By: Angela Rajic
Since 2013, Costa Rica has pledged to close its public (government-funded) zoos and release its captive animals into the wild or house them in rehabilitation centres if they are unable to adapt to living the wild. Home to over 4% of the world's known species, Costa Rica has become very environmentally conscious in recent years, and protective of its ecosystems and native species. It is currently the only nation on the planet to have outlawed sport hunting.
Zoos have long been a source of criticism and conflict on the part of animal rights activists for decades. Critics and activists maintain that wild animals suffer in captivity, living considerably shorter lives in zoos than their counterparts in the wild. Scientists have documented high stress levels (one popular polar bear from the Central Park Zoo, Gus, had his own therapist), cannibalism and infanticide, among other issues. There has also been conflict and criticism over the purpose of zoos and whether they are as educational as they claim, or even as positive an experience. Studies indicate that only 34% of participants reported a positive learning experience from unguided zoo tours, while 26% reported a negative learning experience, picking up incorrect information. The numbers were only slightly better for guided tours.
Activists have long been pushing conservation over enclosures for many years now, and it seems that at least one nation has listened as Costa Rica is looking to turn away from zoos and towards more spacious sanctuaries and the like where breeding and rehabilitation can occur. However, this change is not immediate as the government is being forced to hold to contracts that state that the zoos are allowed to operate until 2024. The closures are thus happening slowly and gradually. There have also been concerns over whether any of the animals in captivity will ever be able to survive in the wild since they lack survival instincts against predators as well as human poachers. This indicates that the main burden will be on the conservation initiative to house these animals in a better, cageless environment if they cannot live in the wild.
Other countries have begun similar, though not identical, campaigns against unnecessary and damaging animal captivity. India has banned dolphin captivity, along with Croatia, Hungary Slovenia and Switzerland among other countries. Marine parks have come under similar scrutiny (as zoos), with Toronto's Marineland being badly criticized for the poor health of the dolphins, seal lions and whales in its care. The parks and zoos are still a major part of many cities worldwide, however, and it will take some time before conservation trumps entertainment. Then we will have to contend with the viability of releasing the animals into an environment they may have little to no experience of.