“Some days, it’s more like being a Hollywood star’s agent than a communications official for the zoo. That’s what happens when your prematurely born hippopotamus becomes a global celebrity.”
– Dan Sewell, spokesperson for Cincinnati Zoo.
Remember the furore in 2016 when Harambe the gorilla, after rescuing from the water a 3 year old boy who had climbed a fence and fallen into his enclosure, was shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo? Harambe was born in a zoo and died in a zoo – his life was ended for him just one day after his 17th birthday. He could have lived until he was 40.
But now Harambe is yesterday’s news, and Cincinnati Zoo has been celebrating a different birthday, and I mean celebrating. All that adverse publicity has become no more than a bad dream. Fiona the baby hippo, who has showered the zoo with her golden stardust since the moment of her birth, has just turned 1. And Cincinnati Zoo decided to throw a big party open to all. The human party-goers received gifts: hippo bathmats, Fiona-themed postcards stamped with her footprint (yes, really), cake and ice cream. The zoo’s animals were not left out. They got “party favours” of special enrichment toys.
As Harambe before her, Fiona is a global celebrity – but not like him for what many believe was an avoidable death, but for the tenacity with which she clung on to her little life. The little hippo was born prematurely in the zoo and needed the same kind of special care from the humans as a human baby. After 2 weeks, she took her first steps. 2 days later she took her first dip in a tub. Her cuteness cannot be denied.
By this time, she had captured the imagination of thousands, if not millions, and the zoo was receiving cards, drawings and donations for the little one. They followed her day-by-day progress as she grew and got steadily stronger. By April she was weighing in at a healthy 150 lbs. Needless to say, visitors are flocking to see her. (Numbers for CZ are up from 1.63 million in 2016 to 1.87 million last year.} When Fiona’s little head peeks out, the roar of delight from visitors can be heard all over the zoo.
“Zoo director Thane Maynard’s own “Saving Fiona” will later this year join the growing library of books about her. The Cincinnati Reds baseball team will feature a Fiona bobblehead, and the minor-league Florence, Kentucky, Freedom plans a Fiona snow globe this summer. There will be a “Fiona’s Cove” exhibit at next month’s annual Cincinnati Home & Garden Show.”
Add to that list the Fiona calendar, Fiona-themed T-shirts, cookies, ornaments, and beer. There will even be special edition Fiona ice cream. So as well as the extra visitor revenue, the zoo has made almost $500,000 in licensing agreements with the local businesses cashing in on her fame, and no doubt much more to come.
Animal babies are good news for zoos, and never more so than when the zoo’s reputation has been tarnished by the scandal surrounding an untimely death – RIP Harambe. With Fiona’s birth, especially as the poor babe was premature (will she/won’t she pull through – the tug on the heart strings) CZ hit the jackpot.
And while the tlc given to Fiona to help her survive her premature birth was assuredly admirable, zoos are easily tempted to favour their balance sheets over a zoo baby’s welfare. Ueno Zoo in Japan is a case in point. Its panda cub Xiang Xiang is being “put on overtime.”
“Ueno Zoo’s first baby panda since 1988 will be on display for an extra two hours every day until the end of January and working a full seven-hour day from February to cater to the thousands of fans of the cuddly celebrity.” Note “working”. A captive animal has no say.
On the other side of the Pacific, zookeepers at LA Zoo have coaxed a mother okapi and her baby out of their enclosure so the zoo can put the little one on display. Since the natural habitat for this reclusive species is deep in the dense rainforests of central Africa, it is hard to see how this could possibly be in the best interests of mum or baby. The zoo claims, “the mother and father were paired under a species survival plan by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to increase the okapi population. The numbers of okapis in the wild has declined to between 10,000 and 50,000.”
Is it cynical to wonder if this is a nice piece of greenwashing? While exposure to noisy crowds of gawking humans will surely be extremely stressful to a reclusive animal like the okapi, I doubt okapi junior is doing much harm to the zoo’s gate receipts.
Who doesn’t love to see babies? Unregulated roadside zoos and so-called ‘sanctuaries’ deliberately breed from their animals to please the punters. But as Ueno and LA zoos make clear, ‘reputable’ affiliated zoos engage in the same activity. It is after all a surefire way to draw in the crowds and keep gate receipts buoyant. So, what when zoos get more babies than they bargained for? Or those erstwhile babies have outgrown their adorable babyhood?.
If a zoo baby is unlikely to be a mega money spinner like little Fiona, theirs is a very different fate. Remember Marius the baby giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo? Marius was killed with a bolt gun, and cut up and fed to lions before a crowd of schoolchildren. His crime? He was ‘surplus to requirements’ – too genetically similar to the other giraffes in the zoo.
Just this month a Swedish zoo admitted “putting down” – such a nice gentle euphemism – 9 healthy lion cubs in the last 5 years. They too were simply ‘surplus to requirements’.
“Helena Pederson, a researcher in animal studies at Gothenburg University, said the euthanisation of animals in zoos raised the question of whether such institutions should be open.” Indeed!
These examples have hit the headlines, but killing unwanted animals is a commonplace in zoos. Look beyond the stardom of the Fionas and the Xiang Xiangs and zoos are more often places of death than of new life.
The sad truth is, the interests of humans, especially their monetary interests, will always prevail over the best interests of the nonhuman living beings and their right to their lives.
A pioneering project in China
“The Landmark Entertainment company, known for its work on “Jurassic Park: The Ride,” “Kongfrontation” and “The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman 5D” at Universal Studios, is building a new project in China that will feature a virtual zoo, a virtual aquarium, an interactive museum and a digital art gallery — and the group is doing it all with no live animals. It’s called the L.I.V.E. Centre (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience), and the project started in 2014 with funding from a group of investors from China. It’s slated to open between 2017 and 2018.” Read more
What a wonderful way this will be to get up close and personal with wildlife and be immersed in the animals’ natural habitats! I hope this cage-free concept will finally draw a line under the thousand-years-and-more history of the captive animal menagerie that is the zoo.
If you’re not yet convinced, take a quick look at 14 Reasons Not to Visit Zoos – in Pictures
Photos and videos from CZ’s Facebook page