Necessary Evils

I was at the Henry Vilas Zoo recently, and before that the Indianapolis Zoo during GenCon weekend. I enjoy visiting zoos because I love animals — even reptiles, bugs, and fish. They don’t have to be cuddly for me to find them fascinating — though if they aren’t cuddly mammals, odds are good that I don’t want them in my house!

To many people, zoos are depressing places: animals in confinement, being stared at, shouted at, and (occasionally) having things throw at them, by people. They can be depressing if you can only see that particular unpleasant aspect, but there’s another point to consider: Zoos are the seed banks of the world for genetic material. Unfortunately, for animals like the Northern White Rhino, it’s too late: completely extinct in the wild, only two are left in captivity, and both are females. There is hope that there may be some Northern White Rhinos among the Southern White Rhino populations, but this is far from certain. However, many other animals are being captive-bred, and their offspring released into ecologically suitable areas of their current/former range. The Whooping Crane is a good example of this: at it’s lowest point, the American Whooping Crane population numbered only 23 birds, but wise conservation policies have helped this, the tallest North American bird species, to rebound. The current population, including those in captivity, stands at around 800 birds. Still endangered, but there is more hope that they will survive. Captive breeding programs, combined with limited egg harvests to rear chicks in captivity and ensure a higher survival rate, have been surprisingly successful. Also successful was the creation of a second flock. Previously, all wild cranes lived around Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, and migrated to the Texas Gulf Coast for the winter. The second flock breeds in the marshy land of central Wisconsin, wintering in Florida. This second flock was reared in captivity and taught to fly and how — and where — to migrate using ultralight planes to lead the crop of first-year chicks for several years. The idea here is that if something disastrous should befall one flock — a hurricane, for example — it wouldn’t destroy the entire population.

I’ve been watching several TV programs about zoos. One is The Zoo about the Bronx Zoo in New York, airing on the Animal Planet network. The other, titled The Secret Life of the Zoo, also airs on Animal Planet, and is about the zoo in Chester in the UK. Both are rich in behind-the scenes-footage of the keepers and their charges going about their daily routines. Both also talk about their various captive breeding programs, and inter-zoo exchanges to ensure greater genetic diversity to maintain a healthy population.

Zoos are clearly not ideal living situations for wild animals, but I see them as a necessary evil. IN today’s world, where, poaching, habitat loss and ecological disasters are dropping wild animal populations by 90% or more, often over spans of less than a decade, having zoos as a back-up plan makes absolute sense. Plus, the education zoos provide about vanishing wildlife and the stress humans put on wild populations is invaluable. Please consider including your local zoo in your charitable contributions: even a dollar will help them continue the work to keep animal populations viable, and to find ways to restore habitat.

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