By Paul Murphy
Why is it necessary for Belfast to have a zoo? Is the zoo merely a remnant to the Victorian age, a place for people to come and gawk at miserably caged animals outside of their natural habitat? Unlike in the Victorian era, however, modern zoos are held to strict standards in regards to animal welfare. Even in the best of cases, animals held in captivity often develop behavioural and psychological issues- but resources such as medicinal care readily available to animals inside the zoo means that their long-term health is essentially more secure than it would be on the outside.
Belfast Zoo allows people an up-close and personal look at such a vast range of animals that they simply could not get anywhere else. With many primary schools making annual visits, it is for most young children visiting their first ever encounter with the majority of animals in the zoo. These visits can provide an opportunity spark an interest and passion in these children to pursue the idea of studying animals that they would not develop inside the classroom. In terms of popularity, the zoo still attracts around 250,000 visitors per year. Considering the population of Belfast is around 500,000, this is an impressive number which suggests interest in zoo visits is still high enough to warrant consideration of maintaining a zoo in the city. A 2015 poll conducted by the Belfast Telegraph showed that only 34% of people agreed with the idea that the zoo should be closed. Despite this, financial demands to close the zoo must also be considered. In 2015, figures published showed that the zoo generated an income of around £1.9 million per year, significantly lower than the £2.7 million annual running costs. With questions being raised by in regards to ethics and finance, are the arguments in favour of the zoo strong enough to maintain its existence?
Though Belfast Zoo does operate breeding programs, there is often no long-term plan in regards to releasing animals back into the wild. Essentially, animals being bred within the zoo are being born into a manufactured environment where they will live their entire existence, without ever experiencing the outside world. This raises major ethical questions- in 2016, do we need creatures to exist solely within the confinement of a zoo for their entire life just for paying customers to come and look at them for a few minutes? On average, most visitors to the zoo make one visit per year- is an animals entire existence valued as being worth a few minutes of fleeting observation? Protection of animals in their natural habitat actually proves significantly less expensive than the running costs involved in maintaining zoological gardens. At a time where, globally, there are numerous safari parks and animal sanctuaries open- where animals are catered to in their own environment- isn’t the entire concept of a zoo, the caging of a wide variety of animals in one location, entirely immoral? The climate of Belfast, clearly, does not cater to the needs of its inhabitants- ranging from Rockhopper Penguins to Barbary Lions.
Ultimately, Belfast Zoo exists mainly as a visitor attraction. The confinement of the animals is not based on solely maintaining their well-being, but on the idea that a large collection of animals in one location will draw in paying members of the public to observe creatures they cannot see in every-day life. At this point, I feel we should acknowledge the antiquated nature of this- the animals are being taken from their natural surroundings (or bred specifically to exist in an artificial enclosure), solely to be stared at for a few minutes per year by the average customer. Whilst Belfast Zoo does do good work when it comes to maintaining the health of the animals and encouraging breeding, the animals in Belfast Zoo exist for the amusement of the paying customer. They do not get to live a natural life- is the running of the zoo worth that loss?