Uneasy freedom

Some time ago, in a talk broadcast by the BBC, Desmond Morris, Curator of Mammals at the London Zoo, stressed…

Uneasy freedom

Representational image (Photo: Getty Images)

Some time ago, in a talk broadcast by the BBC, Desmond Morris, Curator of Mammals at the London Zoo, stressed the increasing importance of breeding animals in zoos as an ultimate measure in wildlife preservation.

He said that if breeding groups are not established now in the larger zoos of the world, many species will become extinct in the next century, and pointed out that the wild horse, the European bison, the Pere David deer, and the Hawaiian goose are cases where, had it not been for special breeding studies and success in captivity the species would already have become extinct. Morris added that there were two main obstacles to the effective preservation of species on the verge of extinction by breeding them in zoos.

The first was the tendency of zoos to feature variety in their inmates, rather than few groups of threatened species  no doubt a greater number of zoos, devoted to such breeding groups, would be established in due course. The second factor was the anthropomorphic popular feeling against caged animals deprived of their freedom.


It is true of course, Morris said, that the zoo animal has lost its freedom to suffer unaided from parasites diseases, starvation, droughts, extremes of temperature, the fears of predation, and of course from lingering death but loss of these kinds of freedom does not worry the antizoo mind. There is still a popular belief that wild animals are free to move about wherever they like but it has been known for many years that a wild animal is hemmed in just as tightly in its natural environment as we are in ours. Its food demands, its territorial rivals, and its predators make it a psychological captive, and there is a barrier round it that is just as effective as the bars round its cage at the zoo. If this were not so it is hardly likely that animals would adapt so well and live so long in the environment of the zoo. I am afraid Morris has presented a rather one-sided, and distorted, picture of the freedom of wild animals in nature.

Perhaps the wonderful work done in zoos and preserves in the West to save and even to revive nearly or quite-extinct species has influenced him, and perhaps he lacks firsthand knowledge of forest animals such as the sambar, the gaur, and the elephant, in their natural environments.

The examples he has cited of success in the saving of threatened species are well known  the saving of Pere Davids deer by the Duke of Bedford is, perhaps, the most romantic story in the annals of wildlife preservation. This peculiar, Chinese deer was already reduced to the status of a park animal (within the walls of the Imperial Park outside Peking) when Western science got to know it, through the agency of Pere David. With great difficulty a few live specimens were procured and sent to zoos in Europe by 1870. By 1900, the deer had been wiped out in the Imperial Park by a flood, and the Boxer Rising; the Duke of Bedford collected the dozen-and-a-half specimens available in European zoos (the only specimens of the deer left anywhere in the world) and founded a breeding colony in his deer park at Woburn Abbey. That was so successful that in 1944, his successor was able to donate fawns to Whipsnade, where a subsidiary herd was established.

In Western countries, particularly in England, with the decline in the native fauna (some of which people were unable to save  the spoonbill in England is an example), a great interest in exotic species began to manifest itself, not only in cage-birds and zoo animals, but also in species that could be given their freedom in parks and preserves remember that this was the peak period of the growth of natural history as a science. Woburn Abbey, for example, offered sanctuary to quite a few exotic animals besides Pere Davids deer, such as the last of the wild horses (Przwalskis Wild Horse), white-tailed gnus, American bison, and wapiti.

The Severn Wildfowl Trust (which revived the dying Hawaiian Goose or Nene) provides for many water-birds and in Germany the brothers Heck claim to have bred back (from domestic stock) the extinct aurochs and tarpan. And England is the only country where the Chinese and Indian muntiac (run wild in parks) inter breed! Unquestionably some really outstanding work has been done in the West in saving species on the brink of extinction by establishing breeding colonies in zoos and preserves.

But when Morris goes on to suggest that animals in zoos and parks are better off than those in natural sanctuaries and forests in their own countries, he is carrying his argument too far and I think indulging in the very kind of anthropomorphism to which he objects though in a way less obvious than popular sentimentality.

For one thing no naturalist who knows the wild life of a country at first hand will subscribe to the statement that preys live in a state of constant apprehensiveness or fear.

Again, lingering death is no commoner in nature than in the most modern and scientifically-managed zoos. I appreciate the fact that living conditions have been tremendously improved for the inmates of modern zoos (thanks mainly to Carl Hagenbeck, who initiated unbarred naturalistic surroundings and pointed out the importance of providing captive wild animals with company and diversion). But the balance of nature is and will always be a better way of preserving wildlife than confinement and expert attention.

And many wild animals range over a much wider territory than Morris seems to appreciate.

Morris speaks of the wild animals freedom to suffer unaided from parasites and diseases ~ in this, too, I think he is being somewhat anthropomorphic. People who have had the curiosity to cut up the trophies shot by hunters will know that the most healthy-seeming creatures carry both external and internal parasites and that a balance seems to be struck in nature between host and parasites. A morbid fear of parasites is entirely a human feeling.

I realise that I am sticking my neck out in saying this and that it is easy by enlarging slightly on my meaning to turn the argument against me  all the same this needs to be said.

Permit me a seemingly anthropomorpric analogy in continuation of what Morris has said about a wild animal being hemmed in as tightly in its natural environment as we are in ours. I live in a rather squalid environment and thanks to my cook and my unfortunate gustatory preferences eat second rate and even third rate food both from a culinary and dietetic point of view. And I smoke far too many cheap cigarettes. But I am sure readers will need no reasoned explanation from me to appreciate my preference for life in my leaky, comfortless cottage to the luxury of spacious, air-conditioned confinement, with my diet carefully supervised by a team of specialists, my cigarettes superior, rationed and de-nicotinised, and a routine calculated to ensure optimum security, health and longevity.

Why does Morris ignore the great psychological need of all wild animals for personal liberty? It cannot be that he does not know that driven from their ancient homes, about to be artificially inundated to safe and hospitable surroundings, wild animals have rushed back to death by drowning or that if all barriers (such as fences and ditches) were to be removed from their paddocks zoo animals provided with every conceivable amenity will still escape.

Physical restraint is as unbearable to animals as it is to us, often even more unbearable, so far as we can judge by objective observation of wild creatures. Forest animals in particular such as gaur, sambar and elephants, dearly love their personal freedom.

Those animals have lived in good health and for long in a zoo prove nothing. Even a man may live to a ripe old age in prison.

However, my main criticism of Morriss point of view is that he has wholly ignored the native terrain, flora and climate of wild animals, which cannot be substituted in zoos, even in their own countries. To me the word wildlife has complex connotations, as indicative of the flora as of the fauna. The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros may, with difficulty be bred in zoos; it cannot be bred in herds or breeding groups but granted that it can be bred in captivity to maintain a scattered population in several zoos, how much finer and more fitting is the achievement of the Kaziranga Sanctuary and other sanctuaries! The Gir Sanctuary for the Asiatic lions is another notable example.

But of course Morris is correct in his main point, which is that with things the way they are and the constantly increasing human demands on the land and even waters, a good way to save many species would be the founding of breeding colonies in special zoos and parks. But if we cannot set apart several comparatively small areas of forest, marshland and other tracts in each country for the preservation of its immemorial wildlife then why save anything at all?

After years of study it is my conviction that in India, the original home of sanctuaries for wild creatures, we can if we have sufficient patriotism and pride in our magnificent heritage of nature, achieve even more than has been achieved in Africa, despite the present depleted state of our wildlife. With no insuperable burden imposed on our plans for national betterment and our growing economy, we can still save the animals and plants that have lived here even longer than we have. I appreciate the magnitude of the effort, but it is less than might seem at first sight, and calls for no active contribution from us beyond effective protection, and supervision.

Moreover, the effort is necessary if we are to utilise the last chance that we have to save the greatest national asset that we have  the wonderful diversity and charm of nature in our country. If we allow this last clear chance to go unused, through irresponsible and myopic preoccupation with immediate human problems, Morriss solution will be the only thing left to us.

This was published on December 27, 1964 in The Sunday Statesman