Reality Check at Barcelona Zoo
Snowflake was a cool guy. So cool he was featured on the cover of Basement Jaxx’s 2001 album Rooty. It is therefore not surprising that Barcelona is pretty proud of having played home to the world’s only albino gorilla for the 40 years he spent in captivity before dying of skin cancer (the real white man’s burden, stupid Kipling). What might surprise you is the bulbous melanoma of controversy that appears if you scratch just below the surface of Snowflake’s ever-grinning mug. Snowflake’s home-away-from-home, the Barcelona Zoo, is so constantly embroiled in scandal that Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau will spend the next four months debating the possibility of its closure with community groups, animal rights organisations and the zoo’s supporters. It’s not unusual for zoos to attract accusations of cruelty to animals, though one could be forgiven for expecting that the Barcelona Zoo – located in the capital of Spain’s wealthiest region, Catalonia – might be of a standard high enough to protect it from such criticisms. So what is amiss at the Barcelona Zoo?
The controversies surrounding the zoo are myriad and, in some cases, downright absurd. In 2009, the plight of Susi the sad elephant – believed to be depressed due to her penchant for sulking and eating her own faeces – drew criticism from high-profile figures such as Queen Sofia of Spain and Nobel-prize-winning Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. In 2014, ex-police-chief-turned-Neo-Nazi-demonstrator Justo José Mira Payá decided that covering himself in swastikas, camo and the Catalan flag and getting arrested at anti-abortion rallies wasn’t garnering quite enough attention for his cause and thus threw himself into the zoo’s lion pit, where he was either “mauled” or “played with” depending on whom you talk to. After the culling of two newborn Asian antelopes in 2015, animal rights organisations accused the Barcelona Zoo of contravening regulations, arguing that the only reason the calves were killed rather than relocated was one of cost. In 2016, discerning TripAdvisor contributor HappyBaggie gave the zoo only one green circle – Most of the animals we saw didn’t seem to have large enough enclosures or even have fresh water. I realise it’s hot here & not all animals like grass but we never saw any green grass in the whole zoo.
HappyBaggie’s concerns over small enclosures are not unfounded. Barcelona Zoo and its inhabitants are troubled by the cramped conditions which affect most creatures living in large cities – in fact, the zoo attributed its controversial 2015 decision to cull the antelope calves to lack of space. Times have changed since the zoo’s 1892 opening – these days, keeping exotic animals in small enclosures is considered about as cool as global warming. Unfortunately, being situated in Parc de la Ciutadella in central Barcelona means it is difficult for the zoo to undertake the upgrades and expansions needed to silence critics such as the Association for the Defense of Animal Rights (ADDA), Queen Sofia and HappyBaggie. The zoo’s supporters argue that despite these issues, its existence is defensible due to its scientific achievements. Without Spanish scientists, we wouldn’t know that Snowflake’s unique colouring was thanks to inbreeding (most likely a little uncle-and-niece action). Barcelona Zoo is also credited with bolstering global populations of endangered species such as the European bison and Dorcas gazelle, raising the question of whether the unhappy existence of a zoo’s population is a reasonable price to pay for the utilitarian outcome of conserving global populations.
The community discussions facilitated by Colau have produced a wide range of suggestions – closing the zoo altogether; re-homing the real animals and reinventing the zoo as an educational facility utilising virtual reality technology, so it may continue its scientific pursuits while the animals enjoy a higher quality of life elsewhere; or shifting the zoo’s populations and programs towards a focus on homing and conserving native species (deer, boar and sheep as opposed to tigers, chimpanzees and sad elephants). A clear path of action is yet to emerge from these discussions (reportedly so heated that they may not continue), and the options suggested are so varied in measure that they do not provide a clear impression of just how substandard the Barcelona Zoo really is. We decided to pay the zoo a visit to give the suggestions (and the scandals) context.
Some redeeming features were discovered. The Barcelona Zoo plays home to some traumatised Macaque monkeys rescued from illegal trafficking by animal conservation group DEPANA. The Savannah Sahel area (the widely criticised enclosure where the elephants are kept) is in the process of being extended, although the only visible signs of change are some large mounds of dirt and an inactive excavator, the presence of which means the elephants currently inhabit a more shrunken space than usual. Overall, HappyBaggie’s descriptions of concrete, cramped conditions and misery rang true.
Next to a sign explaining that the Galapagos tortoise likes to spend most of its time half-submerged in mud or water, there is a Galapagos tortoise enclosure offering only damp earth and impractically shallow pools. Seals are kept in a bare swimming pool with nothing other than an anchored plastic pontoon and a window for staring at tourists. Dolphins live in a largely indoor pool, smaller than those used for human recreation. The Kookaburra cage has no eucalypts and the Macaw cage has nothing at all. Numerous species of monkeys live side-by-side in compartmental cages, underneath the low roof of what appears to be the zoo’s designated monkey shed. Pictures from our visit have been included below so you can form your own opinions.
Ada Colau has been profiled as a progressive, even radical leader. She has taken an unprecedented step in putting the future of the Barcelona Zoo on the table. If you would like to see closure or change come to the Barcelona Zoo, now is the time to add your voice to the conversation. You can sign the relevant Avaaz petitionhere, tweet Colau or email her using the contact form on the Barcelona council website. Here exists an opportunity to build momentum and sway Colau towards making a long overdue change.
So put your dicks away and get your keyboards out for Harambe. And Snowflake.
Photos by Sophie Winter