Monday, 16 March 2015

Damian Aspinall and a touch of zoochosis

The blog reproduced below was originally published in August 2013. I removed the blog because I felt that maybe I had been a little bit unfair in my criticism of Damian Aspinall.  However, with the recent news of a number of tragic deaths involved in one of his gorilla re-introductions in the Gabon and his continuous claiming of some kind of moral high ground (most recently in a CBS News documentary) I felt it was probably opportune to reinstate this blog

Damian Aspinall is at it again but this time in The Daily Mail.  To hear him speak, you really imagine that this man has morphed into a clone of Will Travers.  Moreover, as soon as someone coins the word 'zoochosis' you know what you are about to read is basically bollocks.  As a disease or condition, 'zoochosis' does not exist. It was actually made up by the Born Free Foundation (Zoo Check) many years ago as an anti-zoo buzzword for their 1993 The Zoochotic Report.

Of course, Damian Aspinall (casino owner, aspiring songwriter and conservationist) is engaging in his standard 'special pleading' for his park's or should I call then a 'sanctuaries'?   This is not the first time in recent months that he has waxed lyrical about his views on zoos and how they should be 'phased out', a term again directly lifted from the rhetoric of the Born Free Foundation.

He states:
In the wild, these creatures roam hundreds of miles. They hunt their prey, raise their offspring and enjoy complex social relationships. So think how it must feel to be locked up with no stimulation, no room to move and no chance of freedom.  Little wonder they develop self-destructive behaviours known as ‘zoochosis’ – repetitively walking in tight circles, rocking, swaying and sometimes mutilating themselves.  Watch the lion or the tiger. See if it pads back and forth across its pen  .  . .  back and forth  .  . .  back and forth.

This above statement could, of course, be lifted directly from the propaganda from most of the anti-zoo groups such the Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS) or PeTA. 

His statement is both inflammatory and more importantly nonsense as regards modern zoological collections.  In reality, most animals do not roam hundreds of miles but travel to find food or a mate and if they are provided with these animals tend to travel very little if at all.

His muddled diatribe really seems to beg the question as to when Aspinall actually went to another zoological collection other than his own. Although, he does seems to think that cuddling a zoo tiger in a modern zoo setting is normal which it is not.  The only time this is acceptable is if the animals in question are being specifically trained for media and/or performance by specialist animal trainers.  And whilst many animals such as big cats are trained in a zoological setting for husbandry reasons this is always undertaken via protected contact.

He continues:

All too often they [zoo animals] are left on permanent display with nowhere to hide. They have no shade,  little shelter, no privacy at all. For all the money spent, the life of a zoo animal is no different now from what it was almost two centuries ago.  All this suffering, for what?  Nothing more than our own amusement. That is hard to stomach.

Indeed, his above-misjudged hyperbole is 'hard to stomach'!  

In fact, the truth is that in most well-run zoos the above situations are rarely seen and in the case of displays of stereotypies they are likely to have been acquired elsewhere (as has been pointed out by researchers such as Ames) or may not be stereotypies at all.  They, for example, may be context driven behaviours such as the expectation of food.  Aspinall's lack of any real knowledge of animal behaviour is staggering.

Moreover, this leads me to ask
Aspinall: "what about your animals in your zoos?" 

Presumably, they do not display such behaviours or if they do, why are you keeping them when in your own words their welfare is being seriously compromised.  In addition, if they do not, perhaps you could share with the rest of the zoo community your insight in preventing these behaviours.   Although, I suspect most of the duties of care that are undertaken at his parks are in the hands of his staff and those that I have known are by and large excellent keepers.

Nonetheless, Aspinall's concern for the welfare of his animals has sometimes been a bit odd when he allowed a three-day dance party to take place at his Port Lympne Zoo in 2012 much to the consternation of CAPS and the Born Free Foundation.

Additionally, he also has a very poor knowledge of the history of zoos saying:

' Zoos were first designed as businesses'. 
Really?  The London Zoological Gardens opened for scientific study in 1828 but did not open to the public until 1847.  In any event, zoos roles go beyond conservation for release but also included education, research and also leisure. 

Moreover, as I pointed out the last time this self-serving publicist was given column inches, that there really are serious problems to address in the wild for animals.  At the time, I then suggested he should review the excellent BBC Radio series 'Shared Planet' as it is informed and very sobering listening. 

The series highlighted just how little of the wild now exists and the very real pressures being placed on wildlife. In fact, we are reaching the point where some national game reserves in Africa are little more than large safari parks fenced in and surrounded by agriculture.

However, this is the Daily Mail which had a picture of Twiggy the skiing squirrel in its editions last week and thinks that breeding white lions in Africa is a jolly good thing.

In conclusion, I do not know about zoochosis but Aspinall certainly seems to be suffering from something.  Perhaps it should be called the 'Richard Dawkins syndrome', as he also seems to be losing touch with reality lately in regards to his support for animal-rights via The Great Ape Project and his chumminess with animal-rights guru Peter Singer.