I’ve been thinking about zoos a lot lately. What started it all was a whiff of nostalgia: one of my all-time favorite commercials EVER, created by and for the Detroit Zoo circa 1982, showed up on YouTube. It was later modified to be a general-purpose zoo commercial run on national television in the US, frequently during Saturday morning cartoons. You can watch the original Detroit Zoo commercial on YouTube HERE.
It reminded me of protests by animal rights groups about inhumane treatment of animals. My own local zoo, the Henry Vilas Zoo, which can boast about being one of the few free zoos in the world, came to terms with this situation over the last few decades. Most importantly, in the mid-1990s the zoo sent their elephant, Winkie, to an elephant rescue/refuge center in Tennessee, where Winkie was later euthanized for declining health reasons in 2011 at the age of 51. Winkie’s living conditions were deemed unacceptable by both the American Zoo and Aquarium Association the US Department of Agriculture, causing Winkie’s relocation. It sparked a vast series of habitat upgrades at the Vilas Zoo. Progress has been slow, in large part because the zoo is run by a grant, and under the terms of that grant they are not allowed to charge admission. So every year in the summer they hold a major fundraiser at the zoo after hours (and they CAN charge admission to that) to raise money for these upgrades. The difference is dramatic; no longer are bars and cages the staple sight. Now most habitats are open air or surrounded by plexiglass. I can’t honestly say if the animals seem happy or not, but it sure does seem more like where they would be living in the wild which can only contribute to improving their quality of life.
Another thing that got me thinking about zoos was watching a television program on the Animal Planet Network called The Zoo: Back To The Bronx, about daily life as animal handlers, keepers, and veterinarians at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Part of their work is a captive breeding program. It’s unclear to me if this particular program is meant to release young adult animals back into the wild, or to insure captive stocks for zoos around the world. Whatever the case, this aspect of zoos may represent our last hope for many species that are either endangered or extinct in the wild.
I visited The San Diego Zoo and Wildlife Park in the Spring of 2003, and wrote an article about it for Madison Magazine, which they ran in their December issue that year. It was one of my first non-gaming sales, and I was thrilled to see how much work the folks in San Diego were doing to help endangered populations through captive breeding and wild release. The San Diego Wild Animal Park has much more to do with the captive breeding program, and so far they’ve had good success with, among many other animals, restoring California Condors to their previous wild range in the western United States.
So the question remains: is keeping animals confined in zoos a moral choice? I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know that we’re seeing animals going extinct at an alarming rate around the world, and 99.9% of that is due to interference by humans: hunting and poaching, the exotic pet trade, and destruction of habitat are three major reasons, but there are more. To my mind, zoos represent an in-between step where humans can see these animals, learn about why they are endangered, and perhaps do something to help make things better. Frankly, it’s the only hope we’ve got for them in a world where hope is in short supply.
This, to me, is a case where the end justifies the means: I don’t think most zoos are ideal places for animals to live, but we’re running out of options if these animals are to survive. Perhaps one day we’ll be wise enough as a species to rebuild wild populations; until then, we have to hope animals can hang on for a while longer until we can sort things out.