At a first glance, Zoo Negara—set in the Malaysian jungle—looks like a natural setting for the animals who live there, but a closer look at the outdated enclosures (many of which were originally built in the 1980s) reveals environments that can never compare to the lush jungles, forests, grasslands, rivers, and oceans these animals call home.
Three hippos spend their miserable lives in a tiny enclosure, no bigger than your average studio apartment. A group of Malaysian sun bears constantly pant and pace around a barren enclosure, the grass worn down from their endless circles. One brown bear, who in the wild would live in cool climates like those in Russia and Canada, throws himself repeatedly against the side of his enclosure—literally having been driven insane from his confinement and boredom—while his cagemate paces. These repetitive, abnormal, and often self-destructive behaviors are called “zoochosis.”
Near the front of the zoo, two Malaysian elephants are confined to a barren dirt enclosure; their only enrichment is a log and an old tire. One of the elephants is frequently chained by two of his legs—he can only move a few inches in any direction and spends his time swaying his head from side to side. Wild elephant herds roam up to 80 kilometers a day—activity that is essential to their well-being—but the entire Zoo Negara measures only 0.5 square kilometers. In the wild, these elephants would graze, pluck fruit and leaves from trees, take mud baths, and spend hours a day swimming and playing in the water.
An Oxford University study based on four decades of observing animals in captivity and in the wild found that animals such as lions, tigers, and cheetahs “show the most evidence of stress and/or psychological dysfunction in captivity” and concluded that “the keeping of naturally wide-ranging carnivores should be either fundamentally improved or phased out.” Zoo Negara houses several lions, tigers, and jaguars—all of whom live in enclosures that can never meet their natural needs to roam, hunt, and play.
Zoos claim that they educate people and preserve species, but they rarely succeed on either count. Zoos present visitors with a distorted view of wildlife. Even the biggest zoos cannot provide the space, exercise, privacy, or mental stimulation needed by the animals they imprison, much less fulfill their other complex needs.
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