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Are animals in the wild happier??

Taronga takes its responsibilities for animal welfare very seriously. We acknowledge the wild nature of animals in our care.  This compels us to provide the type of environment and diverse experiences that the animal’s biology has evolved to expect and to cope with.  We understand that zoos cannot truly replicate the wild but, as far as possible, we can reproduce the animal’s natural environment and take into consideration the animal’s behavioural and physiological needs. 

We recognise that no matter how good the facilities and care, life in a zoo does place some restrictions on the animals.  However there are also restrictions on animals in the wild. Many wild animals have their movements restricted by territorial boundaries, geography and climatic requirements, to name a few.

Their ‘freedom’ in the wild is often radically restricted by the daily battle to survive. Wild animals do not make long journeys for pleasure, but to fulfil the daily needs for food, water, shelter and opportunities to mate. The concept of animal welfare, as we understand it, is not something enjoyed by wild animals in the wild.  Humans do not guarantee the comfort, access to food, water, shelter, and absence of predators that is afforded to animal cared for in good zoos. Nor do we take responsibility for wild animals in the wild unless our actions directly impact up on them.

Some animal rights groups assume that animals in nature are happier than animals in zoos, happier even than domesticated animals. But are they?

As humans, we find it hard to tell if another human is truly happy and we are the same species with the same emotions. In the case of animals we can’t even ask them if they are happy.  We try to qualify happiness in animals as being healthy, behave normally for the species and an absence of stress.  Stress, as opposed to happiness can be measured.  A stressed animal may have a decrease in overall health, neurotic behaviour or an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline or other stress hormones.  Although an absence of stress does not guarantee happiness, it is an indication of overall wellbeing.

Elephant Hose downs

There is no evidence that wild animals are happier than well cared for animals in zoos, and in fact the reverse could be true.  When we cater for their welfare needs with good food and water, comfort, social context, appropriate space for behavioural expression and removal of stressors, predators, parasites and extreme weather, wild animals can live as fulfilled a life in zoos as they can in the wild. The restriction on movement doesn’t always mean an animal is worse off. If an animal has all the good things they may have in the wild without all the bad things that can accompany living in a wild state, then they can live just as well in an artificial habitat. Zoo animals with good care certainly live longer, have better nutrition, and are healthier than their wild counterparts.

Are animals in the wild happier than those in zoos?  There is more that science can and will do to answer that question more fully over time.  Meanwhile, the answer is ‘probably not’; not if they receive excellent care in a good, modern zoo like Taronga.

The animals in Taronga’s populations are cared for to a standard at least comparable to, but in most cases far exceeding the conditions that their wild counterparts would experience. The greatest repository of understanding of wild animals lies within the province of good zoos such as Taronga.

Erna Walraven

Senior Curator, Taronga Conservation Society Australia