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Krefeld Zoo blaze sparks ethical debate about animal captivity

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Flowers and candles left at a makeshift memorial site in front of the burned-out monkey house at Krefeld Zoo
Flowers and candles left at a makeshift memorial site in front of the burned-out monkey house at Krefeld Zoo   -   Copyright  AFP
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Three days after more than 30 animals including orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas, lost their lives in a devastating fire at Krefeld Zoo, plans are being drawn to build a new ape house, but opposition is also rising.

Staff at the zoo in north-western Germany are said to be traumatised by the dramatic event that unfolded just as the new year was dawning.

In a Facebook post published in the early afternoon on January 1, they thanked people for the "overwhelming wave of compassion and assistance" and called for donations.

Director Friedrich Berlemann has since spoken of a new ape house and even perhaps, an ape park in an interview with Westdeutsche Zeitung. He emphasised that species conservation is the main aim and said that the €2 million already collected would probably not be enough.

'Zoo prisons'

But the Animal Protection Association has come out against these plans, arguing in a statement that "apes do not belong in zoo captivity so we, therefore, advise that those responsible think some more about whether Krefeld Zoo should go down that route — again".

The animal rights organisation PETA has also since called for the "abolition of zoo prisons" and said it is considering filing a criminal complaint against the zoo's management.

For animal rights activists, the contribution zoos make to species conservation is negligible at best.

Hester Pommerening of the German Animal Welfare Association told Euronews that so-called "flagship animals" such as great apes, dolphins or elephants are difficult to keep and breed in zoos and that programmes for molluscs such as snails and some reptiles are actually more likely to be successful.

Also problematic is the fact that these captive-born animals are often never intended to be released into the wild. PETA flagged, meanwhile, that "most of the animals kept in German zoos are not even endangered species" and that it would be better to protect animals' natural habitat.

The German Animal Welfare Association is particularly opposed to keeping great apes because it is hardly possible to keep these animals in a species-appropriate manner — outdoor enclosures would have to be several hundred square kilometres in size to come close to the conditions in the wild.

"Genetically, these animals are so similar to us that there is almost a greater difference between humans than between humans and apes," Pommerening also said.

Animal protection versus species protection and animal rights

Zoos' argument is that imposing certain restrictions on an individual animal — by choosing its habitat and social partners for instance — is a necessary evil to preserve entire species or animal populations, animal ethicist Dr Clems Wustmans told Euronews.

When the Friends of Krefeld Zoo group cite species protection as a reason to build a new ape enclosure, "there is a lot of hope in it," Wustmans stressed.

In the case of lion monkeys, some of which died in the New Year's day blaze, it was once possible to release captive-bred animals into the wild in Brazil, where they had almost disappeared.

The ethicist also noted that keeping certain animals in zoos, including great apes, could help raise awareness.

"There's an argument if you can convert the enthusiasm of zoo visitors into an awareness of the need to preserve the animals' natural habitats or against the use of palm oil," Wustmans said.

The recent tragedy itself could be a learning experience and provide an "emotional anchor" to the many people who have been moved by the death of the animals.

Additionally, many zoos are also known for their close cooperation with research institutes — such as Leipzig Zoo with the Max Planck Institute. With Düsseldorf and Cologne universities nearby, a new ape house at the Krefeld zoo could help academics "massively exploit research opportunities," Wustmans added.