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Steve Irwin's funeral the other day reminded us just how attractive - and scary - it is to get close to the animal kingdom. That's why we have zoos, to make the world of nature more approachable. But Ros Dodd reckons caging wild animals is simply beastly.

Britain is alive with the sound of yowls, growls and shrieks of non-indigenous species, according to a study published this week by Beastwatch UK. More than 10,000 sightings of exotic animals - including big cats, sharks, wild boar, wallabies and wolves - have been reported since 2000, and the annual rate is rapidly rising.

This is good news - if only because it punches a hole in the two reasons most cited as justification for keeping wild animals in zoos, which are that many species would otherwise be extinct and it's the only chance many people will have of seeing such creatures in the flesh.

Zoos have cleaned up their act a lot in recent years and the arrival of safari parks has helped to water down the public's unease with keeping large animals and birds in captivity.

The increasing popularity of ‘children's farms' has added to the ‘cuddly' perception of caged creatures.

Only last week, I took my young daughter to a children's farm in Shropshire. She had a great time, but I came away more depressed than uplifted by the wildlife experience.

Bizarrely, the farm provides loads of roaming space for the likes of goats, guinea pigs and llamas, but keeps stunningly beautiful large owls constrained in maddeningly small enclosures. The term ‘spreading your wings' was never more inappropriate - the poor birds can only perch, sleep and gaze languidly out of the netting of their ‘prison'.

When I asked a staff member at the Shropshire enterprise if the birds were ever let out of their cages, she replied, somewhat abruptly, that no, they were born in captivity. Looking at the notes attached to the cages, I saw that some of these owls live in excess of 50 years. Fifty years in an enclosure hardly big enough to swing a cat? I'm sorry, but it stinks. And it should be made illegal.

At the Birmingham City Council-run Nature Centre on the fringe of Cannon Hill, the approach to animal husbandry is the same: otters and red pandas have relatively huge well-planned spaces to live in, while majestically long snakes are confined to cages so small they are unable to stretch to their full length. A clutch of lynx have room to wander, but not very far, and to see them stalking around the perimeter fence tells you all you need to know about the right-ness of keeping them in cages. Two eagle owls sit perched in a no-fly zone adjacent to the home of a family of meercats), which enjoy plenty of space in which to run around, snooze under an infra-red heater and conduct their look-out duties from a variety of rocks.

What's the thinking behind all this? If two male red pandas deserve to have more space than they could possibly need (particularly when all they seem to do is sleep, curled in balls, at the top of a tree), why aren't the owls granted a hangar-like enclosure that would allow them to fly as Nature intended them to?

If zoos, children's farms and nature centres are unable - through constraints of space or lack of imagination - to provide adequate habitats for the creatures they keep, they should be banned from keeping them.

We purport to be an animal-loving nation, yet we fail so many of the creatures we claim to be protecting. If species die out in the wild through natural selection (or even humankind's destruction of wildlife havens), then so be it. I'd rather my daughter grew up knowing nothing about owls than to imagine their lives are spent cramped in a cage with no parole.

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