I feel the need to write this due to some recent media coverage of Mill Mountain Zoo. I apologize for the length and for any graphic content. First, let me explain the situation. Mill Mountain Zoo was visited by protesters this past weekend. The group wants to shut down the zoo and all zoos because they object to animals in captivity. They want to send the animals to a sanctuary to live out their days. I have been volunteering for Mill Mountain Zoo for over 6 years now. I volunteer graphic design and art services, I work directly with our education animals and go on outreaches and speak to groups about our animals. I lead tours; I’ve helped with grounds work, etc. I’m also a member of the zoo’s Development Committee, the Roanoke Valley American Association of Zoo Keepers, the national group of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, and I’m a member of the National Zoo as well. In addition, I work locally to practice Trap-Neuter-Return with feral cats and I manage (feed & water daily, pet and love on those who have warmed up to me, and take to the vet when necessary) several feral cats. I volunteer for some other animal oriented organizations as well and I work to help local stray animals as I can. I LOVE doing all these things. I’m only stating all this because I think it may be relevant in regards to what I am about to say.
I respect someone who believes in a cause and stands up for it, but I do NOT respect those who spread false accusations. Mill Mountain Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Accreditation is a rigorous process and every single aspect of the zoo (including animal welfare, vet care, enclosure space, finances, safety practices, the staff quality, record keeping, etc.) is reviewed before accreditation is approved. This entire process happens again every five years. However, there are a variety of inspections that occur throughout those five years as well. It is incredibly difficult to become accredited and to stay accredited. There are currently only 224 AZA accredited zoos worldwide. According to the AZA’s website, fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited. The zoo must keep up with ever evolving practices to stay accredited. For more information on the AZA accreditation process, please visit: AZA.org
So the protesters say they want to shut down all zoos and put the animals from those zoos into sanctuaries because they don’t believe animals should be kept captive. What exactly do they think sanctuaries are? I’d really like to know because ANIMALS IN SANCTUARIES ARE CAPTIVE ANIMALS. Do they expect animals in sanctuaries to roam around free in some fairytale setting and live harmoniously with human caretakers? I honestly believe if our zoo’s name was Mill Mountain Sanctuary rather than Mill Mountain Zoo, the protesters wouldn’t protest us. I believe it all comes down to one word: zoo vs. sanctuary. Here is the problem. You cannot lump all zoos into one group and all sanctuaries into a different group. I know of many so-called “sanctuaries” that were nothing but horrible breeding facilities. I know of other “sanctuaries” that were created by well-intentioned people who genuinely wanted to help animals, but who did not have the knowledge of animal care or business skills to keep their “sanctuary” operational. These sanctuaries close and their animals have to be shipped to other facilities if they have survived at all. Yes, there are some wonderful animal sanctuaries out there, but there are also wonderful zoos out there. Mill Mountain Zoo IS in fact a sanctuary to many animals. I found it very ironic that the protesters posted a photo of the zoo’s Eastern Screech Owl exhibit online and inferred that it was a far cry from the wild because there aren’t many branches in the enclosure. The irony lies in the fact that the screech owls in that enclosure and all of the zoo’s screech owls were injured in the wild and deemed non-releasable. That’s how they came to live at the zoo. They needed a home because they could not survive on their own in the wild after their injuries. The owls in the enclosure photographed by the protesters each lost an eye from their accidents in the wild. Due to their injuries, it is not ideal for the owls’ habitat to be cluttered with lots of branches. Multiple animals who call the zoo home were either injured in the wild and could not be released, were previous pets whose owners could no longer take care of them for some reason or another, or were confiscated by authorities because they were illegally owned as pets. Mill Mountain Zoo is an amazing sanctuary and home to these creatures who desperately needed one. The alternative was euthanasia, and I am incredibly glad that option was not chosen for the animals’ sakes. It would have been wonderful if the protesters bothered to initiate a conversation with the zoo before spreading their accusations. I prefer to take the time to do my research BEFORE I come to a conclusion on whether or not to support or object a cause, business, institution, or ideal.
The animals at Mill Mountain Zoo who were not injured in the wild or former pets or illegally owned were born in captivity. AZA zoos participate in Species Survival Programs to maintain a captive population of threatened and vulnerable animals. Animals are disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate due to extreme and increasing threats from a variety of factors including climate change, environmental degradation, invasive species and most of all: humans. Zoos and captive breeding programs are responsible for bringing back species who were declared extinct in the wild – meaning a species had been nearly entirely wiped out in the wild and the last remaining individuals were taken into captivity to try and institute a captive breeding program in order to eventually reintroduce the species into the wild. Black-footed ferrets, Przewalski’s horses, and red wolves are just a few example species that zoos and captive breeding programs have helped reintroduce to the wild after being declared extinct in the wild. Zoos do breed some animals without releasing them into the wild as well. If an animal’s natural habitat is not well protected from threats, there is no point in releasing captive born animals into the wild just yet. Before any animals can be released, more work needs to be done to ensure that the animals will not be poached, will have sufficient food and water sources and habitat, etc. Zoos, therefore, maintain a captive population until such time that a species’ natural habitat is conducive for survival.
During a news interview, one of the protesters stated that animals should be able to live out their lives in the wild saying, “They are there to live their own life on their own terms.” That is an absolutely grand idea, and if the world were a perfect place, zoos may not be necessary. Animal shelters like your local humane societies and SPCA’s would not be necessary – IF the world were perfect. Sadly it is not. The problem with the statement is that animals are not able to live natural lives in the wild because of human interference. Humans are impacting animals’ lives in the wild everywhere. Three of the nine subspecies of tiger have gone extinct since the 1930’s. The Sumatran Tiger and South-China Tiger subspecies are currently Critically Endangered. One subspecies of leopard, the Amur leopard, has only an estimated 30 individuals living in the wild. Black Rhinos are Critically Endangered and one subspecies of rhino is already believed to be extinct. All of these animals that I’ve listed are big well known animals and they are still in extreme danger of becoming extinct. There are countless other lesser known animals who are also in critical danger of dying off the face of the planet forever. Accredited zoos are working to prevent this from happening by raising awareness, through captive breeding, and through massive conservation efforts. Humans have to live on this planet as well, but there are more of us than ever before and WE ARE AFFECTING OTHER SPECIES. In case you don’t believe me, here are some specific examples of how we humans negatively affect animals in the wild. This is graphic. Recently, National Geographic and many other news outlets reported on the death of Satao, a wild elephant famous for his huge tusks. Despite having special protections, Satao was still slaughtered by poison arrows and his face was HACKED OFF by poachers because his tusks were irresistible to them. (Read about Satao’s murder here.) Did this majestic animal live and die on his own terms? I think not. Sharks routinely have their fins cut off while they are alive to be used in shark fin soup. The sharks are thrown back into the ocean and left to drown or be eaten alive. Is this their idea of a natural wild life? No. Raccoon dogs are skinned alive for their fur. Snow leopards are persecuted for their fur and slaughtered in retaliatory killings for domestic livestock predation. The list goes on and on and on and on. Are these creatures asking to be murdered in horrific ways by humans? Is that their dream of life in the wild? Of course, the answer again is a resounding NO and although all of these animals are living in the wild, they are NOT living on their own terms because humans affect the wild too. If humans can interfere with how animals live in the wild and impact them in such a negative way that a species is threatened with extinction, then it is also the responsibility of humans to protect animals. That is exactly what accredited zoos are doing – protecting animals. Zoos don’t want to take every single animal into captivity and horde them away for some nefarious purpose. Without accredited zoos, black-footed ferrets, Przewalski’s horses, red wolves and a variety of other animals would already be extinct. Without accredited zoos, species of tigers, leopards, rhinos, frogs and too many animals to name will go extinct within the next few years. Mill Mountain Zoo should not be protested, it should be applauded. The protestors would better serve animals by supporting Mill Mountain Zoo and other accredited zoos and by working to help conservation efforts so that animals have safe and sustainable natural habitats in which to live.
To learn more about threatened species and the organization that determines a species’ threat level, check out this website. To learn more about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, check out this website.