Today, many zoos promote the protection of biodiversity as a significant part of their mission. As conservation “arks” for endangered species and, increasingly, as leaders in field conservation projects such as the reintroduction of captive-born animals to the wild, they’re preparing to play an even more significant role in the effort to save species in this century.
It’s a task that’s never been more urgent. The recent Living Planet Index report authored by the World Wildlife Fund and the London Zoological Society paints a disturbing picture: globally, on average, vertebrate species populations have declined 52% since 1970. Over-exploitation, habitat destruction and alteration, global climate change, and other pressures have created conditions that scientists now suggest signal a sixth mass extinction episode for our planet. It’s an event rivaling the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The embrace of conservation by zoos, though, doesn’t always sit well with their own history. The modern American zoo that emerged in the late 19th century fancied itself as a center of natural history, education, and conservation, but zoos have also always been in the entertainment business. This priority has led many skeptics to question the idea that zoos can play a helpful conservation role in the coming decades.
Zoos also face a formidable set of practical constraints – namely space, capacity, resources, and in some cases, expertise – that will continue to bedevil their ability to make a dent in the extinction crisis. It’s also true that some of the most endangered animals are not the highly charismatic and exotic species that reliably attract zoo visitors. It’s a challenge that might pit zoos’ conservation priorities against their entertainment goals, and perhaps even their financial bottom line.
At the same time, wildlife protection does run deep in the history of zoos. The Bronx Zoo in New York, for example, led one of the earliest captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, helping to save the American bison from fading into oblivion more than a century ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, zoo conservation was energized by a burst of US federal policy-making focused on endangered species, especially the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Many zoos went on to develop Species Survival Plans beginning in the 1980s, which coordinate breeding and population management programs for threatened and endangered animals among zoos worldwide. The goal is to create healthy and genetically diverse animal populations of these species across the zoo community, an effort that can ultimately aid the conservation of the species in the wild.
Reintroduction is a dicey business given the many biological and social factors that determine the viability of a population over time. Zoos’ track records here are mixed – but the successes are real. In addition to the bison, the California condor, the Arabian oryx, and the black-footed ferret have been saved due in part to the efforts of zoos.
For animal rights critics, however, these outcomes don’t offset what is seen as the basic injustice of keeping captive animals for human amusement. Earlier this year, the case of Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo reignited the smoldering international debate over the ethics of zoos. A young and healthy giraffe considered a so-called surplus animal by the zoo managers, Marius was shot and his body was dissected before a public audience. The zoo argued that the decision was made on scientific grounds: Marius’s genes were well-represented in the zoo system and so he was said to have no remaining conservation value. Animal advocates countered that zoos’ noble conservation rhetoric masks a callousness toward the well-being of individual animals.
Whatever you think about the Copenhagen case – and it’s worth noting that the American Association of Zoos & Aquariums disagreed with it – debates about the ethics of zoos shouldn’t take place today without a serious discussion of our obligation to address global biodiversity decline. That includes thinking about how we influence the future of animals and ecosystems outside zoo walls with a thousand lifestyle decisions, from our consumer habits and energy consumption, to our transportation choices and what we put on our dinner plates. Take just one example, the mass production of palm oil. Widely used for cooking and commercial food production, its cultivation has resulted in severe habitat destruction and fragmentation in Indonesia. This in turn threatens the survival of orangutans in the wild.
There is a further challenge. As zoos become more engaged in conservation in the coming decades, the natural world will be further pressured and degraded by human activities. In many cases, nature preserves will likely require more human control than they have in the past in order to deliver the same conservation benefits. As a result, the boundary separating nature and zoo, the wild and the walled, will get even thinner. As it does, our understanding of what zoos are and what we want them to be – entertainment destinations, science centers, conservation arks, sustainability leaders – will also change. So will our idealized views of the wild as those places in nature that are independent of meaningful human influence and design.
Saying all this doesn’t let zoos off the hook when it comes to caring properly for animals in their charge. We should also expect them to actually deliver on the swelling conservation rhetoric, especially when their entertainment and recreation interests run up against their expanding vision for biodiversity protection. But it reminds us of the scope of the challenge.
To paraphrase Dr Seuss, we all run the zoo.
Published in collaboration with The Conversation
Author: Ben Minteer is Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics and Conservation at Arizona State University.
Image: Zeff, the Amur tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York, 2003. REUTERS
Ben Minteer, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics and Conservation, Arizona State University
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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I’m conflicted. Confused. Uncertain. Really not sure what to think.
Zoos. I really like going to them. The animals in them are the reason I got interested in all this conservation lark in the first place, so I love going to see them, up close and personal. But are zoos a good thing, or not? There’s an official WWF view on captive breeding and the role of zoos, but here’s where I’m at personally…
I recently stayed overnight in the new safari-style lodges at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. We got to hear and see the animals when all the other visitors had gone home, feed them breakfast, and get a better idea for how life is for them.
Some look pretty happy, especially the wolverines when they got fed some dead baby chicks (zoos in the UK aren’t allowed to feed animals live food). But others, like the stunning Amur tiger circling her cage over and over, looked pretty darn miserable.
I know inferring that animals can have human emotions (called anthropomorphism) is a mistake for almost all but the most intelligent animals, but I can’t help thinking they’d be much better off out there in the wild. As long as that wild was not under serious threat.
I’m not an animal welfare campaigner really, I eat meat and wear leather (shoes mainly!). But it worries me when I see what look to me like unhappy animals in zoos. Just look at the baby giraffe here.Baby giraffe at Whipsnade Zoo © Neil Gunn
A truly beautiful animal, behind bars. Is keeping him in the zoo for people to come and see inspiring new conservationists and animal lovers, and helping preserve endangered species, or is it just entertainment for its own sake, and damaging to the animals?
For me the answer is in the Red List – a list of animals under threat across the world, which the IUCN publishes with input from lots of conservation researchers and organisations (including WWF).
The rate at which animal species are being lost is truly scary. It means we have to do all we can to protect and preserve the ones that are still around, and I think that zoos play an important part in that.
It’s hard to relate to an animal, and see the value in having it alive, until you can see one for yourself. David Attenborough and all the other great natural history documentary makers do a good job of showing us the wonders of nature in their TV shows, but for me nothing beats the real thing.
So my trip to the zoo has left me more inspired than ever to help these wonderful animals in the wild places they originally live – so that people in the future get to see them for real, and not just in films and documentaries.
For me, the trade-off is worth it. Get kids interested in real wild animals, by letting them really see them, really smell them and nearly touch them.
I just wish the animals in the cages in the zoos knew what a wonderful thing they were doing.