Animal Emotions

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Rewilding Animals: Going Home At Last

Damian Aspinall begins releasing captive animals into the wild.

I woke up this morning to some very good news for some animals. Damian Aspinall, who has taken over two wildlife parks founded by his father more than 50 years ago in the Kent countryside in England, has decided to release some animals back into the wild. Mr. Aspinall has come to loathe zoos as they really accomplish little if anything in terms of education and conservation, and over the next few months plans to release 40 animals of various species, including langurs, gibbons, and black rhinos.

Zoos often claim they make significant contributions to conservation but in fact very few individuals have ever been released back into the wild after they've lived in captivity. To quote Mr. Aspinall:

"If I had my way, I’d close down 90  percent of all zoos tomorrow ... They are nothing more than jails. People argue they are educational — well, stuff education! You can learn far more from a David Attenborough film than going around a city-centre zoo. ... Just walk around any of these city zoos and be appalled! They shouldn’t be allowed to exist. They are a necessary evil, and if we are going to have them, there should be a law that they have programmes to protect the wilderness and re-introduce animals to the wild. Otherwise you just have a collection of animals being kept for the enjoyment of man — and I don’t think animals should be kept for our enjoyment."

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Animals in captivity can be seen as more or less wild, depending how they wound up in the cages in which they live. If they were brought into a zoo from the wild there is still "wildness" in them and if they were born in a zoo they still have wild genes. One of the comments to this article made a gross error about the nature of these animals and it's worth noting because many others also make the same mistake. The comment reads, "They are not wild animals. They are domesticated. They will probably be dead within a month."

The animals living in zoos and who are to be released are not domesticated individuals. Some may be socialized but as I've pointed out elsewhere, domestication is an evolutionary process and the animals in zoos aren't domesticated as are companion dogs and cats. So, a captive wolf might be a socialized individual but a domesticated wolf is a dog. 

Of course, these sorts of projects are risky endeavors but one could well argue that they're worth trying because lives in captivity are severely compromised. The animals are on display for our pleasure and entertainment, not for theirs. As these projects are undertaken we will surely learn more and more about how to release animals and have them survive.* 

By making serious attempts to rewild animals we can also rewild our hearts and appreciate just who these amazing beings truly are. You can read more about this ambitious and most-needed project here. Bravo Damien and all those who are working to rewild animals. 

The teaser image can be seen here

* In response to a comment I wrote: I realize they are risky but it's about time we try to free some animals from a life in captivity. Lke other reintroduction projects such as moving wolves back into Yellowstone there are risks (some wolves did die for the good of their species and some were injured) and we can only hope that these projects will be done with great care and that we'll learn from them for future endeavors. We're always weighing relative harms and being in captivity is rather a large harm.  

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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