opinion

EDITORIAL: Zoos and animal rescues should handle animals ethically



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An interactive attraction gaining popularity across the country is one that offers up close and personal interactions with wild animals, including petting them or helping them bathe. As more and more zoos are facing closure due to financial reasons or otherwise, are these places a replacement? Are they even ethical at all?

Zoos can be an incredible educational resource when operated correctly. Zoos have always been the fun field trip on the itinerary, a cute date spot and an all-around good family-friendly time. However, in recent years several incidents have raised concerns about the ethics of zoos — and rightfully so.

The Editorial Board feels that we should be viewing these intimate animal interaction programs with the same scrutiny, especially those in Indiana.

In general, wild animal rescues are an incredible thing. They can preserve species at risk of extinction due to environmental factors, rehabilitate injured animals and release them to the wild, or adequately care for exotic animals that have been purchased illegally as pets and then dumped. Preserves that genuinely work to care and love animals are wonderful facilities, and if it comes down to it, they should be allowed to stand when zoos are not.

One animal rescue facility that provides a zoo-like experience for guests is the nonprofit Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Centerpoint, Indiana. The EFRC houses exotic big cats that for whatever reason, such as illegal purchase, injury or displacement, have nowhere else to live. The EFRC provides quality living to these animals while simultaneously educating the public about it.

At this center, you can interact up close with wild felines such as tigers, lions, jaguars and bobcats. They also offer several special events like children’s camps and overnights which aim to educate about these wild animals and how to keep them safe.

The EFRC clearly states in its mission that it does not exploit their animals for commercial purposes nor will they buy or sell from private owners. Essentially, this means the EFRC and several other animal sanctuaries do not profit from interactive programs nor the animals themselves. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

Wilstem, located near French Lick, Indiana, is another facility that offers wild animal interactions. However, there are some stark differences between Wilstem’s animal facility and ERFC’s.

One main argument of zoos is that captivity of wild animals should not be sold. For wild animals, captivity can be incredibly deadly if not professionally and ethically enforced. Animals die in zoos all the time from enclosure hazards, illness and even brutality in some cases. The same can be said for wild animals illegally purchased as pets. The goal in facilities having wild animals is that eventually they will be released, or if unable to be released, given as close as possible to a life in the “wild.”

It’s majorly concerning when a small facility advertising as a wildlife rescue is operating more closely to the function of a zoo. 

Wilstem is a for-profit company that also offers outdoor activities such as ATV riding and zip-line tours. The animals they have have mostly been purchased by the father of the marketing director Audrey Brames — even from private sellers.

At Wilstem, they do not share the same mission for animal rehabilitation as the ERFC.

Their first animals, elephants by the names of Makia, Lou and Lovie, used to even be driven across the country to various zoo-like locations.

It is unheard of for an elephant to take a cross-country road trip while living in the wild. 

The initial intention of Wilstem was to profit off of wild animals with little to no regard for their well-being, and while some of their animals have been rescues, it should be examined whether those animals are truly dependent on captivity or not.

Exposure to wildlife is important in order to educate as well as preserve species. That is undeniable. How we gain that exposure should always be ethical with the animals’ safety prioritized, and we should not shy away from it completely. But next time you want to impress a girl with a date to play with a baby tiger, make sure that you choose a certified sanctuary — not an outdoor adventure park with enough money to buy a giraffe.

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