Monday, October 31, 2011

The Henry Vilas Zoo

About a month ago the Alliance was contacted by a student from the UW-Madison. She explained that she was a little involved with the student animal rights club, she was in the media arts program, and as a class project she was making a documentary about the local zoo. She asked for someone to walk through the zoo and give her their impressions of how the animals were being kept. I volunteered.

I met her and another student in front of the gift shop. We stopped at just about every exhibit. We didn't go into the bird house.

We started at the primate house. The Henry Vilas Zoo has gibbons, orangutans, colobus monkeys, and chimpanzees.

The primate house is the best animal housing at the zoo. And in some ways, it's not so bad. Each enclosure has a large climbing apparatus. The chimpanzees and gibbons have some access to an outdoor area; but overall it must suck to be imprisoned in such a place. The chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and colobus monkeys are doomed to spend decades in an unchanging fixed environment offering very limited interactions with others of their kind. They will spend decades looking at the same flat dull imitation forest painted on the walls, while an endless stream of sometimes loud gawking obnoxious zombies file by. "Ooh, look at the monkey Johnny!"

The colobus monkeys appeared to have no outdoor access. In any case, a couple of the highest limbs of the concrete trees came to abrupt stumps only a few feet from one of the skylights in the ceiling. Perched on top sat a lone monkey. There was no room for a second.

The room they were in, like the rooms of the orangutans and the chimpanzees, was essentially a concrete cell with sad shadows of the world they belong in painted on the walls, more for the patrons than the animals.

I suspect there is almost always a colobus sitting alone at the tip top of the concrete tree in the middle of that concrete room as near to the skylight as possible.

This is the Vilas Zoo description of these animals:

Scientific Name: Colobus guereza

Habitat: Tropical rain and montane (a moist ecological zone located near timberlines and usually dominated by evergreen trees) forests in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and southwest Cameroon.

Diet: Young leaves, fruit, leaf buds and blossoms.

Life Span: Up to 20 years in the wild or 24-plus years in captivity.

Reproduction: Males reach sexual maturity at six years; females at four years. Each female gives birth to one young about every 20 months after a gestation period of 4-½ to 5-½ months.

Fact: Unlike most primates, the colobus monkey has no cheek pouches and its thumbs are nearly absent. ("colobus" is derived from a Greek word meaning "mutilated.")
I don't believe it is possible to keep these animals humanely indoors. It might be possible to keep a few of them humanely in an outdoor enclosure large enough to provide room for enough large trees to sustain the monkeys' picking their leaves, but this would make it hard for visitors to see them, and zoos are primarily menageries -- collections of animals meant to entertain and amuse visitors.

I was bothered by the gibbon exhibit. White-handed gibbons, the species at the Vilas Zoo, have home ranges of between 30 and a 130 acres. At Vilas, they have a few hundred square feet. Gibbons have very long arms and fingers which they use to swing swiftly through the forest. Here's a video. The relatively tiny enclosure at the Vilas zoo makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for the two gibbons there to express their natural behaviors.

I couldn't watch the orangutans for more than a few moments. Our presence was far too intrusive. The chimpanzees made my throat tighten. I've known a few chimpanzees.

It is possible to keep some wild animals in captivity humanely, and sometimes, because of circumstances beyond the control of those involved, they may be faced with a lifetime of confinement. But in these relatively rare cases, our responsibility to them requires us to provide a large enough space so that they need not continually confront their captivity. If they cannot escape the sight of walls and fences, the cages we keep them in are too small.

Anyway, we finally left the primate house and continued our tour. As I said, the primate house -- with all its inhumane limitations -- is the Ritz of the Vilas zoo. It's all downhill from there. And so, I went back the following day with a camera; I was forced to by my conscience. I didn't go again into the primate house. Mainly because a photograph would be unable to capture the problems inherent there in a way the average reader might easily understand.

But the problems in much of the rest of the zoo seem pretty straightforward and fairly easy to depict in pictures.

Zoos make two interrelated claims to justify their existence: education and species conservation.

I'll consider both of these reasons in some of the situations below to see if they might conceivably excuse the circumstances the animals are being forced to endure.

The Reptile House

It is becoming harder for commercial animal breeders to defend practices that confine an animal so tightly that they are unable to engage in their normal postures and movements. (This is the problem with the gibbon cage.) There is growing pressure to force poultry producers to keep chickens in a manner that allows them to stretch and flap their wings. This seems like the bare minimum that any captive animal ought to be given. Humans in prison ought at least to be able to stand up and walk a few steps; birds ought to be able to stretch their wings. At a minimum, I think ground-living snakes ought to be able to stretch out to their full length and to crawl more or less straight ahead for some distance -- maybe a distance equal to their body length. Similarly, arboreal snakes ought to be able to express their normal bodily movements.

This is a photo of the anacondas at the Vilas zoo:According to the Vilas Zoo, "The average size of an anaconda is 300 pounds and 20 feet long!" Here's their website picture of an anaconda:

According to National Geographic:
Anacondas live in swamps, marshes, and slow-moving streams, mainly in the tropical rain forests of the Amazon and Orinoco basins. They are cumbersome on land, but stealthy and sleek in the water. Their eyes and nasal openings are on top of their heads, allowing them to lay in wait for prey while remaining nearly completely submerged.
Here's a short video that gives some idea of the anaconda's natural habitat and behavior.

The two snakes at the Vilas Zoo can't stretch out, can't swim, can't even really crawl. There isn't anyplace to go.

So what about the zoo's justification for having these animals? Is the exhibit educational? I don't think it is. Anacondas live in water; in fact, they are primarily an aquatic species. Here, they are in a puddle. They are good swimmers, but they can't swim at the zoo. They grow to great lengths, but at the zoo they are forced to remain more or less balled up. At the zoo they are in a small concrete box with little to suggest their natural habitat other than some plastic lily pads and a tired flat mural on the wall.

And what about the standard conservation argument? First, anacondas aren't threatened or endangered. What could anyone learn by looking at these animals lying in a shallow puddle in a concrete box that would encourage them to care or be more cognizant of the pressures on the planet's tropical rain forests? Very little I think.

These animals are being kept in these inhumane conditions simply because anacondas are one of the largest snakes in the world, and no collection of animals is complete without one.

I could go through the same list of problems for each of the other large snakes being kept at the zoo, but won't. Suffice it to say that they are unable to fully express their natural postures and behaviors and that there is essentially nothing that can be learned from seeing them in these circumstances that would not be more richly and meaningfully informative if learned from a book or video.

The two Aldabran giant tortoises are in an equally sad situation. It is impossible to tell from the sterile box they are being held in, with a floor made of plastic, but these very long-lived animals are highly social grazing animals. They live in the Seychelles Islands and a couple other places in the Indian Ocean. They are not endangered. Here are two set of slides about one of these tortoises and a hippopotamus: (1)(2). The two tortoises at the Vilas Zoo are being kept in inhumane conditions. Holding them in such a mind-numbingly sterile cell is cruel.

So, in this case, the standard arguments used to justify keeping animals in a zoo, education and conservation, fail miserably. There is absolutely nothing of value that can be learned from seeing these Aldabran giant tortoises in this pen; they are a mere novelty. They aren't endangered and moreover, there is absolutely nothing someone in Madison could do right now for the animals in the wild population.

Large Mammals

Can you tell which pair of rhinoceroses are at the Vilas Zoo? Do you think that someone in Madison looking that them would be able to call to mind how they might appear in their natural environment? Do you think that living on a bleak barren desert for years on end is conducive to these animals' well-being?

Here are a few elements from the educational component of this sad exhibit:
Not a single blade of grass is to be seen in the pen.The drawing of the tiger being impaled by the Indian rhinoceros is particularly odd. Tigers do occasionally prey on very young Indian rhinoceroses, but attacks on adults are exceedingly rare. So, the image is misleading. White rhinoceroses are generally docile.

Moving along, we come to the giraffes. Like zoos everywhere, these exotic beautiful animals are used as icons for the Vilas Zoo. You might be able to see the details of the poster on the right showing humans running with giraffes. It is promoting a 10K run and a 5K run/walk.

Sadly, and physically punishing, is the reality endured by the real giraffes.
Last Giraffe At Vilas Zoo Dies
It's Second Giraffe Death At Zoo In Month

November 17, 2006

MADISON, Wis. -- The last giraffe at the Henry Vilas Zoo has died.

It is the second death of a giraffe at the zoo in less than a month.

Dane County and zoo officials on Thursday confirmed that their remaining reticulated giraffe has died. It was euthanized Tuesday, after officials said the animal severely ruptured its hip joint and could no longer stand.

The death of the 7-year-old giraffe -- named Raymond Junior, or "RJ" -- comes less than a month after his 12-year-old father Raymond was euthanized under similar circumstances when he could no longer stand.

RJ's 11-year-old mother Savannah died about three years ago after she apparently fell and broke her neck.

The entire family had a degenerative bone and joint disease, similar to arthritis, and zoo officials said that disease led to a massive rupture in RJ's hip joint and severe trauma to his muscles. [More...]
And read this article too:
Giraffes Return To Madison's Henry Vilas Zoo
Activists Say Giraffes Don't Belong At Zoo

August 14, 2007

MADISON, Wis. -- A giraffe exhibit opened at Madison's Henry Vilas Zoo on Tuesday, but not everyone is happy that the zoo again has giraffes after two died there last year.

After standing vacant for nearly a year, the exhibit now features the first two of three new male reticulated giraffes.

Already 6-year-old Zawadi and 5-year-old Sweta are huge hits at the zoo.

"Yeah, they look really nice," said Andrew Edmonds of Beloit. [More...]
It's a sad joke on these animals that humans will be running 5 kilometers to raise money for the zoo, and at the most, the captive giraffes can walk only a few paces in their outdoor yard, and when winter comes around, will be confined to a relatively tiny space. What can people possibly learn about giraffes by seeing them in these circumstances? They are beautiful and tall. That seems a very poor excuse for keeping these animals is such tight confines. The educational or conservation value of having these animals in the Vilas Zoo is vanishingly small.

And that brings us to the American Prarie.Thankfully, the two bison behind this sign can't see it and be reminded of where they ought to be.

American bison are herd animals that historically walked across the continent as they migrated north and south. We can only imagine, but it seems likely that untold generations of living in unimaginably giant herds and walking such long distances led to a genetic predisposition -- probably a longing -- for walking long distances with lots of other bison. For the two sad creatures held in this barren small desert, the urge to walk and graze and to find other bison may well be an incurable ache --incurable because they are held here for our momentary amusement.

There is absolutely no conservation value in having these two animals here, and the educational value is suspect. In fact, like essentially every exhibit at the zoo, the impression taken away by a patron is invariably misleading and, worse, sends a subtle message that keeping animals in these circumstances is ethical and laudable. And this is the opposite of what is true.

Before moving on to the bears, I want to point out something you can't see in the image of the bison. To the right of their pen is a concrete elongated pit that visitors can peer into to. It holds a small colony of prairie dogs. There's no grass or other vegetation. It's just another desert.

I wonder what happens to the offspring of these prisoners?

Now consider the bears.

In spite of what is probably learned by children visiting the Henry Vilas Zoo, polar bears don't live in the mountains. If you watch these bears for very long, you can't help but notice that they pace back and forth, endlessly. And they will until they die.

One reason for this is because they are trapped, and must know it. Another reason is that polar bears normally travel large distances. Their home ranges are very large. In one case, a polar bear traveled over 3,000 miles while being tracked by satellite.

The polar bears held in zoos, like the bison, are stopped from engaging in their natural behavior.

The Henry Vilas Zoo, instead of working to improve the lot of the animals they now have, has embarked on a plan to build a new arctic habitat where they hope they will be able to breed polar bears. The down side of such a plan, aside from the lost opportunities to help the animals already there, is that more animals will be brought into the world merely to satisfy our own urges.

Here's an image of the grizzle bear. Apparently, we are supposed to learn that they too live above the tree line high in the mountains. It is a sad comment on what people are willing to allow to be done to animals.

Before I end this far too long lament, I have to mention two other sad situations among the seemingly endless cacophony.

There is a lone ostrich in a pen that is too small for her. I know it's too small because this lonely bird spends a goodly bit of its time biting the chain link fence. The fence is painted brown, but in the top corners, where it meets the fence separating pens, it is very shiny, and that polished shine is easy to understand when one watches this bird any length of time.

In captive-animal-parlance, or human abnormal psychology, this is called a stereotypy. Stereotypies are repetitive, purposeless actions seen frequently in captive situations where animals have insufficient room or mental stimulation.

Other cases could be seen at the zoo as well. One small tortoise was prevented from approaching the glass front of his cell. The glass was badly scratched where he had clearly spent long hours (years?) trying to push his way through, to escape his small barren cell. In a number of the enclosures, like the tiger's, a well-worn path marked his endless route along the perimeter of his small enclosure. The red panda, a recently much-ballyhooed addition to the menagerie was already working out his short pacing circuit.

And this:This peafowl is in a pen. But peafowl don't need to be penned to keep them around. Essentially every zoo I've ever visited, and a number of farms and sanctuaries, allow these birds to wander around. There is no reason to keep peafowl in a pen.

I could go on and talk about the goats, the lions, the camels, the alligators, the meerkats, or the other animals whose lives are being unnecessarily degraded to give us a moment's entertainment, but I'm too sick of it all to continue.

The Vials Zoo is celebrating it's 100 year anniversary and is holding fundraisers almost everyday it seems. Billboards with misleading images of animals -- touting them as "ambassadors" of the wild, are all over town. Local businesses have to tripped over each other trying to show they support the zoo and apparently, keeping animals in cruel and inhumane circumstances.

It is all very, very sad.


Jen said...

Thanks for thoughtful article. I don't know why it has been so difficult to make the decision to never go to a zoo again. It's such a sad awful place. I started taking the kids once in a while so they can see real animals, but pointing out the horrible situations to them. It's probably time to just stop going. Can you fix the second giraffe article link? I can't seem to click on it. Thanks

Rick said...


Pauleau said...

The Vilas zoo consistently removes critical comments from its Facebook page.

Paul P. said...

People are apes, and like chimpanzees and baboons, most people will assault other species and utilize them for whatever purpose. Zoos are interesting intellectually because they demonstrate how primitive [we] humans still are as a species. Eventually, zoos will go the way of the circus, and the conservation aspect will be taken up by gene banks (frozen sperm/egg/embryo storage).

Extinction in and of itself doesn't bother me much. Millions of species have gone extinct over the course of Earth's history. Dozens of species of rhino alone have gone extinct--bizarre ones with Y-shaped horns and so on, and soon all modern rhinos will be extinct. What is much sadder is that we are the cause. If we were killing them for meat, well, that would be bad enough, but we are killing them for their horns, simply because uneducated primitives in Asia still believe keratin has magical medicinal powers.