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The Captive Wildlife Crisis

By today’s environmental standards, a self-sustaining tiger population - based on 7,000 plus animals - would be considered a success story. However, when those 7,000 tigers are found in captivity - living outside of our public zoo system – it is considered a travesty. Why aren’t they in zoos? Or better yet, why aren’t they in the wild where they belong? The answer, as always, lies in their association with another inhabitant of earth… man.


Even though captivity has become a way of life for many species of animals, not all animals can, or should be domesticated - Great Cats being one of them. For hundreds of years man has made a practice of capturing animals from the wild for use in captivity. Early displays of captured wildlife were found to be fascinating, as they gave zoo-going onlookers an exciting glimpse of life from far-off places. And so, for many years wildlife seemed destined to be captured and sent to an ever-growing number of zoos throughout the world.


Yet, by the mid-nineteen hundreds, the total number of public zoos began to stabilize and the number of animals needing to be caught from the wild began to reduce. However, animal populations in captivity continued to grow as a result of management practices that many zoos had adopted (which were directly related to their desire for an increase in attendance). Some zoos believed prolific breeding demonstrated the zoo’s success in captive wildlife management, while many others admittedly saw cute baby animals as a fool proof way to bolster public attendance. In either case, captive populations grew to unsustainable levels, as size limitations and budget constraints shackled most zoos. Continual births left zoos little choice but to surplus or euthanize animals of their own creation.


Surplus animals leaving the zoo system found their way into a number of private places throughout the world. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these animals were transitioned with little, or no regard to their future well being. By leaving the surplus animal’s destiny in the hands of animal traders (who saw nothing but profit in their excess) public zoos set the stage for what was to become a captive wildlife crisis over the next forty years. By continually dumping surplus animals into the private sector, many zoos unwittingly planted thousands of seeds for captive wildlife breeding, commercialization and abuse. Exotic animals such as lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and a whole host of other species (many of which were threatened or endangered) began to permeate the backyards & basements of the world. Exploited in every way - and bred by the thousands in exotic equivalents to “puppy mills” - their numbers grew exponentially.


Today, these animals can be found everywhere from extravagant Las Vegas magic shows, to shopping malls, to roadside zoos, and even in people’s backyards, basements and garages. Like guns, drugs and other illegal items, law enforcement agencies are continually forced to confiscate animals from unlicensed individuals who attempt to keep them as pets. Additionally, many private collections exist in licensed facilities throughout the world - though licensing doesn’t always guarantee the proper or humane treatment of animals.

Regulation for humane treatment and proper licensing has gained little ground toward solving this problem - as the effectiveness and very existence of laws preventing breeding and private ownership vary from state to state, and country to country. Like so many other social dilemmas, little was known about this hidden problem until recently when innocent people began to get hurt, and abused animals began to escape or die. Much like domestic pet Humane Societies discovered thirty years ago… the answer to overpopulation and the mistreatment of animals doesn’t come from rescuing all the unwanted animals – rather, the solution lies in addressing the source of the problem. 

Exotic animal mismanagement has reached epidemic proportions, as the entire captive wildlife industry stands divided by their ethical views. Wildlife can be found captive primarily in six basic areas: public zoos, research centers, private wildlife centers, rehabilitation facilities, the entertainment industry, and individual ownership. Regulating and obtaining compliance with sound management practices at any level would be next to impossible without the voluntary acceptance by everyone involved. The key is to find a motivating force, which would effectively work throughout the broad spectrum of captive wildlife fields, and would bring about positive change on a voluntary basis.

Every area of captive wildlife management shares one important factor - their existence largely depends on social needs and public opinion. One of the strongest forces created by society today is the check and balance system regulating those things which humans deem to be important - such as health, liberty, safety and other issues including wildlife and the environment. Therefore, the most effective way to attain positive captive wildlife management is through an educated public and the subsequent social pressure they will apply.

Education will allow individuals, groups, and the population in general to gain an understanding of how wildlife is currently managed in captivity - enabling them to discover the reasons behind many questionable management practices. With a general understanding of the issues at hand, people will be able to better interpret the policies of local and national wildlife organizations, as well as that of individuals who choose to engage in exotic animal ownership. Having a better understanding will also encourage people to view captive wildlife keepers more closely, and will encourage them to ask questions that will help to define an operation’s animal management practices. In doing so, people will be able to voice their interests and concerns to the very operations which serve wildlife in their area, as well as society in general.

Taking into account the number of wildlife and conservation organizations operated in the world today, it is incredibly obvious there are many natural things on earth that people relate to... and see as a direct reflection to man’s very existence. The enormous size of organizations that address environmental issues - in areas such as Habitat Conservation and Wildlife Preservation - stand as true testimony to the depth of people’s interest and concern for the well being of wildlife today. There is no doubt the public has the desire to help!

Yet, in order for captive wildlife to benefit from human interest and concern their benefactors must first be empowered to help. Education is knowledge... and knowledge saves lives…

and in this case the lives at stake are those of animals in captivity.

A system that will educate people, is their only hope...

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