Zoos continue to teach about our world

Are zoos heading for extinction? That was the speculation by George Leposky when he published his article New Zoos for Everyone, Bar None in the St. Petersburg Times Floridian Magazine. He was obviously wrong because the story ran fifty-years ago on June 25th, 1972, and zoos are still around. But it was a fair question because most zoos—including our own zoo here in Atlanta—were grim places in those days. Leposky noted what he called an “uneasiness in the human attitude toward zoos” as he questioned whether zoos were educational and useful or cruel and an outrage.

I recall Leposky’s article because he interviewed me—a twenty-two-year-old zookeeper at Busch Gardens. My career choice was inspired by a visit to the Atlanta zoo and took me on an unlikely path to work at and manage zoos in Tampa, Toronto, Louisville, Toledo, and Albany, Georgia. I came full circle this year when I retired to Decatur and became a member of Zoo Atlanta.

As Leposky accurately foretold, zoos did become scientific and educational institutions which helped us place our civilized existence in perspective. For half a century, I helped zoos and aquariums evolve and become conservation centers that provide high-quality environments for the animals. I worked in big cities where we poured millions of dollars into our zoos and aquariums, and in small towns that required grit, determination, and ingenuity to provide more modest, but first-rate facilities. Attendance at zoos soared over the decades as people came to value their connection to the animals. These institutions have evolved into vital parts of our human communities. But what about the animals? There continues to be a nagging doubt in the minds of some. Are zoos really humane? Wouldn’t the animals be better off in the wild?

As 2020 began, that question came under fresh scrutiny when animals in the wild were under assault. During the Australian bushfire season of 2019-2020, billions of animals were killed or displaced, including tens of millions of mammals, birds, and frogs along with a staggering two billion reptiles. In the Amazon, those areas that were not being logged were burning. Logging roads were also snaking through the remote jungles of Central Africa allowing animals like chimps and gorillas to be consumed as “bush meat”. Indonesian forests were being cleared for palm oil plantations and the Arctic sea ice was—and still is—melting. Today, there is little wild left on earth. Zoos might be the only hope for animals.

Then, later in 2020, we were engulfed in a global pandemic and a new wildlife crisis emerged. Zoos and Aquariums were forced to shut down, with Disney alone laying off an astonishing 27,000 employees at one point. But fortunately, it would seem, we had a plethora of amazing digital, high-definition animal programs to watch. I saw things onscreen that I never dreamed of seeing in the wild—even after a half century of studying wild animals around the world. Perhaps these virtual experiences might make zoos obsolete.

As the coronavirus pandemic progressed, I attended virtual church and virtual Sunday school. My wife was forced to become a virtual schoolteacher as businesses around the world converted to remote work. But, as we hunkered down in our homes, I don’t believe I heard a single person say, “These virtual experiences are great!” Nobody has suggested 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 was for us to stay out of restaurants and bars.

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 high-tech, virtual zoos. Zoos have made remarkable progress since I began my career. Modern zoos and aquariums, like ours in Atlanta, combine elements of natural history museums and botanical gardens under one comprehensive umbrella. Animals live in habitats that closely replicate their homes in nature and zookeepers spend their days training animals to be comfortable in their homes much like I train my dogs to be comfortable in my house.

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. In his 2018 book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, author Eric Klinenberg suggests that communities flourish when they value and preserve something he calls social infrastructure. He offers libraries, bookstores, churches, and parks as examples. I would add zoos and aquariums to that list.

So, to the people who want to abolish zoos altogether, I say not so fast my friend. It is zoos and aquariums that have developed the ability to live with animals. This is something that is becoming more important for animals as their wild habitats disappear. Perhaps we should think about living together with animals in a global community of zoos, game parks, aquariums, and marine parks. We need to assimilate animals into our lives, not separate them from us.

Now, as zoos and aquariums try to figure out how to operate in a post-COVID world, we must rally around them. They need donations, support, and even 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 the social infrastructure of our communities as parks, libraries, and schools. As George Leposky noted half-a-century ago, our twenty-first century, COVID ravaged zoos will “require public support – moral and financial – to do what we expect of them. Should that support not be sufficiently forthcoming, zoos are indeed likely to become extinct.”

That would be a tragedy—for the animals and for us.

AJC Opinions Page, 11 August 2022

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