The road to release can be long for some species.

Humans have made great strides in improving the way we care for captive wildlife. In the Colosseum, Romans used to torture and kill lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants. Bear-baiting became commonplace in Europe up until the nineteenth century.

What happens to all the animals who spend their entire lives in zoos, circuses, or as pets now that the circuses no longer use them? Can an animal be released after many years of captivity?

Our frozen worlds are changing.

Even the most humane of zoos will leave animals with too many effects from years in a sheltered environment. Captive animals rarely learn vital survival skills and are often too habituated to contact with humans. They are more vulnerable to poachers and less prepared for the wild.

Keiko, the orca star in Free Willy (1993), is a case that makes this heartbreakingly evident. Keiko was released in Iceland in 1999 after a massive campaign of letters demanding his release. Keiko, unfortunately, was not equipped to survive in the wild. As he was captured at a young age and had become too used to human contact to join a wild pod, multiple attempts to help him failed. Keiko, who was actively looking for human companionship, swam to a Norwegian harbor, where he eventually drowned. He was never able to blend in with the wild population. He struggled to hunt and died from pneumonia in 2002.

Dr Chris Draper, head of animal welfare at Born Free, a charity that campaigns to keep wild animals alive, says: “Releasing to the wild does not always serve the animal’s best interest.” The damage was already done when the animal was taken from the wild. It is dangerous to think that it can be released into the wild without adding to its misery.

“Releasing animals to the wild does not always serve the best interest of the animal.”

Dr Chris Draper Head of Animal Welfare and Captivity at Born Free

Reintroduction is relatively simple for fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Frogs can, for instance, be bred to huge numbers and released into the wild. Reintroduction of complex mammals, such as elephants, primates, large cats, dolphins, and whales, that may need years of training from their mothers and a group of their species to thrive, is much more difficult.

Katie Moore, deputy director of conservation and animal care for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says that the notion of returning captive animals to their habitat was once considered impossible. In many cases, it’s still not possible, especially when the animals are traumatized or very young. You need to be extremely careful when introducing disease to wild populations. “But for some animals, we can do it if you proceed with science and care.”

Consider the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust in Zimbabwe. For 15 years, they have been working to release lions into the wild. ALERT CEO Dr Norman Monks says, “Yes, it is possible for lions to become habituated with humans. But we ensure that the ones we release are not habituated.”

The method of release is a series of stages that eventually results in the release of offspring of previously captive adult lions. The lions are first released in a large enclosure where they can hunt prey. Then, these animals (which have never been handled again by humans) form a group and give birth to new cubs. The cubs that have formed bonds and grown up together are then released into pride.

This is crucial because we wouldn’t want to release these cubs if they weren’t cohesive pride who would take care of each other. Lions are social animals and the only species of cat that lives in a group. Their innate need to belong to a group must be considered when preparing them to go into the wild.

Other groups, like Wildlife Vets International and Born Free, are also challenging the status quo and developing new techniques to meet the needs of different species.

Some animals are easier to release into the wild than others. The needs of each species must be considered.

Polar bears are a species that could be extremely problematic. The polar bears live in a highly specialized environment, and they need to learn survival skills from their mothers. Draper says that learning these skills before release would be near impossible. Other bear species seem to do well when released into the wild. It depends on each bear: its age, whether or not it was bred captive, its experiences, traumas, health, and early nutrition. “There is no magic formula.”

As with lions and many other species, it is often best to release animals together. Dr. Draper says that even chimpanzees who have been in laboratories for years can thrive when released into protected islands in groups.

Conservationists from Orangutan Rescue in Indonesia have been taking in orangutan babies since 2006. These infants were often kept as pets by their owners after their mothers had been shot for raiding the crops. Orangutans in the wild can spend up to 9 years with their mother, which is a long time for any primate. Orphaned orangutans need a lot of care and education. Infants spend five to ten years at the center learning survival skills like how to crack coconuts and fish for termites. They are also known to be afraid of humans, spiders, and snakes.

We try to keep our hands off as much as we can. We don’t want them to get attached to us because we want them to learn to distrust people.

Karmele Llano Sanchez ORANGUTAN RESCUES PROGRAM Director at International Animal Rescue

We try to keep our hands off as much as we can. We don’t want them to become attached to us because we want them to learn to distrust people,” says Karmele Sanchez, the program director for Orangutan Rescue with International Animal Rescue. The key is to let them know from each other more than from us. One animal will quickly learn a new skill and then teach it to others. They can learn to be orangutans once again by doing this. It’s taken many years and much effort, but the program has been successful. I never thought it would be as successful as it has. “Even wild orangutans who were brought to us with injuries or starvation after forest fires can be restored to good health and released back to the wild.”

Orangutan rehabilitation is not cheap. With animal care costs at $250 per month, the final release of an animal may cost up to $10,000. Funds are also a major factor.

Orangutans are expensive to care for, but there is a positive side. Sanchez says that although the costs of caring for orangutans are high, the money is used to pay guides and trackers who follow them into the wild after we release them. We employ many people. This way, we can gain the support of the local community. This is a great way to earn an income other than hunting or logging.

Reintroduction will be a challenge. Finding suitable habitats in an age where agriculture, hunting, logging, and poaching are erasing wild areas will be a major issue.

Sanchez says that the demand for palm oil will only increase, making the orphaned orangutan problem worse. This is because Malaysians produce palm oil for other countries.

Dr. Draper says, “The ideal is to never give up. But the reality is that finding suitable release locations is extremely difficult, even if an animal is physically capable.” “But we must try.” It is costly and time-consuming, but we must try if possible.

Moore of IFAW says that reintroducing some animals will be difficult. For example, baby elephants or pet cheetahs are both very accustomed to human care. We’re only beginning to question old ideas on reintroduction, and there is still much to learn.


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