This Place is a Zoo

To say “This Place is a Zoo” is to imply chaos and confusion, but at every zoo in which I have worked, nothing could be further from the truth. Animal diets are carefully planned and applied based on nutritional value. Medical care is professionally managed by trained veterinary staff. And breeding is controlled based on computer models and genetic profiles. Zoos (and I use this term to include aquariums) are highly organized, professionally managed, and tightly choreographed. In fact, at a modern zoo we might better say, “This place is a dance”.

I believe in zoos and aquariums and the work they do on behalf of wildlife. But today’s zoos are struggling in a world ravaged by pandemic and climate change. It is unfortunate that the term zoo has taken a negative connotation because zoos are much more important than just places for animals. They are cultural touchstones in our lives and for our communities. They are as much a part of our social infrastructure as our parks, museums, and libraries. Zoos are not just for animals. They are for people and zoo animals are guests in our community.

During the 2008 financial crisis, some financial institutions were said to be “too big to fail”. Now, during the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, I would suggest that some institutions—like zoos and aquariums—are too important to fail. Here is why.

The story of the American zoo begins much earlier than people might imagine. The first American zoos were travelling menageries that trundled the continent in the years before the Civil War. These makeshift caravans set up their ephemeral zoos in farm-fields and town squares from San Francisco to New York. By the end of the Civil War, traveling menageries had joined with traveling circuses and, with the advent of the railroad, these combined attractions grew exponentially until they could rightly be called the Greatest Show on Earth.

In the 1870s, some of America’s more progressive cities began providing amenities for their citizens—amenities like parks, museums, golf courses, and zoos. With the establishment of zoos in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, the history of zoos in America officially began. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, dozens of cities had their own zoos. Zoos evolved little in the next one hundred years, but in the 1970s all that began to change. I was there to witness their progress and wrote about in my memoir, Lessons from the Zoo, Ten Animals That Changed My Life.  

Zoos evolved, grew, and became conservation centers that provided quality environments for the animals. Big cities poured millions of dollars into their zoos and aquariums while small towns used grit, determination, and ingenuity to provide more modest, but high-quality facilities. Attendance at zoos soared over the decades as people came to value their connection to the animals. These institutions have evolved into a vital part of our human communities. But what about the animals? There was always this nagging doubt in the minds of some. Are zoos really humane? Wouldn’t the animals be better off in the wild? Back to the question—why do we still need zoos?

As 2020 began, some of those doubts about the importance of zoos may have been laid to rest. Animals in the wild were in trouble. During the Australian bushfire season of 2019-2020, according to The Guardian news, nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced, including tens of millions of mammals, birds, and frogs along with a staggering two billion reptiles. Thousands of koalas were also killed, and they are in danger of extinction in some areas of Australia.

What wild do we expect animals to inhabit? Those parts of the Amazon that are not being logged are burning. The remote jungles of Central Africa are being opened up by logging and animals like chimps and gorillas are being consumed as something called “bush meat”. Indonesia is clearing the forest for palm oil plantations and the Arctic sea ice is melting. There is, it seems, little wild left on earth. Zoos might be the only hope for animals.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, zoos themselves are in danger of going extinct. Zoos and Aquariums have been shut down and employees laid off. Disney just laid off an astonishing 27,000 employees. But, ironically, it might be the pandemic that could save zoos as we take another look at the idea of replacing live animals in zoos with animals that are on-screen in virtual zoos.

I just watched David Attenborough’s new Netflix film A Life on Our Planet. I hope it comes to television someday. It is an eloquent plea for the environment that everyone should watch. But even with its stunning images and its soaring music, it is still just a movie. It is, in fact, a virtual experience—something that has become all-to-familiar in 2020.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I have been attending virtual church and virtual Sunday school. My wife has been forced to become a virtual schoolteacher. But I don’t believe I have heard a single person say, “These virtual experiences are great!” Nobody has suggested that they would like to try a round of virtual golf or that they prefer virtual sporting events to being present inside the stadium. We are programmed to enjoy things as a group. We want to be in church together, we want to attend live sporting events and concerts. And just look at how difficult has become for us to stay out of restaurants and bars.

For years, people have been suggesting we could do away with zoos because we have so much access to animals and natural environments through television and film. In the 1960s we had Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom then in the 1990s, when Animal Planet went on air, we were enthralled with stars like Jeff Corwin and Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin.  Today, new technology continues to bring us amazing animal programs in digital, high-definition, slow-motion. I have seen things on television that I never dreamed of seeing in the wild—even after a half century of studying wild animals. So, why do we need zoos? Why not just have virtual zoos and aquariums? It took the events of 2020 to give me some clarity on that. When it comes to the choice of televised access to animals versus live animals at a zoo or aquarium, there is no contest.

We need zoos both for our own social wellbeing and for the sake of the animals. We humans created parks, golf courses, museums, zoos, and aquariums because they are vital components to a civilized community. Now, as these institutions try to figure out how to operate in a post-COVID world, we need to rally around them. Maybe now it not the time for elaborate, expensive masterplans but rather a review of financial operating models. Zoos need our tax dollars now more than ever—not because we place the needs of animals above humans, but because zoos and aquariums are as much a part of our community as parks, libraries, and public schools.

I have always known that extinction was a battle that zoos fought on behalf of the animals they seek to protect. I never dreamed that zoos and aquariums themselves might face extinction. I am not a fan of virtual learning, virtual church, and virtual sporting events. And none of us would be happy with a virtual zoo. So the next time you are exasperated with something, don’t say, “this place is a zoo” when you should be exclaiming: “this place is a virtual zoo”.

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