I was struck the other day while reading the World War Zoo blog, a publication of the Wartime Garden Project– an initiative of the Newquay Zoo in the United Kingdom. The blog’s tag line, “looking back to the past to learn for the future …” is particularly poignant, putting things in a contextual perspective for me as a zoo professional. I hope the blog finds itself well circulated and similarly received by others, particularly those who may not already be zoo enthusiasts.
It seems we have lost sight of how far captive animal management has come in ¾ of a century, while the modern day purpose of the zoo seems to be increasingly obscured by contingents of animal rights activists with misplaced compassion.
Activists distract us with their rhetoric based on fictitious notions that the free ranging wild animal lives a daily blissful existence and the zoo animal survives confined as a prisoner of humans. There is no doubt that social media has permitted the sentiment of the activist a stronghold in the media, in contrast to an era when Facebook was merely an idea.
But sadly, extremists have, indeed, infiltrated more mainstream media and they continue to challenge the welfare conferred to animals in captive settings despite the considerable progress zoos have made as caregivers for the animal kingdom. Activists philosophically disagree with the keeping of animals and so regardless of the quality of life that a modern day zoo animal may experience compared to its wild counterpart, they continue to make straw arguments for releasing animal ambassadors held in zoological parks. I really don’t need to make the argument that nature has become increasingly inhospitable to wildlife as a result of human encroachment and climate change. Without even tampering with nature, the wild is a hostile place when left to its own devices.
I saw that a baby elephant died recently, having succumbed to an infectious agent at the Oklahoma City Zoo. If it hasn’t already, it will be reflexive for animal rights activists to criticize the zoo. Regardless of why the animal perished, the populous won’t read about the untold number of wild animals that succumb to nature’s mercy in any given day without any involvement of humans.
Newly emerged popular publications like The DODO dismiss the significant contributions zoos make to conservation through educating millions of people every year about the plight of vanishing species. Instead, they capitalize on any and every opportunity to showcase zoological institutions in a poor light. It is almost impressive at how quickly they find fault, when in reality they are magicians of misperception. But, with a little research, they are clever spin doctors at best.
The World War Zoo blog referenced in this article’s introduction mentions that during the London Blitz of 1940, that zoo animals returned to the zoo to feed during and after it was bombed by the Nazis. Yes, they returned to their homes despite the bombing. So when I see The Dodo post articles about zoo animals intentionally trying to escape enclosures by attempting to break the glass of an exhibit, I take pause. I guess if I was hungry enough, I would contemplate returning to a bombing zone for food, but it would take some consideration.
The above example is just one example, of how activists fail to take a balanced approach. They don’t always do it with intention, but their naivete has an unfortunate consequence. They speak in black and white terms. They speak in all or nothing language. They make no concessions and no apologies. So as an inaugural opinion piece for Zoo Nation and as their Chief Science Officer, I ask you to think dialectically, that is to consider that there may be multiple truths to the stories we read about and that zoo professionals are truly dedicated animal welfarists, committed to conservation of the quickly vanishing species.
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums reports that 600 million people visit 1300 zoos annually. In addition, there are a number of related or unaccredited facilities contributing to conservation on numerous fronts, while exposing the masses to wildlife in intimate and unforgettable ways. It is this unique, unreplaceable access to an array of species that puts conservation of wildlife on people’s radar and leaves an imprint that leads to action. Let’s capitalize on the opportunities zoological parks continue to offer in terms of educating the public so we can optimize conservation where it starts.
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