Saturday, November 12, 2011

Vilas Zoo and Species Survival

First read this entire article (snipped below):
Beloved orangutan, BB, dies at Vilas Zoo
ROB SCHULTZ. Wisconsin State Journal. November 10, 2011.

The staff members at the Vilas Zoo were obviously distraught when BB the orangutan, one of the most popular animals at the Madison zoo for the past 15 years, died Sunday. But they found solace in the way she died: peacefully while taking a nap after lunch. ...

Her daughter, Kawan, 10, is still at the zoo and was recently paired with Datu, a male transferred from the Rochester, N.Y., zoo. The pairing is part of the Vilas Zoo's partnership to preserve the world's orangutan's population....

One of the comments (by someone using the apt nom de plume of CircusLady wrote: "I hope she will be replaced ...". Like a broken window pane. This shallow wish reflects a far truer perception of zoos than the common industry excuse for keeping these animals confined for their and their future descendants' entire lives.

Menageries have hit on a laudable-sounding excuse for keeping animals in their collections: Preserving the world's species. But they are really just preserving things to gawk at. Very very few reintroductions into the wild ever occur. Species are "preserved" for public display. They attract visitors.

The circumstances orangutans are commonly forced to endure in captive situations like the Henry Vilas Zoo seem inhumane, and increasingly so the more one learns about their natural history.

At the Vilas zoo, they essentially live in a concrete room. They have access to a relatively small outdoor space at times. I suspect they learn more-or-less everything there is to know about that small space in short order. Compare that with what they need to know about the world when they are free and how dull and mind-numbing their lives at the zoo must be.

According to the Orangutan Foundation International:
Orangutan offspring will sometimes be carried until they are 5 years old and be breast-fed until they are 8 years of age! Even when young orangutans are too old to be carried and fed by their mother, they may still remain close to her, travelling with her, eating, and resting in the same trees, until they are about 10 years old. Once they become independent, they will be alone or in the company of other immature orangutans. In the case of females, they frequently return to their mothers to “visit” until they are about 15-16 years old. Studies indicate that Bornean orangutans may “grow up” faster than Sumatran orangutans and may become independent from their mothers at an earlier age.

Orangutan in the tress

Such prolonged association between mother and offspring is rare among mammals. Probably only humans have a more intensive relationship with their mothers. Primatologists believe that orangutans have such long “childhoods” because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully.
According to the authoritative Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates (Noel Rowe, Pogonias Press, 1996), orangutans have ranges of up to nearly 2,500 acres.

In the article about BB linked above, a zoo spokesperson says that 40 years of age is considered geriatric in orangutans; the article attributes her death in part to "advanced age."

But the University of Wisconsin's Primate Info Net reports that these animals live 50 to 60 years in the wild. 40 years of age doesn't sound geriatric in an animal that could live into her 60s. And, zoos (and primate labs) frequently claim that animals in the wild usually live shorter lives than they do in captivity, making the geriatric claim even more unlikely.

The Zoo Atlanta website reports: "Wild orangutans generally live to be between 35 and 40 years old; orangutans in zoological settings can live into their 60s." Which again, calls into question the Vilas Zoo claim that "advanced age" was a factor that contributed to BB's death.

Zoos don't preserve species in any meaningful sense. Only very rarely are animals born at zoos released into the wild. Zoos keep and breed animals for straightforward reasons: money and a desire to collect them. Claims to the contrary are transparently false. A cursory look at how the animals are kept, how frequently they are bred, the fact that they are almost never released, and the commonly poor and profoundly deprived conditions they are kept in casts the species survival claim in better light.

The Henry Vilas Zoo is not able to humanely keep most of the animals it currently has in its menagerie.

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