Born Free Foundation debate: my thoughts on animals in captivity

I went to a thought-provoking Born Free Foundation panel session at the Royal Geographical Society last week, on the difficult subject of animals in tourism.

Virginia McKenna said she doesn’t believe any animals should ever be kept in captivity – including zoos, dolphinaria, circuses and animals forced to pose for tourists’ photos.

I firmly agree with her. Seeing animals in cages or being made to perform tricks breaks my heart (see my blog on the monkeys I saw in Marrakech). And I know from my own experience that seeing a lion in a cage in the zoo cannot compare to seeing it run free on the plains of Africa.

But having a ‘real’ wildlife experience is becoming increasingly costly and difficult (not least because species like tigers are disappearing altogether). Permits for gorilla tours in Rwanda and Uganda are prohibitively expensive  – and rightly so. But this risks making this kind of wildlife experience the preserve of the wealthy – the vast majority of us may never such animals in their natural environment.

Virginia says, if we don’t have the money or ability to see them in the wild, we ought to be content with watching wildlife documentaries.

Now, I love my wildlife documentaries. I attribute my love of the natural world to several formative years in the company of Wildlife on One.

But over the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing animal experiences in the flesh. I’ve had a lion walk within two metres of my jeep on safari in Africa; I’ve been within spitting distance of a school of killer whales in the Norwegian fjords; I’ve swam with wild dolphins (of their own accord) on the Great Barrier Reef; and I’ve spotted lemurs in the unexplored forests of Madagascar.

But if things had happened differently and if, impassioned by years of David Attenborough, I had not then had the opportunity to witness wildlife in its natural environment, would having chance to see a lion face-to-face in a respected safari park be a tempting compromise?

If I had to choose between only experiencing wildlife on the telly, or going to see dolphins in a well-managed aquarium, what would I choose? I hope I’d settle for the TV coverage but who can say?

It seems those of us who campaign against animals in captivity tend to be those very people who’ve had best opportunity to experience the real thing. Of course, the real issue at hand is education – I’ve learnt enough about animals in captivity to know it’s wrong.

But I feel like it’s a little easier for me to say from my very well-travelled side of the fence…..

The Born Free Foundation is currently campaigning against the resurgence of the ivory trade in Africa – sign its Bloody Ivory petition here

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