In The Field

What is a zoo?

One thing I am learning here in South Africa is that the “wild” animals, especially the big mammals, may be more like those in your local zoo than you think. Is a rhino in a 4,000 hectare game reserve really roaming free? What about lions bouncing off the electrified fences at pocket-sized reserves? What about the “semi-habituated” elephants with which one can gambol around a park with, hand in trunk?

Somewhere in this uneasy middle ground are the cheetahs released by the De Wildt Wild Cheetah Project, outlined yesterday at the meeting. Most of South Africa’s cheetahs live outside protected areas, often in game ranches, where each plump ungulate means big bucks to the landowner. Naturally, the landowners are not too fond of the cats, and have been known to trap and kill them. So De Wildt provides safe cage traps and more or less buys the cats off of them. They then vaccinate and tag the cats and begin a laborious months-long process of habituating them to humans in various pens for eventual release in some protected area. Why the habituation? Because un-habituated cats are invisible and invisible cats are no good for the tourists. Most of these cheetahs will be bought by people who run wildlife reserves for profit. So is the cheetah still wild? And what of the 65 cubs born to cheetahs that have been through this process?

Many large wild animals are intimately known to researchers by sight. Many are named. Many will be knocked out and either tagged, sampled or relocated during their lives. Their family trees are all worked out. Their water is provided. Their pictures have been taken so often that as the flashes pop the animals recline in the shade at ease and yawn. What defines a zoo? Is it perhaps just the size of the enclosure?

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