'Calling for the Release of All Zoo Animals Is Utter Nonsense. It's a Death Sentence'

Gorillas on birth control and Komodo dragons snacking on zebra: A zoologist offers a glimpse into what goes on at an Israeli zoo

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Keren Or, the Ramat Gan Safari's zoologist, with lemurs at the central Israeli zoo.
Keren Or, the Ramat Gan Safari's zoologist, with lemurs at the central Israeli zoo. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Keren Or, 47, lives in Ramat Gan, has been Ramat Gan Safari's zoologist for the past 15 years. Where: The Safari. When: Wednesday, 10 A.M.

We went to visit Shaul the Komodo dragon, but he wasn’t home. He’d gone out for the afternoon.

Before we brought the Komodo dragon here, we sent people out to learn exactly what living conditions it requires.

It eats rotting corpses, right? Where do you get them?

Animals die here, of course. There are about 700 animals out in the open areas, so a dead one is not a rare phenomenon. When a grass-eating animal dies in our African Safari Park, the veterinarian decides if it can be used as food.

And what did Saul eat today, away from our prying eyes?

I think it was zebra.


Yes. Long ago, we discovered that visitors do not respond well to meals that include a zebra drumstick.

A zebra at the Ramat Gan Safari, a zoo in central Israel.
A zebra at the Ramat Gan Safari, a zoo in central Israel.Credit: Baz Ratner/REUTERS

As this interview will most certainly draw numerous angry responses, perhaps we should start with the central question: As a person who loves animals, why do you work at a zoo?

Look, if you work at a zoo and you don't have a problem with the fact that the animals are in a cage, you shouldn't be working there. We constantly bear in mind that we are dealing with wild animals that have been placed in a zoo; it’s not something we can disregard, it is an issue. The people who work here are absolutely devoted to the animals, they do everything possible to promote their physical and psychological well-being. And that requires a great deal of effort – and a great deal of money. For example, when an elephant wants to go to sleep, it needs sand: It can’t lie down on flat ground. So a few times a year we bring in 20 truckloads of sand. Each truckload costs thousands of shekels.

I’ve been busy, and have been throughout my whole life, in volunteering efforts on behalf of wild animals. I’m single, I don’t have children – you could say I’ve dedicated most of my life to this. So at this juncture – between the option of refusing to be part of a zoo, and understanding that zoos nevertheless play a very important role – I’ve chosen to be here. And to do everything I can so that the animals will have the best possible life, and so that I will be able to get across my messages to the public that comes here, relating to the protection of nature, in any way possible.

We’ll get back to that subject. Maybe you can explain first what a zoologist actually does at a zoo. After all, you do not work directly with the animals.

'All these slogans of ‘Free all the animals from the zoos’ are utter nonsense, absolute ignorance. It would be an unequivocal death sentence.'

No. Every zoo has a department that manages its zoological collection, and I’m part of it. As opposed to what people think, a zoo is not a random group of animals. A lot of thought and logic goes into the zoological collection.

The zoological collection – in other words, the animals. How does one decide which animals will be in the zoo? According to popularity? As in, if the public wants elephants...

Yes. There are animals the public really wants and expects to see. They are the celebs. You also want to expose the public to animals that are interesting.

What other methods are used in managing the collection?

We belong to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria [which also encompasses Middle Eastern countries], and all the populations of animals, most of which are, of course, in danger of extinction – approximately 60 different species – are managed here at the international level. All of the tigers, for instance, are managed as a single population. There is a special software program, and each animal has its own file with all of the information about it, including its family tree.

We had a pair of tigers here: Alma and Pedang [female and male, respectively]. We were compelled to put down Alma about a year ago, at the lofty age of 19. Pedang, who is 17, is now alone. In the meantime, we brought in a young male tiger from Denmark, who is 2, and are working on bringing in a female. Everything must be systematic and controlled so the population won’t grow too much, and there won't be any offspring that can’t be properly cared for. On the other hand, there are also couples that should not be allowed to reproduce, because they’re already adequately represented in the population.

And you don’t want a situation in which 7 percent of the tigers, say, will carry the same genetic load.

You have to maintain genetic heterogeneity. For instance, our gorilla, Lucas, already has 11 descendants. We’ve decided that he will not reproduce any more.

How do you stop reproduction?

With gorillas it’s very simple – pills.

At the Ramat Gan Safari.
At the Ramat Gan Safari.Credit: David Bachar

Which other animals are given birth control, and what forms of it are used?

Lots of animals get it. Generally, we use a subcutaneous implant, which is injected like a chip in a dog. It prevents them from going in heat, and you can embed it in both females and males. It’s suitable for nearly all of them. Predators, mammals, even birds.

What does your day look like? What did you do today?

I receive a daily report each morning. There is an online site by means of which the collection of animals of the World Association of Zoos is managed. Every animal [at the Safari, as well] has a file on it, so I update all the data from the report: Let’s say, if an animal has died and there is an autopsy report, or if a bird has laid an egg, etc.

We are now at work on a new enclosure for the fennec foxes, and I was busy with that, too. This zoo was built in 1982, when the Tel Aviv Zoo was closed and all the animals were moved here. It was constructed in a way that was then the height of innovation: concrete structures with bars. That was the model. Some of those cages still exist, to my dismay, but we are demolishing them and converting them to open enclosures.

‘Truly jolting experience’

Let’s talk about the evolution of zoos. If we were to see a picture of a zoo from the early 20th century, we would be shocked to see animals in small cages.

'Look, the lion doesn’t sit and fantasize about Africa. Nor will he ever be in Africa.'

From the dawn of history, animals have attracted the interest of human beings. There is documented proof of zoological collections in ancient Egypt; each king possessed all sorts of animals, for his own enjoyment. Kings in Europe had collections of animals that were closed to the public, and designated solely to members of the aristocracy. Zoos are essentially an extension of these collections, the object of which was simply to entertain people. Imagine you’d never seen an elephant or giraffe in your life, in National Geographic or on the internet. And all of a sudden you saw them in the flesh – it was a truly jolting experience. It used to be much more powerful than it is today.

How did things begin to change?

In the last 50 years, there has been a turnaround in how zoos are conceived. There are still a lot of zoos in the world that can be found on the scale between “dreadful and should be closed now” and “incredible.” We, for instance, don’t touch the animals. We don’t pet them or alter their behavior in any way to make visitors happy. A tiger is not a house cat. We make no attempt to accustom them to contact with humans. It used to be common practice to train animals for entertainment. I think there was once an elephant trainer here; now it wouldn’t even be considered. In that respect, Israel is very progressive. There is a law here that imposes a sweeping ban on any performances involving wild animals. Both in zoos and circuses.

The evolution of zoos derives, we’d like to think, from the understanding that animal rights are important?

For sure. As is the realization that animals have feelings.

If so, the question of why we confine them has become part of the discussion.

When you keep an animal in a zoo, you must furnish conditions to facilitate its psychological and physical well-being. These are animals that have spent generations in zoos.

They cannot return to nature.

No. Ninety-nine percent of them would not be able to return to nature. You put them back in the natural habitat – you’ve given them a death sentence. All these slogans of “Free all the animals from the zoos” are utter nonsense, absolute ignorance. It would be an unequivocal death sentence.

There is an idea that if you’re going to have zoos, they should operate along the lines of nature reserves.

That is also nonsense, because the first question would be – who would pay for it? You need a very large site, one without any people. So, take all of the animals in the world out of zoos, put them in a place where there are no people. They would not know how to get along. Who would maintain them? Most nature reserves use volunteers without pay. An unskilled and unprofessional work force. How do they earn their keep? From the visits of people who come to see the animals. So what have you achieved? What’s the difference?

At least they’re not in cages.

You must understand that at the practical level there is simply no solution to this story – of animals in zoos. If people boycotted all the zoos in the world, the animals would starve to death, because there would be no one to maintain them. We support ourselves on the funds that visitors pay. We had a terrible year during the war [in the Gaza Strip, in 2014], so we were able to renovate only one enclosure and not the three we’d planned to do. That’s the price animals pay when people don’t come.

A lion at the Ramat Gan Safari, a zoo in central Israel.
A lion at the Ramat Gan Safari, a zoo in central Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And the tension will always exist between the commercial interests and the interests of the animals.

Yes. It always exists here, partly because this is not a new zoo, and there is a lot that needs improvement. We are constantly making advances. For instance, 10 years ago, when lion cubs were born, they were displayed during holidays in a cage, for a few hours each day, because the crowds really wanted to see them. Today, that would be inconceivable. The animals receive environmental enrichment. That is also something relatively new in zoos.

What is environmental enrichment?

The animal needs mental stimulation. It is not enough to feed it and clean its enclosure. Two young women here are responsible for training animals [so that they can be administered medical treatment] and for enrichment, and the keepers themselves are also highly creative. For instance, the person in charge of the rats found the back of a broken folding chair, with slats. She tied it to the ceiling and all day long they’re now climbing, swinging and jumping. Or you give the animal food in a box and it has to think how to open it. Or you scatter herbs in the tiger’s enclosure to entice it to sniff around and discover new scents.

Are there any animals whose conditions displease you?

'They do have normal social lives, groups and leaders, procreation – when there’s procreation, it means the animal is content.'

There are quite a few enclosures in need of improvement. For instance, that of the bears. We have a ready-to-go plan of what to do, but then something broke in the chimpanzees’ enclosure and became unsafe, so we will renovate that enclosure and the bears will wait for another year. There are other cases where we want to move the animals to a larger enclosure, and other enclosures we should get rid of. Are the animals suffering because they are kept in an enclosure we think is ugly? The animal has no bad associations with bars, you know. We do.

No animal wants to be restricted.

They would always want to be in a larger expanse.

These animals have never known anything but a zoo. They have been here for generations. Do you think they’ve become something else?

Look, the lion doesn’t sit and fantasize about Africa. Nor will he ever be in Africa.

But if he would meet a lion captured this morning in Africa – would they really be the same animal?

Animals living in zoos lose some of their instincts. That’s obvious. If our lion would try to hunt something, he might succeed. He is certainly incapable of hunting himself for all the food he needs. If a deer now entered the enclosure, it would not come out alive. These animals are not required to do anything that wild animals are required to do. For instance, the giraffes here sit at night. In Africa, they stand.

Keren Or, the Ramat Gan Safari's zoologist.
Keren Or, the Ramat Gan Safari's zoologist. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

So, many forms of behavior have become extinct. The animal has changed.

It’s the same animal, and the different types of behavior have become extinct because there’s no use for them. The animals here are not “on guard” like animals in nature are. They’re not engaged every moment with the question of whether a lion is closing in on them; they’re unfamiliar with a situation in which there are other species in the environment. They don’t know how to protect a territory against invaders or what dangers await them in nature – whether predators or hunters. Most of these things the young learn from their parents, and the parents simply don’t have this sort of knowledge. Nevertheless, they do have normal social lives, groups and leaders, procreation – when there’s procreation, it means the animal is content.

How do you see zoos in the near future?

I think the zoo will eventually be something more similar to [the experience of] observation of animals in nature. When I spent 10 days on safari in Africa, I didn’t see a single rhinoceros or cheetah. Why? Because they simply weren’t there, at that time and place. We built a large and diverse enclosure for our tiger, with places where it can hide. We gave it that option. What is the price the audience pays? It bought a ticket and didn’t see the tiger. He was hiding, so people complained. OK, so let’s go back to the 1-meter-by-1-meter cage, and you will see the tiger. For sure. Pacing nervously around in circles.

‘Surplus’ animals

Three years ago, a storm erupted because a zoo in Denmark put down a completely healthy giraffe that was 2 years old, because it was surplus. What does that mean, “surplus”?

'There are dozens of species that would no longer exist, if not for the reproductive nuclei at zoos that reintroduced them into the wild.'

Part of the well-being of the animal involves living within the social structure suited to it, where it lives in the wild. For instance, in nature, at the age of 2, lions leave their pride and start living on their own. Here too, at 2, the father wants to send him away. So if you have 2-year-old males, you have to find a solution, because it is seemingly “surplus.” We don’t use that word. We say: “This animal should be transferred.”

And if there is nowhere for it to go?

We come up with something. Lions are a good example, because they reproduce very well in zoos, there are a lot of them and it’s not easy to find a home for one in a zoo. For a while, we had four adult lions and got to the point where we had to enable them to go out into the open area in rotation, so we built a special courtyard so whoever did not go out into the main open area would still be outside. It took time, but in the end we also transferred two lions to India.

So you don’t kill animals.

Never. We would not kill any animal because it is surplus. What the Danish zoo did represents an extremely rationalistic approach – the genes of the giraffe were simply not important to the global population.

That is a very extreme reduction.

For sure. I’m incapable of looking at an animal that way. If you say the object of keeping giraffes in zoos is that you have a healthy reproductive or breeding nucleus, with good heterogeneity – that’s correct in terms of the population level. But at the level of the individual, it is unacceptable.

Explain what this nucleus is.

It is essentially a collection of animals held in captivity, in special facilities – in zoos or institutions working with zoos. There are dozens of species that would no longer exist, if not for the reproductive nuclei at zoos that reintroduced them into the wild. The California condor, for instance. Here in Israel, very extreme actions have been taken to breed vultures by means of a reproductive nucleus.

At the Ramat Gan Safari.
At the Ramat Gan Safari.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Which actions?

There was a time when the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel took eggs from vultures in nature and raised them in an incubation facility. A vulture couple raises one chick per year. Now, if the female laid an egg and it fell or was crushed, she’ll lay another. So this fact is exploited: The first egg is taken and raised in an incubator, and she can lay another. It is taken away too, because the chance of the chick hatching in an incubator is greater than in nature. In its stead, the vultures get a plaster egg, a decoy, which they continue to incubate happily. After the chick hatches in the incubator – not necessarily even the same chick from this couple – the chick is put in the nest. The parents arrive, and there’s a chick. Our vultures are raising offspring here with great success, for years. They are outstanding parents; we monitor them constantly via cameras. The nest is five meters high and at 6 months the chick begins to fly down and is then taken to an acclimatization cage. At age 3, it is finally released into the wild.

Are there other reproductive nuclei, in which the young are not released?

Yes – for instance, tigers. But I know that in Russia there was an attempt to release three Persian leopards into nature.

What? You claim it’s impossible to release such animals into nature.

You can’t take an adult leopard raised in a zoo and just release it. What they did, and it’s very complicated and no one knows if it will succeed, is to take a very young cub and move it into a semi-natural environment – it is fed a little, it is allowed to hunt a little. It undergoes a process after which it is supposed to be capable of looking after itself. Again, it’s unclear whether this will work. Ultimately, there are two reasons or justifications for the existence of zoos and for holding animals in captivity: preservation of nature, and education. A place that does not do at least one of these has no justification for existing. If there is no “added value” to keeping animals in captivity, if it is simply for the purpose of entertainment – in my opinion it simply does not hold up to logic.

Studies seem to show that this sort of education is not particularly effective.

It isn’t simple. Millions of people visit zoos around the world, there is no other mechanism for reaching them. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren come here, and it’s true that only a few read all of the signs and speak with the guides. But it does happen. It’s clear we will never be able to reach all of the people, and not all are interested in listening – but if you’re able to interest the audience, you can get your messages across, can harness the public to your cause.

Zoos have taken an unusual turn. From being enemies of animals to those who profess to protect them.

On the safari’s Facebook page, there are always people who write that it is a prison and the animals should be free, and there are also those who answer them: ‘So, what do you think – that everything is so good for them on the outside?’ That’s not a justification, of course. It’s clear that in a utopian world, animals should be in nature.

On the other hand, at this point in time, what awaits them on the outside does not look so good. Climate and environmental changes, destruction of natural habitats and resources, trade and hunting. You wrote on the Facebook page that in Africa an elephant is hunted every 15 minutes.

There is no doubt that the situation in the wild is very poor. That’s why the role of zoos is not only to show the public an elephant. Animals in zoos are the ambassadors of nature. When people come here, we talk with them about the hunting of rhinos, about trade in ivory. Who else talks about that? Anonymous [a virtual community of activists and hackers]?

So the safari is a double agent?

We are not a double agent. We have one objective here: Promoting nature protection, and educating our audience to respect animals and preserve nature. As far as I’m concerned, zoos are the insurance policy we take out for nature.