Meerkat capers and avocet woes

Wandering around Twycross Zoo with Jenny brought back all my feelings of ambiguity about zoos in general. One wants to see animals acting naturally despite the unnatural surroundings: some of them appear to be entirely content in their restricted environments, whereas others plainly weren’t.

Alert meerkats at Twycross Zoo

Although large animal species get star billing, it is often the smaller ones that are the most active and entertaining. The meerkats were busily active all the time that we watched them, and the oriental small-clawed otters were thoroughly absorbed in finding and nibbling the pieces of raw fish left around their enclosure.

Oriental small-clawed otters

Avocets – with just a small metal dish to skim!

Meanwhile there were other animals – and particularly some of the birds – that seemed to be in completely inappropriate surroundings. Having seen avocets wading around Teesmouth in summer, skimming the water with their curiously upturned bills, and again in winter on the Exe estuary, I was appalled to see a small flock at the zoo with just a single metal dish to skim! This made no sense from either an educational or a conservation perspective. And the less said about the small cages the owls were in, the better.

I can see the argument for zoos having a key conservation role when species are endangered – and, as they are commerical ventures, they do not depend on government hand-outs. But the Amur leopard, in an apparently large and well-designed enclosure, was repetitively pacing a small stretch: as it’s a critically-endangered subspecies, intensive conservation effort is clearly needed, but I did wonder how much space would be required for it to be relatively healthy and content.

My suspicion is that small animals are much easier to cater for within zoo environments, as are those that climb, like the gibbons, for which cages can easily be enriched with ropes, bridges and swings. But the large, glamour species seem to be the most difficult to cater for – and Twycross seems to struggle with adequate provision for their birds.

Two of the most enjoyable zoos that I’ve been to are ones that focus on the wildlife native to their area. One of these was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson, closer to home is Wildwood Trust in Kent, which keeps species that have been native to Britain in the last ten thousand years. Both of these have obvious educational value, enhancing one’s understanding of the local area, and presenting far fewer problems in terms of providing a fitting environment for the animals.

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