A few years ago, I interviewed my friend and esteemed colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins about Nature Deficit Disorder for National Geographic. Here is the article. Dr. Hutchins served as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science before becoming CEO of the Wildlife Society. He now works with the American Bird Conservancy. Dr. Hutchins was instrumental in developing many of the conservation programs that accredited zoos still use today to manage their captive populations. He is also keenly aware of the value of natural history institutions like zoos and museums and their potential to impart important information to the populous, which is largely disconnected to nature.
In the interview Dr. Hutchins said, “There are real consequences to this growing lack of knowledge about nature and wildlife. For one thing, how will people develop a sense of responsibility for nature and wildlife if they know little or nothing about it? In fact, many urban and suburban dwellers see pigeons, starlings, European sparrows, ring-necked pheasants, feral domestic horses and cats, and they think “wildlife’, when, in fact, these animals are non-native, introduced species that are negatively impacting our native species and their habitats.”
So when my ZooNation colleagues shared a post from the popular FB page You Know You’re A Zoo Keeper When, which included an unflattering remark from a mother about her child’s aptitude for wildlife, I took pause. Zoos are not perfect, but they cater to millions and millions of people. And if their informal education programs don’t always inspire people to become university zoologists, at the very least, they expose people to critical conservation issues and the plight of vanishing species.
The context of an animal display may not always capture the essence of natural landscapes. In addition, reshaping the perception of the life of the captive animal for visitors may be a challenge in light of the sentiment of unrelenting extremist groups, but for the most part every zoo visit teaches a child something about the natural world.
You can read all you want about the natural history of imperiled wildlife species and you can spend countless hours watching documentary film footage of the animal kingdom in action, but you can’t replace that visceral response elicited by an interaction with a living creature at a zoo Undoubtedly, such experiences make young people think about the planet and they instill a conservation ethic in ways that other educational venues probably can’t.
The intimate experience of connecting with live animals in a zoo is irreplaceable and empowering as I mentioned in this Huffington Post article several weeks ago. We can’t expect everyone to immerse themselves in nature if they have never even had a taste of it. Our world is human-dominated and even where wildlife does exist, the environment is often human-modified. What is better way for young people to safely explore nature then a visit to the zoo?