names of major zoos from across the country. Peter Batten describes what happened next, “Further investigation revealed a trailer filled with the putrefying remains of dismembered animals and led to the discovery that Hampton and his associates had systematically slaughtered surplus zoo animals, skinned them, and sold heads and pelts as wall trophies. Living evidence was provided by American alligators, found with jaws taped and starving to assure unblemished hides for eventual sale.”
“Surplus” animals have been sold directly to taxidermists (lions, for $20 each, after ten years in another accredited zoo, where they had on one occasion been doused with gasoline and set on fire by zoo patrons just for fun).
And still other “surplus” animals—many thousands of them—are vivisected, both by scientists at zoos and elsewhere. Why? As one scientist sarcastically commented, “Zoo research consists of killing animals to see what they died of.” The relationship between zoos and vivisection can be surmised by the fact that the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources of the National Research Council, which exists “to promote the procurement of breeding, husbandry, and useof laboratory animals,” has sponsored AAZPA meetings.
It’s not just a few rogue zoos perpetrating all these atrocities. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier summarize the results of a 1999 San Jose Mercury Newsinvestigation, “Many zoos and several of the 24 organizations affiliated with the AAZPA were practising illegal sales on a large scale. The studbook for giraffes . . . mentions six hundred animals that disappeared from view after sale (1997). The ‘best zoo in the world,’ San Diego, numbers among the three biggest black marketers, with a rate of 79 percent. Endangered species have not escaped the inflated market created by snobbism and speculation. The Mercury Newsconclusion: ‘AAZPA-accredited zoos claim that they actively work to propose reintroduction when they purposely breed animals in order to exploit their commercial appeal and then cast them into ignominious conditions.”