I’ve often heard people say, “I hate going to zoos. It’s so cruel to keep the animals in cages.” Recently, there have been news stories regarding the mistreatment of crocodiles by zoogoers in China. Since I love going to the zoo, these statements and news stories trouble me, and I rethink whether zoos should exist in our modern world. Truth be told, I’d prefer to see zoos that don’t concentrate heavily on the “charismatic megafauna” – lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I’d rather see animals like invertebrates, Amazonian exhibits where we work to see the sloth in a tree, or birds flying freely in large enclosures. But let’s be honest, most folks won’t visit the zoo unless they can see an elephant or a tiger or a panda. Despite this difference of opinion on the ideal fauna for a zoo, I believe that, when the animals are treated in humane conditions, zoos do indeed have an important role to play in today’s society. Here’s why:
- I’ve never seen one of those! Most of us will not be able to travel to the Galapagos or Kenya to encounter wildlife in its native habitat. Zoos are often the only place where people can encounter and appreciate animals other than pets and farm animals. Schools often do not allow animals in the building and field trips to observe local wildlife are pretty much non-existent. As Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering.” The zoo is one of the last homes of environmental and zoological education. At the zoo we can hear a lion’s roar, feel a sea urchin in the invertebrate house touch tank, smell the musky smell of the maned wolf during breeding season, and even be splashed as the seals and sea lions dive into cold water.
- What? I can help out? Zoos are a great volunteer opportunity for people interested in learning more than can be taught in a short weekend visit. I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian National Zoo for over 5 years, first at the Invertebrate House and then at the Conservation Research Center in Front Royal. What a great experience! Under the guidance of expert zookeepers and curators, I learned about animals as varied as the octopus, the hissing cockroach, the Przewalski horse, and the leaf-cutter ant. I helped feed many of the animals, cleaned their tanks and enclosures, taught zoo visitors about the animals, mourned the loss of old animal friends, and celebrated new births at the zoo. For an aspiring Dr. Doolittle, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
- The modern ark. Zoos serve as a last preserve for animals that have either disappeared in the wild or are in danger of going extinct. Zoos host breeding programs for many of the world’s most endangered species. The Smithsonian National Zoo sponsors breeding programs for the Guam rail, scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, maned wolf, and the Panamanian golden frog, just to name a few. Scientists and students from around the world come to study the latest captive breeding techniques, as well as field biology methods for surveying animals in the wild.
Many, although not all, of today’s zoo animals were born and bred in captivity, or cannot be returned to the wild because of injury. When a zoo is well-maintained (see accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and animals live in stimulating, enriching environments, I believe zoos have much to offer. Why not visit and support your local zoo this weekend?
Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ISBN-13: 9781565126053. 390 pp.