As I mentioned in a previous blog (Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation? 9/2/12) zoos have a somewhat dubious record when it comes to conservation and endangered species programs. This is at least partly because traditional zoos contain two powerful opposing forces, which are constantly at war with each other. On the one hand we have the keepers who interact directly with both the public and the animals. They are there because of a passion for conservation and a love for the animals they work with on a daily basis. On the other hand we have the managers. Many of these people have no animal related backgrounds. The zoo is just another place to work and it exists primarily to entertain and make money.
Because this dichotomy exists zoos are constantly at war with themselves. Keepers complain because insufficient funds are allocated to conservation programs and animals are expected to perform excessively. Managers complain because keepers are being too precious about their animals and fail to understand that without the money brought in by visitors there can be no funding for “nice to do” activities, like conservation programs.
Many of the gains made by zoos are being eroded in the interests of entertainment. While the chimpanzee tea parties will hopefully remain a thing of the past, zoos have reinstalled amusement park rides and are more and more willing to have hand raised, humanised animals engage in hands on contact and photo opportunities with visitors. As mentioned previously, this does no one any favours.
The solution? Make zoos charitable institutions that can be accessible to the public for the purpose of education, but do not rely on gate takings from visitors for their existence. Ensure that all staff share the same vision by emphasizing experience in conservation and animal management at all levels of the organisation above other attributes. None of the really good managers ever work in zoos anyway because the pay is so poor compared with real companies. If you’re going to have barely competent people at least have ones with some passion for conservation.
Dr. F. Bunny