Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and loved-up people around the world are seeking that distinctive gift to really show their special someone how much they care.

Anticipating the rush on finding the perfect present or date, the zoo industry never fails to make the most of the lucrative holiday. In the run-up to Valentine’s Day we see zoos around the world offering animal adoptions and gift sets with a Valentine’s Day theme, hands-on experiences for couples who want to get up close to the animals or special “romantic” events in a bid to get visitors through the gates. One such event is the Los Angeles Zoo “Sex and the City Zoo” event which invites guests to quaff wine, eat a four course meal and learn about the “love lives” of the animals held captive there.

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But while a cute cuddly toy or adoption certificate, an up-close experience with a cheeky lemur or meerkat or a four course meal followed by a trip to see majestic big cats may seem like the ultimate romantic gift for the animal lover in your life, please think on before purchasing your zoo love token this year.

The Real Love Story

Big cats, such as the lions so regularly used in schmaltzy “love is in the air” zoo press releases around this time of year, often show signs of psychological distress as a result of their captive state. Research has shown that lions spend 48 percent of their time pacing back and forth in their enclosures. This is known as a stereotypic behavior; an obsessive, repetitive behavior not witnessed in the wild and which is indicative of psychological distress or even long-term mental illness.

For the last two years, Edinburgh Zoo in the UK offered a romantic “panda themed” gift as a nod towards the male and female pandas who have been in residence at the Scottish site since 2011. Described in the press as the “most famous couple in the animal kingdom,” pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang have been touted to the public as protagonists in the ultimate animal love story. The zoo has been hoping for the pitter patter of tiny panda paws for the last three years.

But Tian Tian and Yang Guang the pandas are not the passionate fairy-tale couple that the Scottish zoo and press would have us believe. Despite the “love story” narrative spun year-on-year by Edinburgh Zoo, the pandas have chosen not to mate naturally and, as a result, have been subjected to intrusive surgical procedures to try to ensure Tian Tian falls pregnant. So far, the zoo’s efforts to forcibly impregnate Tian Tian have been unsuccessful yet the institution remains determined to continue trying, and this means more surgery for Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

Finally, with the zoo-led focus on animal “courtship” over the Valentine’s period, what is not publicized is the fact that many animals born in zoos will be deliberately killed before they reach adulthood because they are no longer valuable to the zoo’s breeding program. Last year, Copenhagen Zoo sparked an international debate over the killing of healthy animals deemed “surplus” when it made public its decision to kill a young giraffe named Marius. A spokesperson for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) said at the time that thousands of healthy animals are deliberately killed each year in European zoos. So just imagine – the cute giraffe or lion cub that you take your sweetheart to see this year may not be long for this world if the powers that be deem him or her to be “surplus to requirements.”

A Better Way to Say, “I Love You”

So, as Valentine’s Day fast approaches and you are wondering what to get the animal lover in your life, please think twice before turning to your local zoo for inspiration. Because visiting distressed animals, supporting an industry that forces motherhood on unwilling individuals and kills others deemed unimportant is really is no way to say, “I love you.”

Image source: Smithsonian National Zoo/Flickr 

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