Is there really an ethical tug-of-war between education and freedom for our zoos?

Blaise looks back fondly on his trips to the zoo as a young lad
Blaise looks back fondly on his trips to the zoo as a young lad

When it comes to family days out, there is nowhere that comes close to the zoo for providing good old fashioned wholesome fun for so many of us.

The zoo is where the vast majority of urban dwellers first clap eyes on an exotic creature which, if like me, you hail from somewhere such as Stockport, could easily be anything other than a pigeon or a three legged dog. There aren’t many places that are as joyfully madcap as the monkey house and nothing comes close to replicating the peculiar odour that emanates from the zoo’s elephant quarters.

Trips to Chester Zoo back in the early 1980s form some of my earliest memories and I dare say that is the case for many born during an era dominated by corduroy and Noel Edmonds as, back then, theme parks weren’t really a thing.

But not everybody loves zoos and the brand of entertainment that they represent, a fact evidenced by the almighty fuss that was created during last week’s half term when television cameras and journalists descended on Dartmoor Zoo in Devon.

This particular zoo is now seared into a nation’s consciousness as canny bosses are giving paying customers the chance to play tug -of-war with a ruddy great lion or tiger, which are now regularly fed a piece of meat attached to a rope.

The aforementioned customers, aged as young as eight, then join forces to take on the big cats and, from what we have seen and read, usually come off second best. It is certainly not something that I would fancy shelling out £15 for but the punters I saw interviewed on the news were positively giddy with excitement after their really wild workout. The idea has been passionately defended by the attraction’s owner Ben Mee, who you may remember was played by Matt Damon in the film adaptation of his book, We Bought A Zoo.

Mr Mee says he sought the advice of vets and other animal experts who, he says, are adamant that it isn’t cruel and exercises muscles that the cats would only tend to use in the wild.

Not every animal lover has bought this explanation and, of course, the obligatory online petition, an often meaningless measure of public feeling given that they are so easy to fill in digitally.

The argument of these protesters is that the act of people attempting to wrestle away the big cats’ dinner in the name of fun strips these proud beasts of their dignity. This is the heart of most arguments made against zoos by people who think that the only place where such creatures should be seen is in the wild.

This is a view held by PETA, the animal rights organisation, which also made headlines last week when it took great exception to Google celebrating the birthday of the late, great Australian animal conservationist and television personality Steve Irwin. PETA released a statement on social media, condemning Google’s doodle tribute, claiming that Irwin, who was killed by a stingray 13 years ago, invaded the space of wild animals by harassing them.

The ire directed at PETA, which once represented a monkey in a selfie copyright lawsuit, was ferocious, such was the level of affection for Irwin right across the globe.

Yes, animals have a right to mind their own business, but it wasn’t for zoos and characters such as Irwin, the natural world would be a mystery to many.