A challenge for urban zoos: Put the animals first

An expert gives his advice on how to reform zoos by doing the right thing for animals – beginning with a policy about elephants that many would oppose.
Crosscut archive image.

An elephant in the wild in Tanzania. (Wikipedia)

An expert gives his advice on how to reform zoos by doing the right thing for animals – beginning with a policy about elephants that many would oppose.

First, a confession: I don't like zoos. For more than 30 years, I've been directing and planning them; thinking, researching, and writing about them; pleading for them to try to meet their vast potential. It's often been like pushing water up a rope. Nonetheless, I believe we need zoos, but not the typical zoos we have today. As modern life is increasingly separated from contact with the natural world, our need for good zoos becomes more urgent. We need zoos that can create a greater sense of compassion in the community, a stronger commitment to care, an awareness of stewardship and personal conservation actions for local wildlife, and a fuller understanding of our place in nature. A handful of the world's zoos are committed to these goals. Leadership at zoos in places as diverse as New York and Zurich, for example, as well as in Adelaide and Phoenix, in Minneapolis, and in Detroit (none of which I am professionally involved with) give me hope that zoos have a brighter future. Most zoos, however, lack intellectual or scientific leadership, have no useful philosophy, refuse fundamental change, and focus principally on winning attendance figures and distributing spin. More than anything else, these zoos require different and better attitudes. The first and most important would be to put the needs of the animals above all others, using nature as the yardstick to assess their quality of life, rather than just zoo standards, which have never been enough. As greater knowledge emerges about wild elephants and their extraordinary social, psychological, behavioral, and emotional complexity, more wildlife scientists are declaring that urban zoos cannot provide satisfactory conditions for these extraordinary beings. Several zoos around the world have agreed. At least a dozen U.S. zoos have closed their elephant exhibits in the past couple of years, and others have committed to phasing them out. This is not a reason for holding on with even more grim determination to retaining elephants at the remaining zoos. Rather, it should be seen as a sign of increasing awareness that elephants are a species that cannot do well in urban zoos. Sadly, however, as scientists have revealed more and more about what elephants really are, and shown the depth and complexity of their long lives in contrast to zoo conditions, most zoos have responded defensively, some saying the scientists only understand wild elephants, not zoo elephants – as if they were different species. In the mid 1970s in Seattle, I worked with a team designing the world's first zoo plan that put animals in spaces that looked and felt like natural habitats. Our goal was to give maximum opportunity for animals to engage in natural behaviors in large and complex natural landscapes. I thought zoos would love this innovation. With rare exception, they hated it. They saw it as wasteful of space and placing unnecessary attention on plants and landscape. But after many years, some began to copy the superficial look of the idea. Today, ironically, zoos boast about their green revolution. The new zoos, sans cages, make visitors feel better, but it is all too often a deception. The animals typically are denied contact with living plants. Many "natural" features are made of disguised, unyielding concrete, plastic, or metal. The restricted, dusty spaces the animals inhabit are often of no better quality than the old cages. Good zoos actively promote animals' wild natures; in mediocre zoos they are the first needs to be compromised. This might be why the Humane Society of the United States granted Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo its rare No. 1 rating in the late 1970s, and why another humane association, In Defense of Animals, rated it last year as one of the top 10 worst in the nation for elephants. The simplistic aim of too many zoos is to attract hordes of visitors, to whom they offer non-organic, non-free-range food items in their restaurants and entertain them by revealing little more than the size, shape, and color of the animals – essentially little more than the zoos of 100 years ago. Modern zoos often claim, additionally, to be conservation centers. But "conservation" for most zoos just means "breeding," which is merely basic zoo business. Zoos must breed their animals to preserve their collections. It is important to know that hardly any animals born in zoos are introduced to the wild. Zoos nonetheless loudly position themselves as leaders in wildlife conservation. In truth, NGOs and government agencies are most successful in restoration of habitat and reintroduction of wild species. Zoos play an occasional minor role but lay claim to most of the glory. If zoos saw animal welfare as their central goal, they might become more effective conservation leaders. The exhibits, interpretation strategies, education programs, husbandry, and collections would all be quite different in a zoo focused upon animal and natural welfare. A zoo that placed welfare as its primary concern would not boast that keeping elephants in a one-acre enclosure was a good thing. They would never, as at Woodland Park in recent years, chain the elephants to steel rings in the floor for unenduringly long and frustrating nights, or use a bull-hook to control them, or force them to crouch in a block and tackle for hours and suffer swollen joints. A zoo devoted to welfare would not do such things. Indeed, it would not contain elephants at all. Elephants at Woodland Park can never just be elephants - those wonderful, strongly bonded, curious, intelligent, energetic, complex, social beings who live a life in the wild, even in these dangerous times, immeasurably richer and more active than anything that an urban zoo can provide. What I would like to see are zoos that concentrate on trying to do the right thing for their animals, that are open and honest about their inherent shortcomings and the fact not all animals (including several of their traditional species) are suitable for a life in captivity. With new attitudes and intelligent philosophies, zoos could make wonderful contributions to society. They could help lead their visitors to a deeper sense of compassion and a greater awareness and comprehension of nature, revealing its complex interdependencies and demonstrating why a healthy relationship with the natural world is our best guide for a more complete and satisfying journey through life. Perhaps with such changes zoos truly could enliven the minds, enrich the hearts, and feed the souls of those millions who visit them each year, hungry for a clearer understanding and better connection with that other world of nature. Unless zoos change their philosophies and focus on all of nature and not simply on an animal collection and, most critically, put those animals' needs ahead of all others, these institutions will drift ever closer to being just anachronisms, embarrassingly parading in their imperial garb.


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