While some animals are treated to a lovingly prepared dinner every day, others end up on the menu themselves. The long and complex relationship between humans and animals is full of contradictions – some are seen as housemates, comforting companions, or even family members, while others are primarily regarded as a source of food and clothing or as a means of transportation. These attitudes vary depending on where you are in the world, but also on the particular species. In the West, for example, cattle are slaughtered to make burgers while dogs receive knitted jumpers in the winter – in India or China, it could feasibly be the other way around.
About two-thirds of all non-human mammals on the planet are domesticated animals; wild animals account for only four percent of Earth’s mammals. Livestock therefore represent an important group of animals that deserve more attention than they get. Given that relatively few of us grow up in a rural environment where shearing sheep, milking cows, and sending animals to the slaughter are part of everyday life, most people only gain first-hand experience of these important animals at the zoo. Tierpark Berlin is home to a variety of livestock breeds – some of which are now very rare. These animals can be found in and around the petting zoo.
But doesn’t organic agriculture account for only a very small, niche market?
Organic produce is very popular. The number of organic farmers is on the up, and the area of land used for organic cultivation has increased by about 20 percent in the last five years. Today, more people than ever before recognise the benefits that organic farming has for the environment and its biodiversity in comparison to conventional farming. Its carbon emissions are lower and thus protect the climate, and it avoids monocultures, ensuring the preservation of smaller biotopes. Also, far more animal and plant species can live on organically cultivated land thanks to stricter rules on the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Furthermore, organic farming is preferable from an animal welfare perspective, as having robust breeds roaming freely constitutes a much more natural and dignified life for the animals. The latter argument is actually the most important for many consumers, who are becoming increasingly aware of the conditions under which our food is produced. They don’t only want to eat more healthily, they also want the animals to have a decent quality of life. This growing awareness is likely to be reflected in consumer decisions in the long term.
As organic farming is better for the planet’s biodiversity in general, one of our species conservation tips is to reduce meat consumption and focus on quality rather than quantity (link). But what can a zoo do to preserve endangered livestock breeds?
On the one hand, we can contribute to the preservation of these animals by keeping and breeding a variety of old breeds. Tierpark Berlin is home to many of the livestock that appear on Germany’s “Red List of endangered livestock breeds”, including the spotted Alpine sheep, Skudde sheep, Rouge du Roussillon sheep, Thuringian goat, Girgentana goat, Fjäll cattle, Mangalica pig, and the Cröllwitzer turkey.
Zoos also always have an educational role to play. When it comes to teaching about livestock, the first and most important step in these times of fast food and discount clothing chains is to show people where our food and clothes actually come from. Once every year we shear our sheep – which is something very few children have ever witnessed. Even feeding our predators with chicks is something that helps to bring a bit of reality back into our lives, which are now so far removed from natural processes. It is probably exactly the same type of chicken that is found in chicken nuggets, but industrial processing makes it easy to forget that our meat does not grow on trees. Our two Girgentana goats Max and Moritz draw attention to another use for livestock besides food and clothing: every Wednesday, they pull our little goat carriage around the petting zoo, helping the keepers deliver food to the other animals. Max and Moritz therefore remind visitors that many animals, including cattle, horses and donkeys, were once – and in some parts of the world still are – used as pack animals for transporting people and goods.
But can the Tierpark protect rare livestock breeds from extinction simply by raising awareness?
The long-term survival of old livestock breeds can only be ensured if people find a large-scale use for these animals again. Tierpark Berlin demonstrates ways to achieve this not only in theory but also in practice, providing concrete examples of how these breeds can be preserved through use. We support projects that are trying to implement an economic model using endangered breeds, as such initiatives take a while to become financially viable. For example, we are supplying a landscape conservation project in the Leipzig area with offspring from our spotted Alpine and Skudde breeds. There, our sheep are helping to build up wood pastures in a former open-cast mining area, where nothing grew 20 years ago. In 2013, this successful project was awarded the Saxon Environmental Prize. We also provide a young Berlin hatmaker with wool from our Rouge du Roussillon sheep. Her hat collection made from Rouge du Roussillon wool is making a valuable contribution to the preservation of the rare breed. Her hats are sold all around the world and have even featured at Berlin Fashion Week, in the Chinese edition of Elle, and the Italian edition of Vogue. She was also given some of our young sheep, which she bred herself. She now has the largest Rouge du Roussillon herd outside France and uses their wool to make her collections. And the beekeeper who looks after the bees in our show hive also maintains other beehives on our premises. He sells the honey produced by these hives at local markets.
It’s nice to hear that there are also people outside of zoos who are committed to the conservation of rare farm animals. But can a handful of enthusiasts in Germany save these breeds from extinction in the long term?
Of course, raising awareness of the threat and listing a few examples is not enough on its own. The only realistic, sustainable and long-term way to save these animals from extinction is to give them back their former role – they must perform the task for which they were domesticated. And this is where consumers come back into play.
We need to pay attention to where our meat, eggs and clothing come from and rethink our consumption habits. In recent decades, meat consumption per capita has doubled. We often forget that meat is already a kind of “processed food”, as chickens, pigs and cows are fed with corn, soy or wheat so that they gain plenty of bulk. To create the fields to grow this animal feed, forests are cleared and wild animal habitats are destroyed. In addition to the good basic tip to eat regionally and seasonally, the motto that should apply to everything we consume is: “Less is more”.
Farmers can only keep old domestic animal breeds on smaller, ecologically managed farms, thereby preserving a centuries-old cultural asset for future generations, if it is economically worthwhile for them to do so.
Thank you for the interesting chat. We very much hope that you and Tierpark Berlin will find many more supporters in your fight to preserve this endangered diversity!