Animal Breeding in Progressive Zoos
From Menagerie to Conservation Organization
In the past, zoos used to focus on attracting visitors with as many different species as possible and not so much on animals´ welfare or needs. This also corresponded to the knowledge of animal biology and animal breeding at that time and reflected society's ideas. Animals that normally live in groups in the wild were kept singly in unsuitable conditions and small enclosures. This was also the case at the Ostrava Zoo. A significant change took place after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 when the zoos from the Eastern Bloc gradually transformed into not only important centres of recreation and education but into institutions that strive for species conservation as many of them have died out or are on the verge of extinction.
In recent decades, the Ostrava Zoo has made efforts to respect and support animals´ needs and natural behaviour. We do not want to display animals just for entertainment and attraction; needless to say, we give animals appropriate food and space while it is also extremely important to allow them to express their natural behaviour. To illustrate, zookeepers interfere only minimally in the rearing of the young, in most cases leaving everything entirely up to the females (parents), even if the rearing is unsuccessful. They even try not to interfere with primates in the life of the social group that has a clear hierarchy. Naturally functioning groups and natural offspring rearing are crucial for international conservation programmes for endangered species.
Conservation of Endangered Species
One of the key missions of progressive zoos is to contribute to biodiversity conservation. Consequently, these institutions are becoming involved in conservation, not only by breeding endangered species in their facilities (ex situ) but also by focusing more and more intensively on conservation directly in the original habitats of selected species (in situ). We can rightfully refer to them as conservation organizations. The reason for this seems clear – the number of species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species continues to grow and many are on the verge of extinction. Nearly 106,000 species have now been assessed and 26,000 of them have been classified as threatened with extinction.
The Ostrava Zoo is involved in several international ex situ projects under the auspices of EAZA. There are rules that participating zoos have to follow. The main mission is to maintain a stable and genetically variable population of endangered species in human care in the long term. If we want to save species, we need to create good conditions for regular breeding to avoid situations concerning infertility if animals are unable to breed naturally (see below). Moreover, we need to be able to respect the laws of nature and be prepared to put down genetically unsuitable species. Only through this kind of management can the whole population be healthy. These animals needed to maintain a long-term viable population then can serve to diversify the diet of other rare or endangered animals in European zoos, mainly for carnivorous species. This stirs up opposition in people outside of these organizations. People who bred farm animals or work in agriculture are often more understanding than those who only have pets as their stance is often biased because they treat their pets as family members; ultimately asking us why the matter cannot be dealt with differently.
There seems to be an easy way out – using contraceptives or keeping male and female species separate. However, if females are unable to breed and rear their young naturally, it can cause irreversible damage to their reproductive system, thus affecting the whole species. This happened with the Sumatran tiger in human care as their numbers plummeted. Furthermore, contraceptives often have serious side effects that could affect physical and even psychological health. Species with complex social structures are affected as well, disrupting the functioning and existence of the entire group. It has already been proved that birth control is harmful to people as it can cause irregular menstrual cycles, nausea, headaches to thrombosis, heart attacks or cancer, but it also pollutes the environment. Additionally, there is no birth control specifically designed for animals, hence using contraceptives is not that simple and without consequences. Research has shown that when animals stop using birth control, it is deemed difficult for females to resume the normal reproductive process. If the populations in the wild are threatened with extinction (which is very common and will happen more and more often, unfortunately) or die out, then species conservation is dependent on a healthy population in human care. Therefore, it is necessary to let species reproduce naturally which is often professionally observed and subject to guidelines set at the international level.
Zoos could also deal with the surplus animals by releasing them into the wild (repatriation). To release these animals in human care into the wild, there needs to be a specific conservation programme. These programmes must follow the IUCN guidelines which include, for example, the disappearance of the reason for population decline, especially if the reason is anthropogenic (man-made). Therefore, for many species, repatriation is not yet possible at this time. Nevertheless, zoological gardens are involved in numerous ongoing repatriation projects where they provide naturally reared young free of charge for reintroduction to the species' original habitat. For many years, Ostrava Zoo has been providing, for example, Common Barn-owl, Little Owl, Bearded vulture, etc
Another possible solution might be to place surplus animals with private breeders. We preferably cooperate with renowned zoological institutions that are members of The Union of Czech and Slovak Zoological Gardens (UCSZOO), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA,) at the same time with private breeders. However, every cooperation has its own rules and limitations. Reared individuals of those species that are managed by the European Ex situ programme (EEP) are delivered to the most suitable institution participating in the programme, under the coordinator´s guidelines, free of charge of course. Similarly, in the breeding of those species that are not managed by EEP, we follow the same steps. The financial aspect of the breeding is not crucial, and the breeding is not motivated in any way by the income from the sale of animals.
Breeding is motivated by:
- The need to save species at least ex situ (although renowned zoological institutions, including Ostrava Zoo, are also involved in conservation in situ, if possible) and for its future repatriation in situ
- The need to keep the species in breeding because of its imminent or potential endangerment
- The need to keep the species in breeding to get and maintain conservation experience and skills applicable to the wider group of animals
- The need to keep the species in breeding for scientific reasons
- The need to keep the species in breeding for educational reasons
If the breeding is successful enough that the reared individuals kept in UCSZOO, EAZA, and WAZA present a difficulty, then the reared young can be offered to private breeders under certain conditions:
- The animal is not managed in EEP (as required by EAZA membership)
- The private breeder is not a trafficker (as required by EAZA membership)
- The private breeder is not motivated by financial profit (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)
- The private breeder is well-known or renowned (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)
- The private breeder is able and willing to cooperate further for the benefit of the species (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)
- The animal cannot cause any disruption to the ecosystem if it escapes (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)
- The animal cannot cause any economic damage if it escapes (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)
- The animal is not a threat to people (Ostrava Zoo internal condition)