Cover Photo: www.okgrancanaria.com/en/tours/gran-canaria-loro-park-tour/
Javier Almunia is director of Loro Parque Fundación, an NGO that funds and implements wildlife conservation projects in over 40 countries around the world. The mission of Loro Parque Fundación is to conserve wild species and their habitats. They do this through education, applied research, responsible breeding programs, and community-based conservation activities that use parrots and cetaceans as ambassadors for nature. He has formerly been responsible for the environmental education and marine conservation and research projects.
He holds a PhD in Marine Science from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) and a Master’s in Environmental Management from the Institute of Ecological Research. During his career he has built an extensive knowledge in endangered wildlife conservation projects, and has carried out field research in the Atlantic, Indian, and Antarctic oceans. He has published 17 scientific articles and over a dozen conference papers on marine ecology, cetacean ecotoxicology, bioacoustics, and ethology.
Written by J. Almunia, Director of the Loro Parque Foundation
During the last decade everybody in the zoological world is encountering new situations regarding the activities of the anti-captivity groups. Nothing new we may think, there has been always critics and criticism around zoos. But, clearly, things have changed. Currently, we seem to be experiencing a battle situation, with several charismatic species in the battlefront: killer whales, dolphins, elephants, gorillas, polar bears. One could have the impression that this is a species by species war, that has been put in place by some kind of master mind, taking into consideration the special welfare needs of a particular species. But this is only in appearance; the anti-zoo groups didn’t choose the species using a broad scientific scrutiny of all the possible taxons under human care to focus on those more sensitive to captivity. They are just targeting the ones that look more appealing and attractive to the mass media.
It is only afterwards choosing the species that has the high media interest species, that they look for the arguments that they need to launch their attacks. It doesn’t matter if these arguments are 50 years old and have been proven as myths, without scientific support. If they are simplistic enough they can be repeated tirelessly as a mantra, designed to impress kind-hearted people that will donate their money. Do you remember the old argument of the sound bouncing off the walls that drives dolphins crazy? Believe it or not, nowadays this is still being used as part of the anti-dolphinarium campaigns. In recent times it has been clear that campaigning against parks with cetaceans, elephants or primates has become a very profitable business. It is such an effective tool to obtain donations that PETA has even recruited staff devoted exclusively to campaign against SeaWorld. This could, of course, be interpreted as their strong commitment to the welfare of the cetaceans. However, when you read in the job description that PETA ‘preferred candidates with background in Marine Biology’ but ‘didn’t consider it a necessary requirement’ you have the clear picture:
Don’t let truth ruin a good argument.
At this point the inevitable question arises: What is this all about? It is clearly not about animal welfare, as these organisations just try to take the animals out of the zoos, expecting welfare to magically improve as soon as they are housed anywhere but the zoo. It is not about saving species either, as none of them have had any significant contribution to save critically endangered species in the wild, they are just focused on individuals and zoos that receive lots of media coverage. Hence, it’s clear that this is simply anti-captivity philosophy, just aimed at closing zoos, and when they have reached this goal, they will move on to the next victim. Some of them, like PETA, have already clarified that they are opposed to any kind of captivity. They believe humans do not have the right to use animals, it does not matter if we are talking about falconry, rescue dogs, guide dogs or even a pet dog. They are not discussing animal welfare or animal needs, in their view having an animal is simply not right, full stop.
“The communication paradigm has changed during the last two decades”
Unfortunately technology does not seem to help in this situation. The communication paradigm has changed during the last two decades, and the anti captivity organisations have benefited from the enormous connectivity created by Social Media. Two decades ago the general public were informed by the mass media, also used by zoos to distribute information. In the age of the CYBER activism the anti-zoo organisations have campaigned against zoos directly, but also through politicians, through governmental agencies or even through tour operators. Unfortunately, most of the zoological institutions continue using the old communication paradigm, trying to reach the general public through the traditional media, but this is not effective any more. This has created the feeling that the anti-zoo organisations have a perfect knowledge on how to use the new communication paradigm, whilst zoos don’t, but this is not true. They produce very effective campaigns, but they also fail and produce campaigns that pass unnoticed. We stand a chance if we learn to adapt our communication to the new paradigm.
To lead the communication in this new era, zoos have in their hands the two most valuable assets: the animals and the devoted staff that take care of them. The videos and pictures of animals are one of the most attractive contents on social media, and our zoos have thousands of wonderful stories that can be shared and distributed easily. But it is not only about sending out videos of animals, we have to think about our communication strategically. The stories must support our arguments, they have to be carefully selected and presented to emphasise our commitment to our animals and their welfare. And that should be easy to do. In our zoos we have keepers, veterinarians, biologists and trainers that love every single animal under their care.
This love is our most powerful weapon, and by showing it we can defeat any criticism. The people that create and organise criticism against zoos do not love our animals, they do not know them, and they have never taken care of them, not for one single day. That’s why our strongest argument is simply being transparent in showing how we take care of every single one of our animals, and how we are concerned about their welfare every single day.
Finally, to optimise the effect of our communication, this main argument must be also complimented with other important ideas. Showing love will prove that we treat animals well and they have a high welfare level, but be careful, this is not enough to explain why we are keeping them in zoos. Animal stories coming out from zoos must be accompanied with clear messages showing the education, research and conservation activities that the zoos are developing. This criticism is not going to fade away, so we better get ready and start building our reputation now! Because your reputation will be your only defence in the next CYBER activism campaign.