A GLOBAL WILDLIFE PROTECTION ORGANIZATION
DEDICATED TO COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATION
OF WILDLIFE IN THE WILD AND IN CAPTIVITY
Trailer from the 1966 film, Born Free
Trailer from the 1966 film, Born Free
There is hardly a school child since the late1960’s, that hasn’t seen or heard about the iconic mega hit film, Born Free, the emotional true life story of Elsa, an orphaned lion cub, lovingly raised by renowned wildlife conservationists, Joy and George Adamson, before she was successfully released back into the wild.
Elsa became a part of our culture. She gave us our first real glimpse into the personality of a wild animal1, and we all fell in love with her. We laughed and cried with the Adamsons, as they slowly acclimated her to her future life as a wild lioness. We knew she belonged in the wild. Yet, our hearts were broken when she finally had to leave the family that had loved her – the family that made the excruciating but essential decision to set her free rather than condemn her to life in a zoo.
Actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the film, were profoundly changed by their experience as Elsa’s “parents”. Both became dedicated wildlife conservationists and ultimately established the Born Free Foundation, now a global wildlife protection agency based in West Sussex,
Born Free Founder, Virginia McKenna, and CEO, Will Travers
Born Free Foundation is founded on a model of compassionate conservation, which derives directly from the McKenna-Travers experience working with the Adamsons. It’s all about the animal as an individual, sentient being, with a distinct personality, and the now, well-documented ability to feel many emotions that mirror our own – emotions like love, fear, sadness, anger and grief.
“The essential message of the organization today”, says Travers, “is that individual animals matter. That is the overriding lesson I learned from my parents. When we talk about conservation we must remember that populations of animals are made up of individuals that feel, individuals that have many of the same characteristics that human beings have.”
This concept of compassionate conservation is the heart and soul of the organization. It is the jet fuel that powers the mission and underscores every campaign it supports. It sets a clear guideline for human behavior toward wild animals: In a word, we don’t own them. Like Elsa, they ultimately belong to the wild, where they have lives, families and destinies that are shaped by their own environment, by the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest.
It is not for us, as humans, to take them forcibly from their natural habitat, to slaughter them for their body parts or to exploit them cruelly and unnaturally as entertainment in zoos or circuses. As it is our responsibility to keep animals safe from human intervention in the wild, it must be our responsibility to make sure that wild animals in captivity are treated as humanely as possible.
THE BORN FREE MESSAGE: WILD ANIMALS BELONG IN THE WILD AND NOT IN ZOOS, CIRCUSES OR PRIVATE HOMES
Lonely monkey kept as a pet
The Born Free mission, then, is driven by the tenet that wild animals belong in the wild, and not in zoos, circuses or in private homes. To this end, it works to advocate at the policy level for legislation that will keep wild animals of all species safe in the wild, to relieve the suffering of wild animals in captivity, to rescue and provide sanctuary for individual animals, and to assist indigenous populations with strategies that allow them to live in harmony with the wild animals in their communities.
Born Free USA was created in 2002, by Travers’ friend and colleague, Adam Roberts, to bring the Born Free message of “compassionate conservation” to the United States. From his
Action Now+Network talked with Travers and Roberts about the Born Free USA programs, and about their vision for the future of compassionate conservation of wildlife, here and abroad.
Adam, how did you come to Born Free
Adam: Well, Will and I had met back in about 1993 working on wildlife trade issues. Will was with Born Free Foundation and I was with another organization here in
Over the next 5 years or so we began to talk about the need for a "Born Free" here in
It’s not just about conserving animals based on numbers or just about animal rights. We felt there needed to be a blending of the issues to create a focus on the fact that individual animals matter as well as concern for the species as a whole. We really wanted to bring that "Born Free" message to the American public.
So, in 2002 I set up "Born Free USA" for Will, as a volunteer, just because we were friends and I really believed in the mission and the message. In 2005 I came on full-time, "Born Free USA" was properly staffed and ready to go, and we've been driving it forward ever since.
Bear pen in front yard of a home
Bear pen in front yard of a home
In 2007 we actually merged with another organization, the Animal Protection Institute, headquartered in Sacramento.
How do the
Adam: The American black bear is a species that's found here, so that's something that distinguishes us from the UK. The trade in bear gall bladders is a signature campaign of ours – we’re trying to stop people from poaching American bears and then cutting open their abdomens and taking the gall bladders.
The horror of the trapping/fur trade
We also have a major campaign against the use of steel-jaw leg hold traps to catch fur bearing animals, like raccoons or foxes. These are horrible, barbaric, bone-crushing traps. I've been in this business for twenty years and it's incredibly hard to stop. That's why it's so important that "Born Free" exists with the strong presence it has.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR ANIMALS IN ZOOS AND CIRCUSES
Another signature campaign is on wild animals used in zoos and circuses. How do you operate and what do you do? What is your message?
Of course, in some situations such as elephants in zoos, we don’t believe it’s possible, but we work to make sure that the smaller roadside zoos, that are clearly not meeting the welfare needs of the animals, are shut down as a priority.
We also work with legislators at the local, state and the federal level to enact laws that protect animals from various forms of captive cruelty.
Were you part of the lawsuit that was brought against Ringling Brothers?
Adam: Yes, we were. The Animal Protection Institute had joined that lawsuit so when we merged with them we took ownership of it.
Unfortunately, that lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality. Are there plans to resurrect it, in any way?
Adam: Yes, this case was brought against Ringling Brothers Circus under the Endangered Species Act for violating the law with respect to the mistreatment of captive elephants. But we have appealed that and we're hoping this year the Appeals Court will resolve the matter for us.
What we're really asking for, more than anything else, is that there is a ruling on the merits of the case.
We presented a body of evidence to show how cruel these practices are, and we actually had the Chairman of the Ringling Brothers parent company admit that elephants are hit with bull hooks, but there was never a determination about whether or not that was a legal violation. That’s really what we're looking for. We want the judge to decide on the merits of the case, which in our estimation concludes that the way these animals are treated in circuses is, in fact, not only cruel, but a violation of the law.
Will: Just to expand on this point, we also want to emphasize the broader point that it is important for the law to be good in the first place, to be strong and effectively applied.
There are thousands of zoos, menageries and dreadful roadside facilities that have a USDA license, so this tells us that the standards are woefully low.
We face exactly the same situation in Europe where we have a "European Zoos Directive" which applies to all 4,000 zoos across the European Union. We are in the process of concluding a survey of two hundred zoos across 20 of the different member States, including the UK, France, Spain, etc. of the European Union and the evidence that we're turning up is that, so far, not one single country is applying the legislation effectively.
THERE IS OVERWHELMING PUBLIC SUPPORT IN THE U.K. TO BAN THE USE OF WILD ANIMALS IN CIRCUSES
Hasn’t the U.K. decided to ban the use of elephants in circuses?
Will: I wish that were the case, but the jury is still out. We're very hopeful that the U.K. government, after years and years of persistant and highly-principled lobbying by many groups including "Born Free", RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and others, that the UK government would come to that conclusion.
In fact, at the beginning of 2010, the previous administration sent out a consultation (survey) to the public asking them for their views. Over 10,000 people responded, which for the UK is a lot of people – 94.6% favored ending the use of wild animals in circuses. So basically five out of one hundred (5%) people want animals to be in the circuses and 95 out of 100 (95%) say no. The current administration describes itself as ‘listening government’ so I certainly hope they're listening to that message.
Elephant forced to learn massage
We only have four circuses in the country with wild animals now. There are about forty wild animals in those circuses and I've been to some shows in the last twelve months where in the 700 and 800 seat arenas there were maybe ninety people. Wild animal circuses are no longer a commercially viable operation. They are running on empty. The tank is out of gas and the writing's on the wall. They need to wrap it up so we can all move on to a more humane future.
Adam, you probably have a perspective on where the American public is at with animal zoos and circuses in the U.S.
Adam: I think it's a tough one here simply because of the number of people in the country and the long history that we have with both zoos and circuses. I think for us there is definitely a public policy and legislative component to it all.
We have to educate lawmakers that circuses don't have to have wild animals. We have model legislation available for all legislators to use, whether they want to establish a local city ordinance or a statewide law that either prohibits the use of wild animals in circuses or restricts the use of wild animals in circuses.
Bears kept in tiny facility without any natural stimulation
I think the way we need to address this is with young people– showing them that zoos and circuses do not represent entertainment based on real values, on real conservation. (These facilities are not where wild animals should be kept. It’s all about teaching children that we have to have a healthy respect for wild life and protect them where they live.
Do you have programs that reach out to the schools?
Adam: Yes, we're increasingly trying to get our message out into schools by dealing directly with teachers and providing them materials free of charge. We do have that kind of outreach.
Will: Yes. If children aren’t exposed to the true stories about how animals really live in the wild and why we need to conserve species and their natural habitats, then they actually are only exposed to one dimension of the story and they have nothing to compare it to. They may well believe, in all innocence, that what they are looking at in a zoo or circus is ok. And it isn't ok. The public sees a person of authority and of professional learning, with perhaps a degree or Ph.D., that may run a zoo, and they wonder how this can be so wrong
Will: And I'll give you an example of how we got our priorities very confused.
I work a lot with the Kenya Wildlife Service in Kenya. It's the statutory body responsible for Kenya's wildlife across the whole country, particularly in all the protected areas like the National Parks and Reserves and they're responsible for about six million acres. They have 4,000 individual staff in the organization. In those protected areas there are around 35,000 wild elephants, maybe 1,000 wild rhino, maybe 2,000 wild lions and, of course, all the other species, the antelopes, giraffes and the hippos and everything else – all the birds and all the bugs and all the trees. They're' responsible for all of that. They carry out their function every year for a budget of around 45 million U.S. dollars.
The Los Angeles Zoo has just built a new elephant enclosure. It's about 7 acres. To the best of my knowledge it has four elephants in it. And the elephants share about 3.8 of those acres and the cost of building that new enclosure was about 42 million dollars.
.. I just look at that situation and I think "my goodness, what could we do for the protection of elephants, and in fact for the protection and conservation of so many species if that kind of money was available to my friends in Kenya, or in Mali, or Sierra Leone, or in the 20 different African countries we work in? What could we do with a fraction of that kind of money?”
We have our priorities wrong and it isn't always about building some high-tech concrete monstrosity in the middle of a downtown area of a major urban center in the U.K. or in the U.S.A. That isn't necessarily helping animals or educating people. We have to think differently and think smarter.
But there are ways in which we do occasionally work together with zoos, and exotic pets is one of those examples.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST EXOTIC PETS
Can you describe your program that advocates against keeping exotic pets?
Adam: We have a huge campaign to stop the trade in exotic animals as pets. People who keep tigers in their backyards or primates as pets is not something that's exclusive to the United States, but it is much more prominent here.
There are some zoos and zoo industry representatives that have supported us in that effort. They are taking a leadership role because from their perspective, they don't think wild animals should be in private hands. They feel that a zoo is fine– and we can agree to disagree on that– but we are united in our perspective that wild animals don't belong with any member of the general public that thinks they're ‘cute’ or ‘cuddly’.
The issue of exotic pets raises a whole host of problems, the most significant of which, from our perspective, is the animal welfare problem.
Oftentimes, these animals are hurt, they're harmed, they're manipulated, they're caged, they're treated very badly in order to be kept in captivity. Whether it's cutting off nails or filing down teeth or chaining animals, most are treated cruelly in order to keep them in captive conditions.
But beyond that there is a very serious risk to people because these animals are wild and can hurt people if they come in contact with them – which they do.
And then there's also a risk of invasive species being released. For example, in Florida, you have people that keep large snakes. When they get so big that the owners can’t keep them anymore, they release them into the Everglades where these animals establish viable wild populations and compete for habitat with indigenous wildlife.
So there's really a spectrum of issues, from animal welfare to human welfare to the welfare of native wildlife. This is something that we at Born Free USA are working very hard to change.
This is really a signature campaign of ours. We try and educate the public about the hazards of keeping exotic animals as pets. We’re also working very hard to change the laws to make it more difficult, if not impossible for certain species to be kept.
We had success back in 2003, when the US congress passed legislation called the Captive Wildlife Safety Act which prohibits the interstate transportation of big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, or hybrids thereof, if they are intended to be kept as pets.
I know for a fact that that law works to deter people from trading these animals. We've had sanctuaries that keep big cats tell us that after that law was passed the number of animals needing their rescue declined significantly.
Now we're working to add non-human primates to that list of prohibited species that can be moved between states for personal ownership as pets, because we know that primates don’t make good pets.
“Born Free” knows all too well the hazards of the exotic pet trade, especially with respect to non-human primates because we have our own sanctuary for about 500 non-human primates down in Texas. A number of those animals have come to us because they were unwanted pets, owned by a person who, for whatever reason, was no longer able to keep them. And when they have no place to go, these animals often end up on our doorstep.
It’s very hard for us. Animals come to us not just coming to us from people’s homes but from biomedical research laboratories or roadside zoos and other places. At the end of the day, we take these animals in and support them whenever possible. We have to rely on the goodwill from folks around the country to make donations and support their ongoing care but we have to take the animals in because the alternatives are horrendous – a tragic life in a substandard facility or a premature and unnecessary death. We prefer to give these animals a peaceful retirement and so we take them in.
We did pass the bill to add primates to that list of species protected from the pet trade a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, it was held up in the U.S. Senate, and now we have to start over again. But we think that we'll succeed, ultimately, in getting that legislation passed.
THE BORN FREE PRIMATE SANCTUARY
Can you talk about your Primate Sanctuary?
Adam: We have the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, which is outside of San Antonio Texas and we've got 500 animals there, including vervet monkeys, macaques, and baboons that live on nearly 200 acres so they have great space – including a 50 acre enclosure where many of them can actually swim and jump in ponds and climb trees and really act like monkeys should.
There is an organization with which we're affiliated called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries – GFAS. We started it in 2007 to accredit sanctuaries based on a set of strict operational and humane care standards.
This accreditation is important so that people will know the difference between a sanctuary that has met standards and is doing good work, as opposed to someone who is breeding tigers in his backyard, and calling himself a sanctuary. We want to provide the gold standard for what a sanctuary should look like.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, are just two of the examples of sanctuaries that really can guarantee a significant quality of life.
Will: Just to add to what Adam said, and he told the story extremely well. There is one other important point. Unless the legislation is changed, we will always be handling the fallout of a situation that’s out of control. And we can’t, and the sanctuaries can’t. Not even the GFAS accredited sanctuaries can forever accommodate and take in animals while the government stands idly by and takes no action against the individuals who keep these animals – the individuals who keep bears, lions, tigers, primates or chimpanzees as pets. Then, if anything goes wrong, the humane movement has to scurry around and pick up the pieces.
The dynamic has to change, and there has to be responsible legislation, properly enforced so that maybe, in my lifetime and hopefully in Adam's lifetime, we’ll see an end to the keeping of exotic animals as pets and also, a winding down for the need for sanctuaries.
What are the avenues for the public to get involved?
Adam: We have an Action Alert Network that people can sign up for through our website where they can get frequent emails from us. These alerts will let them know what they can do on a national level, or opportunities for involvement at the local level, in their own town. It might be something like writing to a restaurant to get them to stop selling lion meat, or writing to their United States Senators about a piece of legislation on exotic pets.
There is a lot of information about this on our website.
Let’s talk about the cartels – wildlife trafficking, and slaughtering animals for their parts. There is an enormous black market that has ballooned out of control.
How has Born Free been advocating against wildlife trafficking?
Adam: We’re heavily involved in the global treaty that governs the international movement of wild animals. It’s called "CITES" the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
This is a convention that was signed in Washington, D.C. in 1973 and now has more than 170 countries that participate. It regulates trade in certain species internationally so that endangered species can be protected and certain animals and animal parts cannot be traded commercially.
There are all kinds of regulations that govern trade – not only trade in elephant ivory, but trade in elephant hair, elephant leather, — all parts of the elephant are covered by the Treaty. It also bans trade in tiger bones and tiger parts, internationally.
There's also an international ban on the trade in whale meat. So CITES has some pretty tremendous opportunities to provide animal protection but at the same time individual nations need to adopt stronger domestic measures to implement CITES, or to actually expand on CITES. For the US, that's the Endangered Species Act.
Our Endangered Species Act not only implements the Convention, but also provides a greater level of protection for some species that are listed under it. And that's why we petitioned the US Department of Interior to place the African lion on the endangered species list as an endangered species, and thereby provide an additional layer of protection.
The U.S. is the #1 importer of lion parts
If we succeed in placing them on the endangered species list here, the US will no longer be an open market for lion parts. That’s incredibly important because, according to the data, the US is now the biggest international consumer of lion parts.
Adam: Yes — the U.S. is the biggest consumer of lion parts, both as trophies from trophy hunts, but also for commercial products. And what we've seen is a tremendous decline in the population of African lions. Since 1980, the population of African lions have been cut in half, from about 76,000 to between roughly 40,000 and a devastating 23,000 today. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of lion parts being imported into America. In fact there were twice as many lion parts commercially imported into this country in 2008 as there were in 1999.
Will: This is also exemplified in the ivory trade.
The original international ban on the trade of ivory came in 1989 and I was actually at the CITES meeting in Switzerland where that decision was made. In the four or five years immediately after the ban it seemed that the number of elephants being poached was going down, that the price of ivory on the black market (because it was all illegal) was going down, way down to maybe $10 a kilo. So, even the poor poacher manipulated by a cartel would not risk his or her life if they were going to make $10, $20, $30– it just wasn't worth the risk.
Unfortunately since the mid 1990s, to the present day, there's been an erosion of that ban. There have been a number of so-called one-off sales of significant amounts of ivory – like the recent sale of 100 tons of ivory from stockpiles from certain countries – and the approval of Japan and China as favored trading nations for ivory.
The British government actually wrote me about the approval of China as an approved trading nation for ivory. They said "well the reason we think it's a good idea is because we think it'll meet the demand. And if we can meet the demand, there will be less poaching, and there will be less animal trade. We will satiate the market. It will satisfy the buyers."
And the truth is that it's going in exactly in the opposite direction. The level of poaching is at devastatingly high levels right now. The amount of ivory that's being seized is huge. The price of illegal ivory is now running at around $1500 U.S. per kilo. That’s about $700 a pound. African poachers are very willing to risk their lives if they think that they can get $700 for just a pound of raw ivory.
That’s why we need to take responsibility. Governments need to take responsibility. If the US is the biggest single importer of lion trophies, the US has a responsibility to address that issue. If the UK government approved China for a trading nation of the ivory, the UK needs to take responsibility for the fact that it made that decision.
And we as consumers, we also have responsibilities. We choose what we buy and therefore we influence what is sold.
Adam: And there's one other aspect of how we can fight these black markets. We can do this not only through legislation and not only through international Treaties, but through public pressure as well. Because if people stop buying these products, when people stop buying ivory, the price goes down, poaching decreases and elephants’ lives are saved
SUPPORT OF WILDLIFE LAW ENFORCEMENT ON THE GROUND
We’re also heavily involved in supporting wildlife law enforcement on the ground, in the country where the wildlife lives. That’s incredibly important because the poachers and the profiteers in these wildlife products are backed by incredibly powerful and well-funded people who can give them all of the resources they need.
They are not only paid to kill wild animals and get the parts and export them out of the country for all they're worth, but they're also putting people's lives on the line. The park rangers who live with wildlife and have to protect the wildlife can't compete because they're under-funded. So you have very small wildlife departments without vehicles, fuel, equipment, training – they even have a hard time raising the funds to get a computer for their office so they can track poaching incidents.
These are things we take for granted, but the people on the ground who are protecting wild animals from the poachers really need our support. And so we try and help in any way we can, whether it's equipping these wildlife departments with laptops or funding de-snaring operations to go out in Kenya. We have teams operating in Kenya that actually remove wire snares that have been set by poachers trying to catch wild animals.
So these are all the different ways that we are actually on the ground in country where, together with our supporters, we try and stop the poaching before it happens. Or at the very least, we support the people that can apprehend the poachers and make sure they're prosecuted fully.
What makes Born Free USA different than other animal protection organizations out there? What make your operation unique?
Adam: We focus very much on protecting wildlife and protecting wild animals in captivity. And while we care very much about animals in biomedical research laboratories or factory farms, we appreciate that there are some great groups out there with the specific expertise and abilities to deal with those issues, so that we can really streamline our efforts and craft our mission to focus on protecting the greatest number of animals that fall into the category of wildlife protection.
In addition, we really do try and focus on individual animals – it's not just some philosophical or a policy exercise. We’re trying to stop people buying primates as ‘pets’, but at the same time we want to make sure that we can actually protect and care for any primates that are confiscated from the pet trade.
We want to bring the concept of Compassionate Conservation, the protection of both individuals and species, to everything we do. I think we have a real grasp on the interplay between sound science, strong policy and direct animal care than some other organizations might not have.
What are the most important things that you want the public to know about Born Free?
Adam: I would say that we can't do this without the public support and so, obviously, working in all of the areas we're involved in is great but if we don’t have public support, we won’t be able to do this work anymore. So the more people that learn about what we're doing and how we're doing it and are willing to embrace our vision, embrace our mission, the more work we can do for animals.
Second, that we’re an international operation. We not just in Washington and in California but all across the country, in Canada, and at our primate sanctuary in Texas, and indeed everywhere in the world where wild animals are in peril.
Will: I would say the other thing is that there are lots of serious issues, huge issues, lots of terrible things that go on with animals, but we also like to have a bit of fun when we do things as well.
For example, this September, we are going to be holding a fashion show down in California in the Los Angeles area.
It’s all fur-free fashion, with different young designers around the country participating. This is a runway event, and it’s going to be great! We'll have a whole host of people there but one of the judges who'll be helping us choose the winners is Elizabeth Emmanuel who is a friend of mine – she designed Princess Diana's wedding gown years ago!
What is your ultimate vision for Born Free?
Adam: Well, the vision is really to keep wildlife in the wild. We want to create a world in which wild animals are not treated cruelly for human entertainment or fashion and at the end of the day where they remain protected where they belong, in the wild.
Will: I was asked recently, by somebody who was interviewing me, "Don't you just get disheartened? Don't you kind of look at the huge mountain of issues and become discouraged and just kind of want to give up?"
And I think the answer to that is that is it goes back to the individual. If we can help reduce the suffering of one animal – a primate by giving him a home in our Sanctuary, or if we can save one elephant’s life from poachers by supporting the law enforcement agency, or if we can change the way that an animal is being kept in a circus or a zoo, or if we can persuade one person not to buy an exotic animal as a pet, or one legislator to take up our cause and make a difference in their state, we will have accomplished part of our goal.
Every single one of those battles is winnable and when you win it gives you the energy; it puts fuel in the tank for the next battle. Adam's been doing it for 20 years, I've been doing it for 27 years and we still have the stomach for the fight. I hope compassionate people everywhere will join us!
GET THE FACTS ON BORN FREE USA CAMPAIGNS:
Adam Roberts, Executive Vice Presdient
Born Free USA
1. See also the story of Christian the Lion, which enjoyed a viral renaissance on You-Tube a few years ago: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/big-cats/about/christian-the-lion. The film can be purchased from the Born Free Foundation.