Lou Reed (Sick Of You, from the album “New York”)
Enough of this self-indulgent nonsense. I am a wildlife vet, so it’s time I started banging on about zoos again.
In my opinion there are three ways to experience wild animals: in the wild, in a zoo, on TV. It seems obvious to me that the best way is the wild way. How could anything beat the experience of seeing a lion wandering about the savannah doing its thing? Even local fauna like kangaroos and wombats are so much more exciting when seen in the wild. I think part of it is the unpredictability, never knowing what you are going to see or what it is going to do. I remember taking my aunt and uncle to Healesville Sanctuary to give them a dose of Australian wildlife. We spent the day looking at kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. On our drive home they spotted a mob of wild kangaroos and made me stop the car so they could take pictures of them. They got much closer and took much better photos of the Sanctuary kangaroos but were a lot more excited about the wild ones. Of course we can’t all visit polar bears on their ice floes, jaguars in the Amazon or Przewalski horses in the Gobi desert.
This is where David Attenborough and his cohorts step in to dazzle us with astonishing images of wildlife doing its thing in the wild, without the need for passports, visas, water purification tablets or huge wads of cash. Through the magic of television we can gain a much more detailed, intimate and lasting view of the world around us, one that we can rewind and re-watch at our convenience.
Which brings us to option three. Does the experience of seeing something up close and personal, despite the fact that it is bored, pacing or overweight, leave a lasting positive impression that justifies placing it into that environment in the first place? Are we better off seeing a polar bear on TV or not at all? Although I speak from a privileged position, having worked with wild animals all my life, I believe so.
Zoos quite emphatically state that they change people’s attitudes to conservation and wildlife, citing the only study to date to attempt to quantify this, a 2007 non-independent survey (strongly refuted by Marino et al (2010)) by Falk et al. Unfortunately many of the questions in this study were extremely nebulous and subjective asking visitors if they felt a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit (57% said yes), if zoos had a role to play in conservation, education and animal care (42% said yes), and if the visitor had an elevated level of awareness of their own role in conservation as a result of their visit (54% said yes). The vast majority of visitors did not, however, increase their knowledge of ecological concepts. This was put down to the fact that zoo visitors have a higher than average ecological knowledge in the first place, which reinforces my belief that people who visit zoos are already conservation minded and the zoo is really only preaching to the converted.
The researchers did do some follow up work to determine if there were any long term effects associated with the zoo visit. Unfortunately they were only able to obtain responses from 14% of the visitors originally interviewed. Rather than asking them what they had actually done because of their visit to the zoo the researchers again asked nebulous and irrelevant questions. 42% of the respondents mentioned a particularly memorable animal they saw on their visit, 21% enjoyed the zoo grounds, 61% did confess to have learnt something after all, 76% said zoos were invested in conservation, and 66% said zoos played an important role in species preservation. But there is no mention of what any of these visitors actually did as a result of their visit. Surely that is the crux of the issue? Do zoos stimulate people to act for conservation in positive ways that justify displacing animals and housing them in conditions that cannot hope to replicate their wild environment, social structure or nutritional needs? Am I more likely to want to conserve the bored, depressed looking zoo polar bear or the TV polar bear leaping from ice floe to ice floe, hunting seals and rearing cubs?
Removing zoos and putting the money saved into in situ conservation programs does not mean we can no longer experience wildlife first hand. Recently I visited the Western Treatment Plant (http://www.melbournewater.com.au/whatwedo/treatsewage/wtp/Pages/Habitats-and-wildlife.aspx). This is the fancy name for Melbourne’s sewage farm. I spent six hours there bird watching and, ironically, saw many more bird species than I would in any zoo. This experience left me with a far more positive feeling about bird conservation than seeing the wing clipped, feather plucking versions in a zoo. True, it required a bit more effort and the species weren’t as spectacular as Andean condors or birds of paradise, but they were local species and, at the end of the day, aren’t we more likely to act and more likely to be effective in our actions when we attempt to conserve what is in our own backyard? Surely we will have a much greater impact on their future than we will ever have on the future of the orang-utan or gorilla, no matter how many palm oil friendly products we buy or mobile phones we recycle?
Dr. F. Bunny
Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., Heimlich, J.E. (2007) Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.
Marino, L., Lilienfeld, S.O., Malamud, R., Nobis, N., Broglio, R. (2010) Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study. Society and Animals 18:126-138.