The downside of 'clean' tiger parks
Have you visited Huahin's newest Safari and Adventure Park (HHSA)? Were you refreshed to see the exhibits’ shiny, clean, and well-maintained appearances, as well as the happy and well-fed animals? From elephants to giraffes to tigers, HHSA displays a wide range of wildlife in a facility that is very tidy, well-maintained, and Disney-esque. Unfortunately, we’re here to offer you another, albeit negative, opinion on the dangers of these Disney-esque tiger parks.
Huahin Safari & Adventure Park
Although HHSA may appear aesthetically pleasing, sanitary, and well-kept to many, the appearance of the facility and its enclosures can be deceptive when determining how effectively it meets the requirements of its occupants . Thus, HHSA visitors are often misled by its clean and polished appearance, failing to recognise that enclosures should be more than just "beautiful," but also functional and appropriate from the animal's standpoint .
Tigers are dirty, multi-dimensional (complex), and fierce, so when these parks erase what makes a tiger a tiger, portraying them as clean, docile, and safe, we can't help but question what kind of ecological messages are being subconsciously communicated to visitors. We can easily disregard the demands of the individuals who occupy the exhibits, i.e. the tigers, by applying human standards of beauty and good maintenance to a very different animal . And whilst a suitable environment does not necessarily guarantee optimal animal welfare, since naturalistic designs are not required to provide proper housing for the animals, the absence of the latter can undoubtedly endanger animal welfare .
'Too clean' exhibits can significantly harm the tigers' welfare, as the chemicals commonly found in industrial disinfectants can be toxic when used regularly or directly on the tigers' skin. Moreover, from the behavioural side of things, scent marking is important to tigers. Thus, disinfection should be done rarely and some faeces and/or scent marks should be left undisturbed . Furthermore, the lack of any dust, dirt and consequent microbes can be a concern in and of itself. After all, how can an environment that is so sterile that it lacks these basic attributes provide the appropriate substrate? Not to mention that the attempt to show tigers as living in a constantly sterile environment, which visitors are likely to perceive as being well-kept, might, over time, lead those visitors to develop the misleading supposition that the tigers are well cared for if enclosures are ‘clean’ .
Exhibit Design, Message, and High-Quality Animal Welfare
To sustain high-quality animal welfare, animal enclosures must consider the species’ original environment alongside its ecology and behaviour to ensure the animal has its biological needs met . The benefits of naturalistic enclosures go beyond public perceptions of a well-kept exhibit, as these designs have been associated with encouraging species-specific behaviour, lower frequencies of stereotypies such as pacing, and facilitation of normal behaviour pattern expression [1,5]. Thus, good zoo exhibits should strive, through careful design, to present their collection in a way that the animal’s right to exist and prosper is intuitively self-evident .
According to ‘Immersion Design Theory’ , the exhibit’s design should consider the following:
Nature should be the model, not other zoos,
To teach respect for nature, zoos must present nature respectfully
To demonstrate landscapes as appropriate habitats and ecosystems,
To immerse its visitors in the simulated, naturalistic landscapes where the animals are dominant, without large crowds, barriers, support structures and unnecessary visual noise.
Naturalistic, immersion-style exhibits stimulate visitor learning, driven by emotional responses such as wonder, love, fear, surprise, and delight . And high levels of these emotional responses are frequently accompanied by strong, memorable incentives to learn more about the exhibited animal and adopt conservation measures to protect and further the interests of the animals [5,6].
Much of our response to what we see is modified by the context in which we find ourselves and from which we view the subject. The distinction between what zoo visitors perceive unconsciously and observe consciously frequently nullifies the efforts of zoo educators . Thus, good zoos that are keen to ensure that their conservation messages remain strong and clear should strive to build realistic exhibits that communicate a constant message subjectively and objectively, moving away from the Disney-style, architectural exhibits that convey contradictory messages .
Homocentricity vs. Biocenctricity
You might be wondering what we mean by "exhibit communication." Webster defines 'communicate' as 'to impact...to make known,' with synonyms including reveal, impact, and promulgate . Whether or not zoo exhibitors are aware of it, visitors are continually receiving and sorting input from the zoo's surroundings, which is then interpreted through their prior experiences, preconceptions, and expectations . So, what are the principles that zoos should seek to convey? And how can zoos employ exhibit design to continuously transmit this message? Let’s look at two examples:
Even if the surrounding signs advise otherwise, a tiger pacing behind bars may be seen as a violent monster. Is this the impression we want tourists to have after visiting the zoo? Isn't there an old, harmful prejudice about tigers being violent and savage felines?
In a huge valley full of lush flora, a tiger swims in a natural pond. The valley offers a variety of topographic features, including platforms and alcoves that are accompanied by the sound of flowing water.
Pity, dread, or repulsion may be evoked by the first example. Feelings that lead to the message of 'homocentricity,' or a universe dominated by humans. This message argues that exhibited animals have lost all but one reason for existing: to entertain us . And how can we teach the next generation to appreciate and value these animals if this is the message that tiger facilities are giving out? Why should families be concerned about tigers' legal vulnerabilities when these facilities teach people that "tigers are ferocious predators best confined in cages"?
The second example, although simplified, is an example of an exhibit that communicates biocentricity, the polar opposite of homocentricity, in which the message is infused with awe, grandeur, and humility rather than comfortable, arrogant dominance . This exhibit is first-class zoo education, with a message that is evident without the need for explanation - the message that visitors should embrace a 'biocentric,' or in our instance, a tiger-centric, perspective.
Where does HHAS stand?
Unfortunately, not only has HHAS built and maintained its homocentric exhibits and messages, but HHSA has also played into the damaging tiger stereotypes through its disparity between how other animals are exhibited versus how the tigers are kept. Whilst the African collection is housed in semi-naturalistic enclosures, the tigers are kept in pristine, almost antiseptic enclosures with minimal substrate, where they then participate in daily circus-like performances and photo ops. What messages do you think this disparity conveys? We surely think it’s a negative one!
You may be wondering why we are holding HHSA to zoo standards of husbandry? Well, in Thailand, you need a zoo license to be able to keep tigers  so although HHSA may not market themselves as a zoo, we certainly think they should comply with the welfare standards of one!
How About the Keepers?
However, our researchers must applaud how compassionate several HHSA keepers are to the tigers, as evidenced by the gentle interactions and reactions observed, demonstrating the strong and positive relationships in place, comparable to what we saw at Safari World. The keepers’ practices not only contradict their establishment's stance on tiger care and welfare, but the keepers also appeared open to sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge of tigers, much to our surprise.
Overall, as a fun activity on your next visit to these facilities, try to critically evaluate the exhibits in front of you and decide whether or not you believe they are suitable for their residents! If not, you can assist these new facilities to move in the right direction by leaving feedback stating you want more naturalistic exhibits - that is exhibits that prioritise function over form!
Fàbregas, M.C., Guillén-Salazar, F., and Garcês-Narron, C. (2012) ‘Do Naturalistic Enclosures Provide Suitable Environments for Zoo Animals?’, Zoo Biology, 31, pp. 362-373. DOI: 10.1002/zoo.20404
Boyle, K.E. (2017) Enclosing Nature: Naturalism, Animal Welfare, and the Evolution of Zoo Design’. Thesis: Arizona State University.
Baker, R. (2006) Husbandry Guidelines for the Tiger (Panthera tigris). Available at: https://nswfmpa.org/Husbandry%20Manuals/Published%20Manuals/Mammalia/Tiger.pdf
Hosey, G., Melfi, V., and Pankhurst, S. (2013) Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management, and Welfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Coe, J. (2005) ‘The Unzoo Alternative’, ARAZPA/SEAZA Joint Conference.
Coe, J. (1985) ‘Design and Perception: Making the Zoo Experience Real’, Zoo Biology, 4(2), pp. 197-208.
Coe, J. (1987) ‘What’ the Message? Exhibit Design for Education’, AAZPA 1987 Regional Conference Proceedings, American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, Wheeling, WV, pp. 19-23.
Thailaws (2018) Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, B.E. 2535 (1992). Available at: http://thailaws.com/law/t_laws/tlaw0317.pdf