Last Friday I visited the U.K.'s most popular animal attraction: Chester Zoo.
In my line of work, as an anti-captivity campaigner, I have to ensure that, from time to time, I visit the very places that I so vehemently oppose in order to ensure that my organization has access to the most up-to-date and relevant information. At the end of last week, it was announced that Chester Zoo had been voted the U.K.'s number one animal attraction and, given that the zoo is less than an hour from my office, I figured there was no time like the present and spent the day there at the end of last week.
I intend to write more about the visit in general and the specific concerns that I had about the zoo, but this post will focus on the very first thing that I registered when I began my visit. The zoo is laid out so that the "charismatic megafauna" are in key positions and, like many zoos, the elephants are one of the first animals that you will find upon entering. As it was just after opening time when I arrived, there were crowds of people in front of the elephant enclosure and so the first thing that grabbed my attention while I waited to look at the animals themselves was a sign with the heading "Why is that elephant moving her head from side to side?"
The very presence of the sign suggests that the elephants swaying from side-to-side is a common enough occurrence to warrant a permanent fixture explaining its meaning. This, in itself, I found intensely worrying before I had even laid eyes on the animals themselves. Let me explain why...
"Stereotypic behaviors" are repetitive behaviors with no obvious function. In animals, they might include rocking, pacing, head-nodding, swaying and over-grooming, amongst other things.
Stereotypic behaviors are widely accepted as being a sign of psychological distress or even the external symptoms of mental illness. In short, the presence of stereotypic behaviors can be a sign that there is something very, very wrong with the state of mind of the animal demonstrating them. Vitally important to note is that stereotypies are not witnessed in animals in the wild. It is therefore thought that it is captivity, or some aspect or aspects of captivity, which are the direct cause of stereotypic behaviors.
To put it in very simple language, keeping certain animals in zoos can make those animals mentally ill.
While I oppose the captivity of all animals in zoos on ethical grounds, I accept that some animals may fare worse than others from a welfare perspective when held captive for their entire lives. This may be due to a number of factors but, for elephants, it can be attributed to factors such as their huge size, their complex and profound social interactions with others, their huge natural geographical range, their high level of cognition and their very specialized biological requirements.
When you consider how elephant societies function in the wild, how elephants live when they are left to experience life as they have adapted to over millennia and compare that to the impoverished existence they eke out in zoos around the world, it is perhaps hardly surprising to find that elephants are one of the animals that are prone to developing stereotypies.
So, to go back to sign that I encountered upon entering Chester Zoo, I was actually rather pleased to see that a zoo was offering an explanation to the visitors about stereotypic behavior. That was, until I read what the zoo had to say about it...