October 19, 2019

The Trouble with Zoos

“In the archives of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, there is an old postcard from the city aquarium of a large sea turtle with four boys straddling its back. The turtle lies flattened upon a pathway in front of a fence. At the feet of the children, near the animal’s front left flipper, is a messy coil of rope, presumably dropped after being used to hoist the turtle onto the pavement. At the time the photograph was taken, there had already been postcards published by zoos of children riding on the backs of giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands. But this is something different. This is a large marine turtle, barely able to move itself on land. There wouldn’t have been any ‘riding’ here; just sitting on the back of an animal taken out of its tank for a photo-op.

The children, with faces ranging from something like happy through bored to skeptical, echo others in so many similar photographs from the late-19th and early 20th centuries. But as much as the boys are at the centre of this photograph, they are not the reason for it. It is the animal that is the interesting element. The children are only there to provide scale and to help the viewer imagine the extraordinary experience of sitting on the back of something so remarkable.

The animal in this case is a leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Leatherbacks, the largest of the living sea turtles with records exceeding 1,400 lbs (635 kg) – more than 500 lbs (227 kg) larger than the turtle in the photograph – are part of a line of turtles stretching back over 100 million years, and are easily distinguished from the other six living marine turtle species by their lack of a hard shell. Instead, leatherbacks have a soft skin covering a couple of inches of oily connective tissue with an embedded mosaic of small bones. Their backs, marked by seven long lines that join at the tail, resembled a harp, hence their then-common nickname: harp turtles.

Charles Haskins Townsend, the aquarium’s first director, proclaimed that this harp turtle – the second to have arrived at the aquarium in 1908 – was ‘the largest specimen … on exhibition anywhere’. He also noted that it wasn’t expected to live long, even though it had already broken the existing record by living two weeks. Just what caused the earlier deaths is not clear, but not eating and the mix of stress, poor conditions and injuries sustained in the captures, in the tanks and in moving them about are probable causes. Leatherbacks, creatures of the open oceans, do not appear to learn the limits of their enclosures well, and wounds on their noses and flippers from constant impacts with the walls can easily become infected. In the end, the leatherback is one of those animals that, to use an old euphemism, just don’t ‘do well’ in captivity. As for the turtle in the photograph, we don’t know when it died, but within a few months it had already been mounted for the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.”

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