One of the most lasting memories I have of zoos, is going with my highschool. I remember standing in front of the tassie devil enclosure. Most of the enclosure was grassy, including a raised mound in the middle. But around this mound ran a heavily worn dirt track (roughly the same width as a tassie devil) and on this dirt track ran a lone devil. Around and around he went, like a broken record... around and around and ... you get the idea.
At the time, I just thought that all tasmanian devils must be crazy (I'm sure a childhood of Taz cartoons made this explanation seem obvious.). But several years later, when I found out that a life of confinement and lack of stimulation can lead many animals in zoos and circuses to go mad, I realised that a more likely explanation was that not all tassie devils are crazy - just the one I saw in that zoo.
If you've been following the story of the celebrity polar bear, Knut, who died a couple of weeks ago in Berlin Zoo, then you'd know that he also lived a very troubled life. Born in captivity, and rejected by his mother shortly after birth in 2006, he was raised by a human zookeeper. I'm sure this zookeeper did his best to raise Knut well, but let's face it, he was not 2.5m tall with a coat of white fur, and by 2008 there were reports that Knut was knuts, calling him a "publicity addicted psycho".
Fame can do some strange things to people - so can jail. So what can being raised by a human in an unnatural, confined environment, with constant crowds looking on do to a polar bear? Well here's a description from one of his keepers at the zoo: "He actually cries out or whimpers if he sees that there is not a spectator outside his enclosure ready to ooh and ahh at him. When the zoo had to shut because of black ice everywhere, he howled until staff members stood before him and calmed him down." This from an animal that would normally live a more-or-less solitary life in the wild!
A couple of years ago Berlin Zoo ran into financial problems and even considered selling their polar bear celebrity. But ultimately Knut lived out the rest of his short life at Berlin Zoo - confined to an enclosure, never able to roam the vast expanses that his bear buddies in the wild do.
Sadly, I'd say I've learnt more about what life's like for a polar bear from David Attenborough's docos than Knut ever learnt being raised by a man in an enclosure in Berlin. Given the choice, I wouldn't go back to a zoo after seeing the dizzying madness of that tassie devil running in circles. Fortunately, Attenborough and others have made more docos about animals in the wild than any of us are ever likely to manage to watch.
What do you think of wild animals being kept on display in captivity? Leave a comment.