Right now in Ukraine, zookeepers are struggling to feed and safely shelter the animals who remain alive in zoos across the country. Some, as in Kharkiv zoo, are running out of options after enduring heavy shelling and are having to make heartbreaking decisions to put down animals.
Their plight is one that has played out before across centuries and cultures. When conflict erupts in a city with a zoo, for the unlucky animals still confined and dependent on their human keepers, there is no escape from the descending horrors.
During the Bosnian War, at the Sarajevo zoo, for example, the animals who survived the “volleys of automatic rifle fire,” reported John F. Burns in a 1992 story for The New York Times, eventually all died in their cages, “clear that some died sooner than others, and that their surviving mates fed on the bodies before they, too, succumbed to hunger.”
The beloved zoo elephants of Paris during the 1870 Siege (Castor and Pollux), Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War (Júlia), and Tokyo during World War II (John, Tonky, and Wanri), all met a similar fate. Castor and Pollux, rumored to be shot sometime after Christmas that year, were presumably butchered and sold, as elephant meat began appearing in markets around that time. The zoo’s other animals were also slaughtered to help feed the surrounded city, some transformed into exotic dishes, along with elephant consommé, on a now-famous Christmas Day menu.
At Barcelona’s zoo, after miraculously surviving four bombs in one day, Júlia starved to death, along with what the zoo describes as “many more losses to the collection.” And, until they were intentionally poisoned, John, Tonky, and Wanri each had food—but eventually, their meals were laced with strychnine, for fear they should escape and trample the city during a bomb raid.
History is abundant with examples. While gruesome, perhaps even more frightening is that society remains unwilling to change to prevent such horrors. Even today, stripping an animal of their autonomy, replacing it with a life in captivity, and offering no guarantee for the animal’s safety or wellbeing is business as usual.
Not all the impacts of war on unconsenting captive animals are lethal, but they are nonetheless significant, as demonstrated by what is happening in zoos throughout Ukraine, including Kyiv zoo.
“The Washington Post recently described an elephant named Horace so unnerved by bomb noises he needs sedatives, a lemur distressed enough to abandon her baby, and zebras who now panic outdoors and must be kept inside,” Dr. Barbara J. King, Emerita Professor of Anthropology at William & Mary and author of Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, among other books, wrote in a recent email to Sentient Media.
No one wishes to see zoo animals suffer this way, and the prevailing hope is that the animals will be protected, King explained, but this “escapes confronting our willingness to confine animals, all over the world, to forced captivity where they are left completely vulnerable to all sorts of anthropogenic harms.”
Most zoos claim that keeping animals in captivity is justified because the model supports education and conservation initiatives that inform and inspire the public, and preserve species; some zoos may be better than others at achieving a version of these objectives. But there are only so many scenarios a zoo can control, and wartime is just one of many examples that disrupt a zoo’s ability to provide such opportunities.
A variety of external events—can leave animals kept in zoos defenseless against harm originating in the human world. A rising number of zoo animals have contracted COVID-19, for example—some fatally, like a trio of snow leopards at a Nebraska zoo. King wrote that fires are another common threat, citing a number of spectacularly destructive examples, including the devastating Krefeld zoo fire in Germany on New Year’s Day in 2020, started by a sky lantern from a holiday celebration, and another at the Philadelphia zoo in 1995. In each case, precious animal lives were lost—orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and many other creatures—the same species zoos claim to be in the business of protecting.
In fact, during peacetime or wartime, animals are killed at zoos with astounding frequency, says King.
“In my book, Animals’ Best Friends,” says King, ”I describe incident after incident in even accredited popular zoos where animals are killed or injured in their enclosures, including the death of 16-month-old gorilla Kabibe at the San Francisco Zoo when a hydraulic door crushed her to death, and the fatal shootings of numerous animals over the years thought to be endangering people because they escaped into public areas, or a human entered their enclosure. The accidents, injuries, and deaths go on page after page—it was eye-opening for me to write.”
If preventable animal deaths must be the price of what it takes to conserve animal life, the educational argument for zoos carries a high cost as well, especially in light of the impacts of war on zoo animals.
“What are we teaching [children] about animals, when they are meeting an elephant in a captive space like that?” asked Dr. Kathryn Gillespie, formerly of the University of Washington’s critical animal studies working group in an interview about zoos. “I think one thing we’re teaching them is that human dominance over animals is acceptable.”
In light of the situation in Ukraine, King similarly urges more scrutiny pertaining to the opportunities zoos claim to provide.
“We must take this heart-rending opportunity not to turn away, to understand that zoo animals are war victims, too,” King says. “They have absolutely no escape routes, no possibility of leaving their cages. To me, it goes beyond questions of welfare to questions of rights—these animals’ trauma may extend to starvation or psychosis experienced while trapped in a small space, dealing with sounds and sights that are terrifying. The time to think through and act on this problem isn’t during the height of wartime itself. It’s past time to realize that the traditional zoo model is outdated.”
Gwendolyn Elliott is a writer and editor from Washington state. She writes about pets and the human-animal bond as lead editor of Rover.com’s The Dog People blog, as well as culture, lifestyles, and the plant-based diet for other publications.