Can Zoos Be Redeemed?
For many animal advocates, zoos are an unmitigated evil. We liken them to prisons, and historically, many of them have been — and still are. Small cement cages or tiny enclosures, too many or too few of a species, little shelter from the elements, and no escape from the endless stream of visitors taint our memories of our trips to the zoo. But some zoos have evolved, and today they play a crucial role in connecting the public with wild animals and the perils they face. In this article, Dr. Carl Safina, founder of the Safina Center, argues that zoos have a vital place in wildlife conservation. Dr. Safina spent his career as a wildlife ecologist, advocating for environmental protection, and working for the recovery of endangered species.
He says that the issue of zoos, like most important issues, is not black or white. Zoos, along with aquariums, range in quality “from bad to better.” Some are little more than barred warehouses where animals are treated cruelly. These conditions harken back to the early days of zoos or menageries, where the objective was public entertainment. But others are and can be model conservation centers where animals live in natural habitats with other animals. While the better zoos enhance conservation efforts, they are no substitute for wildlands — and zoos can’t house even a fraction of the wild species on earth.
Better zoos have been critical for preserving species that would have otherwise gone extinct. Bison and condors are just two examples. However, they can’t rescue us from the pending ecological disaster of our own making. Humans must leave wildlife enough habitat to exist, or the result will be mass extinction. Even now, just 3% of land vertebrates are wild. The remaining 97% are humans and their domestic animals. Indeed, a study by the World Wildlife Fund of 14,000 populations of nearly 4,000 species revealed a 60% decline since 1970 in numbers of animals. Another study estimates that 75% of animal species will be extinct within three human lifetimes.
Animals will not survive without a strong human constituency pushing for change. Better zoos have the potential to connect people with animals, forging a valued relationship that people will want to preserve and protect. Better zoos have people who are active in conservation work. They are scientifically oriented. Better zoos work to improve their practices and their exhibits. They educate and involve the public in wildlife conservation. Better zoos can engage visitors, particularly young ones, in ways that create a lifelong passion for animals and their welfare.
The public today is increasingly estranged from wildlife and wildlands. They remain mostly unaware of the effects of habitat destruction, overfishing, overhunting, toxins, plastics, and ocean acidification. As a result of this disconnect, they don’t value nature and natural systems. Eliminating zoos would not eliminate animal cruelty or slow the disappearance of wild places. Dr. Safina contends that separating people and animals will only worsen these dangers. Instead, he argues that our goal should be to “entangle all humans in nonhuman lives.” In this, better zoos can play a vital role by leading the fight for wild animals in wild places.
Dr. Safina’s views may not fit with the beliefs of many animal advocates. However, he has spent a lifetime working to improve the lives of animals. We should carefully consider his opinions and experience as we develop advocacy strategies for zoos, aquariums, and other captive wildlife enterprises.