Imagining a world without zoos seems pretty farfetched. They have been around for so many generations that they are ingrained into our worldwide society. But Costa Rica, it appears, is ready to pull the plug on all public funding of zoos, effectively shutting them down entirely. According to an article at the Guardian.com, Costa Rica announced last month that it will no longer use public funds to keep animals in cages. This means the Simón Bolívar zoo in San José and the Santa Ana conservation centre will close when existing operating contracts run out.
What if other countries follow suit and ban zoos? What if my city of Albany, Georgia decided to stop funding Chehaw Wild Animal Park and we had to close our local zoo? That would mean that next year, in 2014, thousands of children on school field trips from South Georgia would not see a black rhino, a meerkat, or a lemur and learn what extinction means. Nearly two hundred children between the ages of 5 and 12 would not have hands-on animal experience at summer camp; 80 teenage Junior Zookeepers would need to find another way to spend their summer; and college students from Albany State, Georgia Southwestern, and other colleges & universities would not have internship opportunities at Chehaw Park.
People tend to think of zoos as weekend venues where the family can gawk at exotic creatures. But modern, accredited zoos are much more than that. They are places of science and of education. Zoo programs meet Common Core Curriculum school standards that would hold up to the most rigorous classroom instruction. College credit is issued for some zoo programs and zoo research projects frequently satisfy requirements for university lab classes. University research projects conducted at Chehaw Park include studies on wild populations of bats, gopher tortoises, and frogs. Chehaw Wild Animal Park has even participated in a multi-zoo, nationwide research study on cheetah reproductive hormone cycles.
And the downside of zoos where animals are held as captives? There are some, to be sure. The humane care of elephants, apes, and whales in captivity is challenging at best and, some would say, downright impossible. But in many cases, the animals held in zoos are no worse off than my dogs at home who gaze longingly out from the “cage” of my living room window. Would they like to roam the neighborhood, chasing squirrels and getting into my neighbor’s garbage? I’m sure they would. Would they be better-off? I think not!
Wild places and wild animals are disappearing at an alarming rate and nobody is sounding the alarm louder than zoos, but the Guardian.com notes that environment minister René Castro wants Costa Rica’s end of state-financed captivity to be a turning point, saying “With this move, we are sending a message that the state wishes to show biodiversity in its natural state, under a modern and holistic integration of space, society and natural resources.”
In 1989, my wife and I observed “biodiversity in its natural state” as we sat at a waterhole in central Africa watching a female sitatunga antelope cautiously step out into the open and make her way to the water for a drink. It was not a remarkable scene until someone pointed out two female lions lurking at the forest edge nearby. We watched as they split up and were mesmerized as one lion chased the antelope into the waiting jaws of her companion in a remarkable bit of teamwork. The antelope never had a chance. We didn’t know whether to feel sorry for the sitatunga as she was suffocated by the lion’s strangle hold on her throat or cheer for the lions and their remarkable bit of hunting. You could argue that these lions are better off in the wild because they get to hunt antelope for dinner, but I am not so sure about the sitatunga.
Millions of people are positively influenced by the collective conservation message of zoos and the animals that live in them. Would these animals better-off in the wild? They might be if humans had not evolved to dominate every corner of the planet – but here we are. And how do you define better-off, anyway?