Leslie Kaufman’s May 27, 2012 NY Times article entitled “Zoos’ Bitter Choice: To Save Some Species, Letting Others Die” raises some interesting questions for zoo professionals.
How do we “conserve animals effectively” as we “winnow species” in our care in order to devote more resources to the chosen few – a process Kaufman astutely says is “less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list”?
Many people suggest that the millions of dollars we spend on zoos should, instead, be sent directly to the wild. According to Dr. Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, “We as a society have to decide if it is going to be ethically and morally appropriate to simply display animals for entertainment purposes.” Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur. And less emphasis should be placed on animals that are popular attractions but are doing fine in the wild, like African elephants and California sea lions, Dr. Monfort said, adding that they should be replaced with animals in desperate need of rescuing.
But that is going to be a challenge. If it were not for zoos and those “fancier accommodations”, millions of dollars in conservation funding would never be raised in the first place. The fact that zoos can generate the public support, both in attendance and dollars, is an indicator of what a powerful message zoos can generate.
Many zoo directors say that a radical reordering is not called for and that each zoo does valuable work even if conserving just a few species. But Dr. Monfort is not satisfied. He wants all zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to aim higher on conservation efforts. “I am comfortable with raising the standards for zoos so that eventually it will be harder and harder to be accredited unless you are doing that,” he said in an interview. “If you can’t keep up, then you probably need to be dropped off the bottom.”
The best way to teach respect for and even awe of nature is to allow people to experience it – first hand. For most of us, who will never visit Africa to see giraffes in the wild, that experience occurs in the local zoo. It is one thing to see a giraffe on television, but it is quite another to have a giraffe wrap its long, wet tongue around a branch as you feed it at your local zoo.
But perhaps we do need to draw some distinctions and stop treating every non-human animal in the same manner. A frog, a zebra, and a chimpanzee are very different creatures with very different needs. Maybe we need to urge northern zoos to stop trying to keep elephants and urge southern zoos to stop trying to keep polar bears. And maybe we need to stop all zoos from keeping great apes and whales. If we are going to keep, breed, and preserve some species, maybe it should be done, as Dr. Monfort suggests, in special preserves or villages like, for example, the AZA elephant preserve in Florida. Maybe the biggest question of all is how do we keep pride, politics, and bureaucracy out of the decision-making process and do what is right for the animals?