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Nightmare for the Whole Family: Petting Zoos

(Content Warning: animal abuse and neglect)

Using living things for entertainment is so last Millenium. We can and should hold ourselves to higher moral standards.

The Backstory

When autumn 2022 hit, I spent a weekend afternoon with my friends and their kids at Wiggleys Fun farm in Wales. I was almost more excited than the children there to get my own bag of feed and head to the field in the back where all the animals were.

The magic faded a little before we even saw any animals. Still, at the tills, I had a look into the feed bags – expecting veg – and saw dry pellets. ‘Oh well, I thought, ‘they probably can’t be eating proper food all day, so maybe this is some light biscuits they can munch on all day every day.’

We went outside and the reality set in. I spent several years around farm animals, my high school had a farm on sight and saying hello to the alpacas by the sixth form building was a ritual for the best part of a decade. The students were actively involved and interested in the lambing seasons, the pigs going from farm to fork and they later showed up in our canteen. I knew what healthy, happy animals looked like- and Wiggleys wasn’t it. Unfortunately, we spent the next few hours there strolling up and down, talking about how depressed and dirty they all looked. How the Shetlands gnawing on the troughs seemed like a stress response. And above all, how absolutely filthy and matted all the animals were.

"Everyone already knows"

Apart from banana bread and anti-bac wipes, the 2020 lockdown forced another thing into our homes that would end up leaving a sour aftertaste. The Tiger King Netflix series. We watched the chaotic anti-hero Joe Exotic try to make a living exploiting and mass-breeding big cats. We followed his struggle to become a wealthy big cat park owner while fighting against his most dedicated nemesis, Carole Baskin. It wasn’t a surprise then, nor is it now, that animals in captivity are neglected. We all know the image of the pacing circus tiger circling his tiny cage.

The laws regarding animals in captivity and what people can subject them to are still very much in the works. In the UK, the Born Free charity has been campaigning since 1984 to “stop the exploitation and suffering of individual animals living in captivity or in the wild.” It wasn’t until July 2019 for an English law was put in place banning the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. Which in itself is full of loopholes- allowing circuses to travel with wild animals and have them on display as long as they are not participating in any performances.

Up close and personal, day-to-day changes

And this is exactly what poor Wiggleys does to its goats, ponies, donkeys, horses, sheep and rabbits. While they may not be particularly exotic or rare, they still deserve love and respect. One Green Planet did research on this and only confirmed what we already knew about petting zoos and farms. Excited children are likely to hurt the animals. I myself saw a gaggle of unsupervised toddlers being left at the feeding station for the horses. They had run out of pellets for the horses so they filled the trough with stones, sticks, acorns, plastic wrappers, and whatever else they found on the floor. Assuming the horses don’t eat what has been put in front of them, the kids reaching through the bars is enough of a risk in itself. If not a zoonotic disease or E-coli, then a nasty horse bite would surely ruin the day out.

It does not teach children that animals should be viewed with any form of compassion. They are put here to be ogled at and to provide entertainment, and if they don’t then it is assumed to be okay to tap the glass, shake the fence, poke them, whistle or taunt them. This is especially traumatic for prey animals, usually the cutest and most popular, such as rabbits and chinchillas. And if the animal is not cute and popular, not drawing in queues of kids ready to pull on ears and push fingers up noses; then the animal is simply not desirable anymore. Anything such as old age or developed neuroticism causing the animal to be difficult to handle causes the owners to simply dispose of them.

Dealing with living and feeling creatures in a ‘strictly business’ capitalistic way, with not even a pellet of empathy to throw their way.

Feeling powerless?

There are more ethical alternatives that welcome family visits. Ways to get in touch with nature and close to some wildlife without having to bare the weight of guilt on the drive home would be things like sanctuaries (The Secret Sanctuary, Foal Farm Animal Rescue, Footprints Animal Sanctuary). There are several all over the country and the donations they take are most often for the betterment of the animals you see in front of you. There are also Wild Life Rehabilitation Centres, as well as Observatories, for those looking for something a little more exotic in a healthy happy home.

You could also visit something a little bit more hidden away and adventurous. Finding some tadpoles in a local creek could be a good way to get the kids out of the house. Checking up on how much they have grown, how big their tails are and how quickly they become little frogs. This is particularly good for primary school children learning about life cycles and the world around them. Opens a door for the dreaded question “how did mummy and daddy frog have so many babies?”


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