Glancing at the news of the last week, it is more apparent than ever that the relationship between humans and animals is complicated. This is especially true in urban areas.
On the one hand, this week world leaders signed the historic COP15 30×30 deal, agreeing to protect 30% of Earth for biodiversity by 2030, in the face of Earth’s “Sixth Mass Extinction.” On the other hand, animals are continuing to be pests in cities, with Italy’s far-right government recently loosening hunting laws in a bid to tackle the “invasion” of wild boar into parts of Rome and other cities.
At the same time, a spate of tragedies in the last week has given renewed discussions of whether keeping animals in captivity is ethical or even responsible. A giant aquarium burst in Berlin, injuring two people and spilling 1500 fish. In Sweden, four chimpanzees have had to be euthanised following the escape from their zoo enclosure. Finally, in the UK, two red panda cubs were found dead in their nesting box after the country’s cold snap.
These three matters do not exist in isolation from each other, and their co-existence indicates a very real need to change the relationship between society and animals. Namely, we need to let go of the idea that we get to choose which animals deserve saving, and start prioritising biodiversity over glamour.
Living in an increasingly unstable world, zoos occupy a very strange cultural space. We wrestle with the ethical implications of removing animals from their natural habitats, while simultaneously recognising that in the wider world, we are removing natural habitats from their animals. Posing zoos as a last-ditch conservation effort, however, seems to be more of a distraction from larger, local conservation needs.
Operating for profit, zoos uphold a strange value system. Animals have merit and importance based on their entertainment value. Placed as attractions, animals need to be beautiful, fearsome, or exotic to hold interest, and therefore, value. However, as the climate crisis hits Europe, this system is crumbling. Consider how in the UK, the formerly ubiquitous turtle dove is now experiencing a steep population decline.
Instead, we need to begin to respect, if not value, animals for their place in an ecosystem. As much as I dream of a summer without mosquito bites, I recognise that realistically, a world without mosquitoes is a hungry world for some birds, bats, and dragonflies. One non-exploitative way to interact with animals in cities is to work on reinstating biodiversity.
Reinstating biodiversity in cities
“Rewilding” cities is a popular concept at present, with rewilding projects in action all over the world. China is working on the Liuzhou Forest City, a planned city which would house 30,000 people, and 40,000 trees — as well as about a million other plants of 100 different species.
In the UK, Nottingham is restoring a discarded shopping mall into a wetland, while London is reintroducing water voles into the Thames. Meanwhile, cities in Germany are setting aside urban green spaces with a view to making wildflower meadows.
The advantages of rewilding cities are numerous. Urban forests, grasses, and wetlands, can act as carbon sinks. Trees in particular can stabilise temperatures in a heating world, filter air pollution, and have been shown to improve the mental and physical health of humans. They can also attract pollinators and insects, and reinstate habitats and food supplies for rodents and birds.
Insect populations have declined massively over the last fifty years. Globally, the decline is set at 2% a year, while in Europe insect abundance appears to have declined by more than 70% since the 1960s. This is a serious issue further up the food chain for insectivores, like frogs, birds, and bats. By re-planting using local seeds, however, further animal and plant species will often come back to the forests on their own.
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Rewilding cannot be done any which way, however. While initiatives to plant trees are one of the most popular modes of climate activism, they very often fail, leaving nothing but “phantom forests” where time, manpower, and money have been invested. In the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh, the government organised decades of tree planting. Ultimately, however, a study by Florida State University found little evidence that this had resulted in more tree cover, carbon uptake, or community benefits. Successful efforts, such as when Pradip Krishen “greened” part of the Thar desert, require painstaking attention to local ecosystems, and the livelihoods of those who live around them.
We also must leave behind some of the aesthetic practices we have cultivated. Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, has asked its citizens to leave fallen leaves, to boost soil fertility and insect populations. Similarly in city parks, leaving fallen trees allows them to become nursery logs for new saplings, to decompose and put nutrients back into the soil, and house insects and fungi. Longer and more diverse grasses can create habitats for voles and mice, which allow owls to hunt in them. Again, setting aside priorities of manicured beauty will allow for greater wildlife biodiversity in city spaces.
When Cities and Wildlife Clash
Some cities have begun to adapt to make space for animals. Los Angeles has been constructing a wildlife corridor in a bid to preserve its endangered mountain lion population. Pigs have historically been used to keep city streets clean, while providing cheap food sources for poorer citizens in the winter.
And there’s no doubt that animals have adapted to cities. Peregrine falcons have been seen hunting smaller birds and bats in cities, changing to hunt at night using the city lights. Of course, these adaptations are not always welcome. In 2019 in Japan, declining human populations meant that bears were getting bolder, encroaching in villages. This is to say nothing of the cockroaches, rats, and foxes that are widely considered pests.
Often the encroachment of these animals indicates the need for systemic changes, either instead or in addition to reactive short-term ones. Urban foxes and wild boar in Europe have been attracted by rubbish, as available food sources. This raises the double systemic issue of keeping food sources plentiful (through the maintenance of brush and hedgerows) in the countryside, and highlights the need for better waste management systems. It also underlines the need to reduce food waste, and to find efficient ways to re-use it, be it as compost or as biofuel.
So what about zoos?
The problem of zoos and aquaria has no obvious solution. Animals have been objects of fascination throughout history, with dancing bears being popular throughout mediaeval Europe, and continuing in parts of the world into the 21st century. What’s more, is that the animals held in captivity can not simply be released into the wild. What can change though, is the priorities that come with holding these animals.
Through higher interactions with nature, we can come to terms with a wider cultural acceptance of the richness of animals’ lives, and the responsibilities that come with holding animals in captivity. Over time, we could begin to scale back on zoos to better meet the basic needs of animals held there.
If there isn’t appropriate space in a city for large enough territories for animals, zoos and aquaria should be moved outside of cities, where there will be. Instead of profit, zoo and aquarium owners should be obliged to meet basic needs of space, diet, and stimulation. Zoos and aquaria need to begin to prioritise the animals over human clients.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: 2016 Denver Stock Show Parade. Featured Photo Credit: reid.neureiter/flickr