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How Zookeepers Help Support the Illegal Animal Trade

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years work within zoos.

Author's family pictures

Author's family pictures

Stored away in a chest in another country is my other life. Photographs of family. Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, holidays, children, friends, pets. Happy memories of people and animals I have loved.

As someone who has spent almost my entire career working in zoos, my photograph collection inevitably includes large carnivores, primates and other species I have, through the necessity of my job, hand-reared. But they were not just animals...they were family! They were sleepless nights of baby bottles, bottom washes and nappy changes. These were labours of love for creatures who will forever be in my memories and my heart. These truly were family. Happy times.

Social media advertising

There is nothing wrong with these photos. These animals are 'family' after all. Where they go wrong is when they are posted on social media. As zookeepers, we know that our striped and hairy family members can be cuddled, kissed and played with. Generations of keepers have done the same. This is our job.

Why, then, do we post on social media? How many of us have photos of ourselves with a big cat or a primate as our profile picture?

The moment such photos appear on our social media accounts, they act as advertisements. Other people see these moments and they want the experience for themselves. And they're prepared to pay for it. Some species lend themselves to such activities but others do not. In this case, I'm talking about big cats and primates.

Zookeepers posting posing with animals are most certainly 'advertising' on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and other social media are indirectly promoting the barbaric and illegal animal trade.

Zoos and other animal facilities should never post animal selfies with big cats or primates. It shows ignorance and lack of care.

Such is the power of advertising. Don't believe me? Scan your way through Facebook. Wherever you find a photo of someone (perhaps even one of you) posing with a big cat or primate, look at the comments:

  • "Wow!"
  • "Amazing!
  • "So jealous!"
  • "I want to do that!"

And do so they will.....the moment the opportunity arises.

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As it should be: a mother tiger with her cubs

As it should be: a mother tiger with her cubs

Keep your photos in a box

Some may argue that these animals had to be hand-reared, so why not take photos? Again I have no argument with the photos themselves....just with the photos being used as accidental advertisements to encourage animal photography. Keep the photos. Hang them on your walls at home, not on the wall of your social media feed.

Then there are the zoos themselves, getting so-called celebrities to pose with their tiger cubs. It is still wrong. Very wrong.

What are you trying to prove?

You have to ask yourself: 'Why?' Why do you need to show off such photos? What are you trying to prove?

Then you have to stop and realise that these photos are causing harm. They are directly contributing to the tiger trade, to 'canned hunting' of lions (where the animals are kept in a confined area and easily hunted and killed), to chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons being killed to provide the babies as pets to the Persian Gulf states.

The best photos are mother and child

The best photos are mother and child

Tiger bone wine

There are many places churning out tiger cubs so that the average consumer can play with them. I will mention just three: SriRacha Tiger Zoo, the Tiger Temple, and Tiger Kingdom. Cubs are produced, they grow up and ultimately are snuck out the back door to end up as tiger bone wine (an actual Chinese wine made with tiger bones). It's all denied, of course: "They were sent to other zoos." But they weren't; because so many zoos are breeding them, they don't have space. The trade is not properly regulated. Removal of microchips and placing the chips in other animals is not difficult.

It is not just Asia. There are places in the United States, Australasia and other countries around the world. Cubs being deliberately pulled from their mothers for human hand-rearing. The excuse that they were removed because of problems can mostly be attributed to inadequate facilities and poor husbandry.....or because they need the cubs for visitors to pet.

The best regulated zoos need to stop their "photo posing" opportunities, as this sends the message that it's okay....and it isn't. The bad zoos will copy...and they do. They will continue to do so until we set an example. Only then can we truly end the practice once and for all.

Stolen baby monkeys for sale

Stolen baby monkeys for sale

Baby monkeys used as a photo op

Baby monkeys used as a photo op

It isn't just big cats

Then there are the orangutans, housed at Taman Safari and its satellite collections, Sri Racha (again) and so many others. Seemingly ageless groups of animals forced to take part in boxing matches in Bangkok Safari Zoo and in Cambodia at Phnom Penh Safari World.

You really have to think about the harm we are doing.

It is not the first time I have presented this argument. I know some of my friends and colleagues bear some responsibility. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but I would ask that they think about it. No, I am not jealous of your photos, I have my own photos of animals I loved. To be clear though: you will never see any of my photos posted on social media. Not by my hand.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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