If the future of zoos were animatronic, would you be interested?

What are animatronic animals?
For young children and new families, a walk through the zoo represents a common tradition across much of the globe. A zoo is a place where children explore the natural world behind the comfort of thick glass, with evidence suggesting such places can even boost future scientific and conservation endeavours in young ones. From an animal welfare perspective, however, things begin to tumble. Nevertheless, with the ingenuity of scientists and even film designers, the future of zoos may soon be robotic; with the robots – at least dolphins – appearing almost indistinguishable from reality. A clever and meaningful idea, but will it convince the public?

This 250 kilogram animatronic dolphin looks and behaves like its living counterpart.

What’s wrong with current zoo operations?
Not all zoos are caught mistreating animals; some allow animals the ability to graze on open land, sleep in areas out of direct tourist vision and ensure humans are a comfortable distance away. However, these conditions don’t apply to all. A report released in 2019 (explored in National Geographic) highlighted hundreds of zoos that are affiliated with WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), yet engaging in exploitative practices like elephants playing basketball or chimpanzees being forced to wear clothing. The same study in World Animal Protection found that 75% of the analysed zoos reported cases like dolphins being used as surfboards or driving chimpanzees around on scooters. In the United States, 20 zoos have already closed their elephant exhibits in part because of ethical concerns.

Reports also show that not all animals will see out their natural lifespans in zoos or aquariums, as many are euthanized. A report in 2014 revealed that between 3,000 and 5,000 animals in European zoos are killed annually.
Fortunately, some animals in captivity do appear to live longer on average, though, for larger mammals like elephants their average lifespan goes from 56 in the Kenyan Amboseli National Park to 17 due to both stress and a lack of exercise.

An article written by a professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado revealed an orca whale, Kiska, that was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1978 was moved to an aquarium in Canada and has been subjected to isolation for decades. Swimming in endless circles to combat stress, Kiska (referred to as the loneliest whale on earth) was even reported to be violently smashing her head against the glass of her enclosure in 2021 having been deprived of companionship for over 40 years in a concrete tank. Orca whales should naturally live in pods of between 10 to 40 members. Kiska, whilst the centre of activist attention, represents the life of most aquatic and mammalian animals in captivity.

The article written by the professor of neuroscience, Bob Jacobs, explained how animals also often engage in repetitive, purposeless behaviours to deal with stress. If you have ever seen an animal continuously bobble their head, chew at the bars, or pace back and forth around the enclosure – these are immediate signs of abnormal behaviours adopted as a result of boredom and stress (zoochosis).
If interested, read through this article as it even highlights the neurological structural changes that occur in captive animals.

Do zoos help conservation efforts?
Whilst in captivity, zoos provide an environment without predators and a continuous, reliable supply of food. For animals like the white rhinoceros, mountain gorilla or African elephant, zoos support the objective goal of maintaining scarce populations of certain species, though, often fail on the subjective goal of supporting their optimal physiological, mental and emotional health.

The idea that zoos support conservation efforts is true to an extent; they ensure a given species doesn’t go extinct. However, once a sustainable number of individuals are ready for introduction into their natural ecosystems, many of them die. British researchers from the University of Exeter found the chance of carnivore-born individuals surviving after captivity is only 33%. The lead author and animal behaviour researcher, Kristen Jule, claims “Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural behaviours needed for success in the wild.” The study found zoo animals – once in the wild – were more prone to diseases, viruses and starvation. Some studies report lower survival rates.

Conservation efforts may work in zoos or aquariums, but the behavioural changes adopted by animals in protected environments like these, make it harder to adjust when they are reintroduced into the natural food chain. Hence, the low survival rates.

Do zoos boost public conservation efforts?
Numerous studies have found that zoos are beneficial places that improve public awareness about conservation and improve scientific endeavours in children. However, conversely, multiple studies based on public surveys reveal the opposite data. Case in point, a survey in 2014 by WAZA asked individuals upon arrival at the zoo: “think of an action that you could take to help save animal species.” Prior to leaving the zoo, the participants were asked the same question after having been exposed to the animals. Slightly more said recycling, diet changes and responsible purchases. Though, concerning data illustrated that the number of people who said habitat creation and protection actually declined.
It’s worth noting, this data stems from one large study and cannot single-handedly represent a negative viewpoint, as other studies can show positive results.

Costs of animatronic replacements:
One of the leading animatronic animal producers, Dolphin Spirit, believes upfront costs to manufacture a single dolphin (the same dolphin from the video below) cost between 3 to 5 million. According to the founder, compared to their living counterparts this option is significantly more expensive up front but “over a 10-year lifespan, it saves many, many tens of millions of dollars to only have to plug your animals in at night to recharge.”

Will animatronics convince the public?
As animatronic zoos are a very new topic, little, if any data, is yet to be collected on public opinion. Therefore, I created my own survey which was sent out to a number of individuals to investigate what they thought. When it came to zoos in general, 45% were concerned about welfare issues, however, when asked if they would support animatronic zoos, only 55% answered “yes”. 35% said maybe. When given the opportunity to write their own personal note, a few registered support from the engineering side. One respondent wrote, “It would provide me [with] a newfound appreciation to how animatronics works, whilst still providing the educational view points needed for the wider community.”
Others voiced support on the ethical side, whilst those with the opposing viewpoint generally expressed concerns over the loss of emotional attachment.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked if they thought others would be in support of the transition, 65% said “yes”; a greater figure than the percentage of people who actually do.

Is there an alternative application for animatronics?
Whether people will accept and adopt the idea of animatronic animals in zoos or aquariums is still up for debate. Nevertheless, other opportunities still present themselves for this application even if the former doesn’t come to fruition. Applications like horseracing where people spend more time drinking and talking than watching the horses themselves, or perhaps rodeo and carriage rides.

What other options are there for zoos?
One idea most people support is the proposal to replace large herbivores or carnivores with animatronics, but leave much smaller – less cognitively complex – animals in the zoo. Or at the very least provide smaller animals like meerkats or birds with vast enclosures given the additional space would no longer be required for big mammals.

A relatively new idea; one filled with many pros and cons. Ethically and even economically speaking, it makes perfect sense. Emotionally, not so much. In its infancy, it’s difficult to determine whether this new approach to zoos, aquariums and other animal-orientated leisure activities will become mainstream. Perhaps a perfect middle-ground could be one where large mammals are replaced with animatronics but smaller, less cognitively complex animals are kept in zoos. What do you think, or (rather) hope?

Released on the 23rd of December 2022. -KJDJ
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