Solomon Elusoji recently visited the University of Ibadan’s Zoological Garden and writes about the ethics of animals in captivity
Her name is Mercy. She sits quietly in her cage, stealing glances at onlookers, a long face contorted in a pity-grimace; her eyes are full of longing. At a point, she buries her face within her torso, curving into a ball in an
expression that screams: I want to go home.
Mercy is a female Anubis Baboon within the premises of the University of Ibadan’s (UI) Zoological Garden, which boasts of a variety of primates, reptiles, birds and cats. The question that ran through this reporter’s mind as he went around the cage, observing Mercy’s movements and non-movements was whether she could have looked happier outside captivity. “Of course no one is happy in captivity,” the zoo’s Director, Dayo Sowunmi, told THISDAY, “they are happier in the wild.” But, he pointed out, zoos are important because they help scientists study animals in a controlled environment and help to extend their well-being. “How do you manage what you don’t know about?”
He has a point. Take, for example, the case of giant pandas. As at the 1970s, these animals were gradually shifting towards extinction, with a wild population of about a thousand individuals, due to a poor culture of low sexual activity – females are only in estrus (a regularly recurrent state of sexual excitement during which they accept males and are capable of conceiving) for 24 to 72 hour a year, and even during this short window, both genders don’t always get it on.
Then, scientists stepped in, bringing a number of the pandas into captive breeding centres and trying to get them in the mood by giving them toys, water features, fruitsicles and playing recordings of giant pandas mating; they also collected sperm and artificially inseminated females, a technique which has been largely responsible for a recent panda baby boom. According to the newscientist.com, “there are now more than 300 giant pandas living in zoos and breeding centres in Europe, North America, South-East Asia, Japan, China and Australia. The panda programmes were so successful that captive pandas were released into the wild in 2007. There are now more than 1,800 giant pandas in Central China.”
There are arguments, too, that suggests that animals in captivity are better off because they do not have to worry about basic necessities like food, shelter and protection. Is a captive giraffe that does not spend its days looking out for hungry lions necessarily suffering? Of course not.
But, when psychological and behavioural needs are factored into the equation, the idea of keeping animals in captivity might begin to look inhuman. An important question, as posed by a Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Salford, Robert John Young, is whether an animal can be kept without significant psychological suffering? But a more important question might be whether animals, especially non-human primates, have, as Young put it, “highly developed cognitive abilities such as autonoetic consciousness – the ability to see their life as a continuous story.”
In the Foundations of Metacognition, a book published by Oxford University Press in 2012, Janet Metcalfe (Columbia University) and Lisa Son (Barnard College) wrote a paper on Ascetic, Noetic and Autonoetic Metacognition, exploring self-awareness in computers and animals. “At present, we know nothing about self-awareness in non-human primates and other animals,” they wrote. “The question has not been posed yet.
But, if someone were able to convincingly devise a method of asking a monkey whether he was the agent or someone else was, he might be able to answer it correctly. And, it would not be too far-fetched to suppose that – in the complex social world in which primates in the wild live, in which keeping track, over time, of exactly who did what to whom might enhance one’s chances of survival – a self might be a valuable thing to have.”
This lack of scientific clarity, however, has not stopped campaigns pushing for the recognition of equal rights between humans and animals. Back in the 1990s, the Great Ape Project set about trying to give apes equivalent rights to human, which would technically mean that they could not be held in captivity, as this would count as unlawful imprisonment.
In 2014, a judge ruled than an orangutan called Sandra at a Buenos Aires zoo in Argentina was being unlawfully deprived of her freedom. But Sandra’s victory did not open a floodgate of similar successful lawsuits. That same month in 2014, an American court tossed out a similar bid for the freedom of Tommy the chimpanzee, who was privately owned in New York state, ruling the chimp was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus, an instrument which had proved pivotal to Sandra’s case. Obviously, human’s evolutionary cousins still have a long way to go in proving their cognitive abilities.
In Nigeria, equating animal and human rights is an absurd proposition. There are two main reasons for this. One is the people’s love of meat. There is an healthy correlation between vegetarianism and response to animal welfare. People who don’t eat meat are likelier to see animal life as sacred and ‘human’ than those who do. Second, Nigerians are one of the most religious peoples on earth with entrenched beliefs in creation myths which validate the status of man as superior to other life forms. This, of course, means not a lot of people put much stock in Darwin’s theory of evolution. “As a scientist, I understand that Darwin’s theory is important,” a Zoologist, Nafisat Olaoti, told THISDAY, “but I don’t fully subscribe to it due to my religious views.”
This does not mean that animal conservation efforts in Nigeria is doomed, but it raises questions on the quality of animal welfare. At UI’s Zoological Garden, Sowunmi said all the animals were well taken care of, including the Anubis Baboon this reporter sighted looking gloomy. “We kill two cows a week for our lions,” he said, “and all our primates are fed regularly with fruits, boiled beans, yam and all sorts of edible things.” But food, alone, is not a ticket to happiness. What about the environmental conditions? Can Nigerian zoos afford to replicate the wild wonders of the forest, an area where even modern, sophisticated zoos struggle?
UI’s Zoological Garden has come a long way. Established in 1948 primarily as a menagerie (a collection of animals kept to be shown to the public) to support teaching and research at the University’s Department of Zoology. And, as the animal collection grew in number and diversity, the menagerie was converted into a full-fledged zoo in 1974. But, around the early 2000s, the zoo slipped into a mud of decadence, only to be resurrected under the administration of Dr. Olajumoke Morenikeji at the turn of the 21st century’s first decade.
When this reporter visited in July, he observed what was a beautiful, serene atmosphere.
Groups of people – families, tour parties, lovers – streamed in and let out delightful squeals and gasps as they inspected the rows of cages for the assorted species on show. One woman, though, complained that she could not find an elephant. Sowunmi, who was on the grounds donning a simple t-shirt and shorts, asked her to donate ₦28 million to the zoo, and he would see to it that one was brought in.
“Nigerians are very funny,” he told this reporter, “we want to go to heaven but we don’t want to die; we want all these things – elephants, gorillas – but we don’t know how these things are funded,” highlighting a dire need for more funding if animal welfare is to be taken seriously in the country. (The Ibadan zoo gets its funding from federal government subventions, donations from private and public bodies, and gate-fees.)
But, in a country where workers are owed for months, where human hunger is still a problem, more funding will be difficult to come by. These animals – cue in Mercy’s sad face – will have to, like their human tenders, find a way to get by. Happiness is still an expensive commodity.