Crowd resourcing

Jim KnightJim Knight on using Storify to pull together a parliamentary speech

It is the first day back in the Lords for over two months and we are debating improving zoos! As the Labour lead for DEFRA matters it is my job to respond for the Opposition. What to say? I start with Twitter. @jimpknight: Starting to think about what to say in debate in Lords on Monday on improving zoos! Apart from talking up @MWApeRescue, any other input?

@MWApeRescue is the Twitter name for Monkey World. I have done a lot of with them over the years and they do wonderful work as the largest primate rescue centre in Europe, possibly the world. They are licensed as a zoo but are very different as they do not have a "collection". That is why I am a huge fan. They don't have any gorillas or bonoboes because, happily, they haven't needed to rescue any from circuses, the pet trade, animal laboratories or illegal smuggling.

But I have also seen the excellent work of ZSL (that's London Zoo to you and me) around the world when I visited the Amazon jungle in 2006. Plenty to think about in terms of speech content. Meanwhile the twitter responses start coming in: @paulstpancras: @jimpknight An exhibit for Tony Benn and Denis Skinner as endangered human species? ;)

An interesting idea, but for some reason my mind goes to George Galloway - a bad place!

@paulstpancras: @jimpknight Heheh! There should also be a space for Neanderthals like Geo Osborne ;)

Well that is one take on this issue. It reminded me of the wonderful Banksy painting I saw at Bristol museum as part of the amazing exhibition in August 2009.

Then there was the other view: @Dorset Reiki: @jimpknight @MWApeRescue i hate zoos, never took my kids to see animals locked in cages

That is why I prefer rescue centres like Monkey World; some zoos like ZSL do great conservation work in the wild. But it all reminded me that I better go and do research. A Google search later and I found this distressing report: The world's worst zoos

Happily none of these examples of horrific abuse were in the UK. But a quick search on YouTube showed me this dreadful story about Noahs Ark Zoo, near Bristol. Much of what is shocking about this was the relationship with circuses. The government have been dragging their feet on outlawing animals in circuses, and we hope to get a result on this soon. But the owner of Noah's Ark seemed more interested in the idea of zoos as a legitimate business than as part of a conservation movement. So I tried a bit harder and found Born Free's homepage. They make a similar point to mine about rescue centres or sanctuaries being important; they agree zoos do important conservation work but that they come down against them because it doesn't justify keeping animals in cages.

One of the zoos featured in this Daily Mail article is Dudley Zoo. I work closely with a neighbouring school in Smethwick who really value the educational impact of visiting Dudley. There is clearly a balance and a licensing enforcement issue to ensure welfare standards are very high. One of my roommates in the Lords, Baroness Glenys Thornton, also values that educational impact: @glenysthornton: @jimpknight @MWApeRescue I like the tapirs at London Zoo - a much neglected species #zoosaregreat #importanteductionalplaces

Others agree: @ChocoTzar: @jimpknight Zoos so expensive but I'd love to take my family far more frequently. Improve funding through increasing footfall not prices?

This reminded me that when my children were small they would love visiting Marwell Wildlife (as it is now called) near Winchester. There is a great Flickr pool of photos from there.

I think zoos can work but we need to ensure the animal welfare standards are as high as possible. This goes back to what I know from Monkey World. They try hard to replicate conditions in the wild in their enclosures. Pack animals live in groups. Most of their animals have contraception because they don't want more animals unless they are the ony way of sustaining the species, as in their uniquely successful Woolly Monkey breeding programme.

The welfare standards they have to maintain are pretty tough but they choose to exceed them because the animals come first. Their work in Vietnam is now meaning some of their gibbons are being returned to live in a much more natural protected wild sanctuary. Can we get zoos across the UK to this Dorset standard?

Many are in cities and don't have space. They would have to reduce the size of their collections. That may be a good thing. It means less money coming in from visitors and therefore less to spend on conservation. That is the conundrum.

The other question is around the quality of inspection. This report into zoos across the EU includes a specific report on England on page 47. It finds that overall licensed zoos in England were not fully compliant with the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. In my mind the key weakness is that this relies on local authority expertise as the licensing body. Born Free find that "it is questionable whether Local Authorities have the time, funding and expertise to ensure effective application of zoo legislation in England."

So which way to fall? I reckon the conservation and education work of zoos, coupled with a rigorous licensing policy to safeguard animal welfare, means they should continue. And then zoos should listen to Dr Sandra Leaton Gray: @drleatongray: @jimpknight @MWApeRescue Encourage zoos to weave their ethical conservation message right through their business - down to shops and cafes.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords

Published Monday 8th October

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