Toronto Zoo’s panda cubs: a temporary solution to a bigger problem?

Photo courtesy of Toronto Zoo.  The newly born panda twins, the first pandas to be born Canada.
Photo courtesy of Toronto Zoo.
The newly born panda twins, the first pandas to be born Canada.

They’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re rare and endangered, and they’re being bred around the world to endure a life in captivity. The Toronto Zoo recently announced the birth of two pandas: the first pandas to have been born in Canada. The birth mother, Er Shun, arrived at the Toronto Zoo in March of 2013, with Da Mao, as loaner pandas from China’s captive breeding program. The Toronto Zoo pays China one million dollars each year for the set of pandas. Since Er Shun and Da Mao’s arrival, the zoo has attracted over one million visitors.

 

Despite our love for Pandas we are their greatest predator. People have poached them, destroyed their homes, and left them on the brink of extinction. As a means of repentance and as an attempt to preserve them, humanity poses the solution of breeding Pandas in human-run facilities. And zoos around the world want in.

 

Ruth Harkens exported the first live panda to America in 1936. In 1938, the panda died of pneumonia inside of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. For the next fifteen years, after the death of the first panda in America, 16 pandas were shipped to western zoos. Due to poor accommodations and lack of expertise by caregivers, not one panda lived past the age of ten. The average life expectancy of a giant panda in the wild is 20 years. Zoos are willing to breed pandas against expert advice, suggesting that captive breeding should be a last resort, while these programs subject Pandas to unnatural environments, which leaves them unable to engage in natural behaviours. As a result, captive bred pandas are shuffled from zoo to zoo.

 

According to the Chinese government, the money generated from loaning pandas to zoos goes towards conservation and preservation programs in China. The program’s goal is to replenish the bears and eventually reintroduce them into the wild. The WWF suggests captive breeding programs should be a last resort not a substitute for the underlying causes of species extinction like habitat destruction. There are 300 pandas that live in captivity and approximately 1,864 that live in the wild. Rob Laidlaw is the Executive Director of Zoocheck. He says, “ If you look at the three to five hundred pandas that have been born into captivity in China, there is only one animal that has ever been released that has survived for any length of time.” Researchers say they are still working with groups in China to determine strategies of how to introduce bred pandas into the wild.

 

The general consensus of the endangered animal welfare community, such as World Wild Life Fund and Zoocheck, is that the leading cause of animal extinction is due to habitat destruction. Zoos often convey an image that they are strong supporters of conservation and preservation for wildlife, claiming to use revenues generated from public attendance to finance these commitments. The Toronto Zoo’s vision statement reads “Canada’s national leader in saving wildlife to ensure the rich diversity of nature for future generations.” According to a 2014 Globe and Mail article, the zoo spent $136,000 towards endangered species, which accounted for less than one per cent of its $53.5-million budget in 2013. In China, half of the habitats belonging to wild pandas are still under threat, and are unprotected, creating uncertainty for the animal’s future as well as an unsecured habitat for bred pandas. The Toronto Zoo spent $3 million on renovations in order to provide adequate housing for the visiting pandas and annually spends $500,000 on food. This is the yearly cost of feeding all the other animals at the zoo combined, a total of over 5,000 animals.

 

George B. Schaller is the scientific director of the Bronx Zoo and author of The Last Panda. He says that zoos are part of the cause of near extinction of giant pandas because they haul these animals from one zoo to another to be exhibited. Laidlaw says, “About ten per cent of the captive panda population is out-loaned to zoos around the world.” He goes on to say that none of the pandas distributed across the zoos will ever be introduced to the wild. Er Shun was born August 10th, 2007 and was parent-raised. Da Mao was born through artificial insemination in September of 2008. He was hand-raised by breeders. Er Shun arrived in Toronto after being displayed at Chongqing Zoo. Once Er Shun and Da Mao complete the duration of their Toronto visit in 2018, they will be sent to the Calgary Zoo for five years. The fate of Toronto’s pandas is to continually ship them to zoos, without ever granting them the freedom of being in the wild.

 

Reproductive challenges, and *high mortality rates of offspring are an issue some animals in enclosure face. Zoos know that cute babies generate public interest, and by extension profits. So zoos use breeding methods like artificial insemination. They also outsource sperm donors. Female giant pandas are only fertile for periods of 24-72 hours of the year, a factor that even makes reproduction in nature a challenge. When Er Shun arrived in Toronto with a male panda, she was artificially inseminated twice. For each cub that’s born zoos must pay China an additional annual host fee. This amount is still to be negotiated for the new twins, according to Maria Franke curator of mammals at the Toronto Zoo.

 

Keeping animals in captive environments has many consequences. Once animals enter these synthetic and captive enclosures they are unable to carry out many of their natural behaviours, including forming bonds and packs, hunting, flying, swimming, climbing, exploring and getting adequate exercise. The limited population and space that a zoo offers means animals cannot exercise social, physical and maternal characteristics in an enclosed and artificial environment. Depriving animals of their natural environment causes them to become bored and lonely and suffer from a mental illness called zoochoisis, a condition that causes animals to rock their head back and forth. This symptom is so common amongst zoo animals, it’s now recognized by the public. Zoos have prescribed mood-altering drugs such as Prozac to suppress these symptoms. The life expectancy of animals in captivity is also shortened often do to the stress of being in enclosure, transported between zoos and lack of adequate exercise that leads to health problems. Another cause of premature deaths in captivity is accidental deaths, caused by fires and floods; some animals have died when visitors have thrown harmful objects into an animal’s enclosure.

 

Captive breeding offers a false promise of human abilities to save any species. We know that the root cause of extinction is habitat destruction, and researchers have yet to discover how or if they will be able to integrate bred pandas into their ancestry habitat. In China, half of the habitats belonging to wild pandas are still under threat, and are unprotected, creating uncertainty for the animal’s future as well as an unsecured habitat for bred pandas. Yet, rather than solving the root of the issue, the focus continues to be on populating the animal regardless of their future. This pushes the pandas into a cycle of redistribution. This works for the public, who like to see the animals at zoos. But breeding programs lead people to focus on the quantity of animals. A growing number of endangered species is good, right? But the problem is this attitude distracts from strategies that can save the animals and their habitats. As a result, these captive bred animals become souvenirs of our own mistakes. In which case, the custom Da Mao/Ed Shun stuffed panda at the Toronto Zoo that sells for $34.99 might be a more ethical bargain.

*Changes have been made to reflect misspelling of Da Mao and term misuse.  

1 COMMENT

  1. As I tend to agree with the basis of this article (i.e. that wild habitats need to be saved and decimation of the wild population must end, and that captive breeding alone will not save a species), you have written many misleading and misinformed statements.
    First of all, it’s Da Mao, not Dao Moa. Also you say “low mortality rate” as a negative…it means a low percentage of deaths, i.e. few individuals have died. This is positive.
    Secondly, although it is unfortunate that not all captive-born animals can be released, the purpose for captive breeding is not necessarily for release into the wild (the survival rate in the wild of captive-bred polar bears is very low…a high mortality rate), but to maintain the genetic diversity of that species. With pressures on the wild populations increasing and natural habitats disappearing, the number of individuals is decreasing at a frightening rate, thereby decreasing the genetic variation within the wild populations. By maintaining genetically different individuals in captivity (either the actual animal or in a frozen sperm bank as is present at the Toronto Zoo), there is the opportunity to reintroduce these genetics into the wild population in the future. Cincinnati Zoo is an example of this: they recently sent their only Sumatran rhinoceros (the last in the western hemisphere) back to Indonesia for breeding. He was kept alive and healthy so that he could reach sexual maturity and return to help repopulate a drastically low wild population. There are Species Survival Plans (SSP) and Taxon Advisory Groups (TAG) for many species that have been created to manage a species’ ex situ and in situ conservation plans, studbooks, and research priorities. This management helps ensure that genetic diversity in a captive breeding population is maintained.
    Your article insinuates that captive individuals have a shorter lifespan. In some instances this is true…in most it is not. When Andre Bauma, a caretaker of Virunga N.P’s gorillas in DRC, heard that Charles, the western lowland gorilla at the Toronto Zoo, was 43 years old, he could not believe he was that old. The gorillas that Andre works with do not reach close to that age. Two emus at the zoo both reached over 40 years of age. One of the african lions reached 20 years of age. Ginetta, the Masai giraffe, was over 30 years old when she died. There are MANY examples of captive animals reaching ages much older than their wild counterparts.
    You also state that captive animals “are unable to carry out many of their natural behaviours, including forming bonds and packs, hunting, flying, swimming, climbing, exploring and getting adequate exercise”. The bonds between the animals and their conspecifics, as well as with their caretakers, is more than evident. The meerkats exhibit natural group behaviour as there is one sentinel on watch while the rest forage or rest. The west caucasian tur move as a herd and bond, resulting in offspring annually. The african lions behave as a pride and, again, strong bonds exist. So strong that, many years ago, when the older female was euthanized because of cancer, her mate cried for her in her absence for a few days. Every effort is being made to make accommodations for a species so that it can practise its natural behaviours. No, it is not perfect, but it is not as void as this article leads the reader to believe. Your comment “zoos have prescribed mood-altering drugs such as Prozac to suppress these symptoms” would also have one believe that any animal NOT exhibiting zoochosis has been medicated…untrue. Not one animal at the Toronto Zoo is on medication to minimize zoochosis. There are instances where medication is warranted, such as during transport (think: a human that is nervous about flying will take Gravol to suppress those symptoms). But these are rare instances. Your statement “the limited population and space that a zoo offers means animals cannot exercise social, physical and maternal characteristics in an enclosed and artificial environment” is broad and has been disproved many times. It could read that the limitation “may” result in altered behaviours, but your decisive “cannot” is untrue. This is something that you could have easily researched and observed.
    The Toronto Zoo annual releases many black-footed ferrets, Vancouver Island marmots (none of which are on exhibit), Blanding’s and Wood turtles, and thousands of Puerto Rican crested toads (again, none on exhibit) into the wild. Yes, the zoo should increase the amount that the zoo itself contributes to conservation of habitats; however, the staff members hold numerous fundraisers and events throughout the year where funds (sometimes thousands of dollars) go directly to habitat conservation and species research.
    As I stated at the beginning, the basis of your article is not incorrect. However, there is evidently no depth of research or exploration of fact within it. Many statements were made which can be easily debunked. I believe you could have been much more effective and productive in the message you were trying to convey if you had avoided the “all or nothing” tone that you took. Habitat protection alone will not, unfortunately, save these species. There is a grey area that needs to occur in order for humans to minimize and rectify the damage that has been inflicted on wild populations.

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