An Uneasy Attitude Toward Zoos

On June 25th, 1972, 43 years ago this month, a feature article entitled New Zoos for Everyone, Bar None appeared in the St. Petersburg Times Sunday magazine The Floridian. The article explored the place of zoos in society and the essence of our fascination with animals.
“There is an uneasiness in the human attitude toward zoos,” George Leposky wrote, “an uneasiness that can be seen in the constant debate whether they are educational and useful or cruel and an outrage. This debate has been around as long as zoos have, which is thousands of years.”

Chimpanzee at Lowry Park Zoo - 1972
Chimpanzee at Lowry Park Zoo – 1972

I saved the article after all these years because it featured me, as a 22-year-old student at the University of South Florida who was studying Zoology, working at Busch Gardens, and preparing for a career in zoo management. I also saved it because the subtitle of the article proclaimed that “most zoos are one part of a system that may be headed for extinction”. An investigator from the Humane Society of the United States was crisscrossing the country calling for the closure of many zoos. What had I gotten myself into?

Doug Porter at Busch Gardens - 1972
Doug Porter at Busch Gardens – 1972

Now, 43 years later, I am a 65 year old zoo manager who can look back at a fascinating career. After Busch Gardens, I worked at or managed the Toronto Zoo, the Louisville Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Great Plains Zoo and Museum, The Toledo Zoo, and Chehaw Park. I have viewed wildlife in such exotic locales as Kenya, Botswana, the Galapagos, the Amazon and the Arctic. I have handled every type of animal from elephants to polar bears to rattlesnakes.
Zoos are far from perfect, but no industry engages more people on behalf of wild animals and wild places, and no one is sounding the alarm by standing up for endangered species like the zoos and aquariums of the world.
So, how do we answer for zoos in today’s rapidly-changing world? The answer, I believe, lies in how zoos and aquariums choose to change and adapt. As Leposky accurately foretold over forty years ago, “We want zoos to become scientific and educational institutions which help us place our civilized existence in perspective by offering insights into where our species has been and, hopefully, where it should be going.”
Zoos not only did not become extinct, they have become formidable advocates for wildlife and wild places. AZA accredited zoos contribute $160 million each year to wildlife conservation, supporting nearly three thousand projects in one hundred thirty countries.
As I face-off against my own retirement, I thought this might be a good time for a series of blogs, using my career as a lens to view the status of zoos. How far have they come and where might they be headed?

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