Zoos are not really all that bad and the main reason I criticise them is that I care and want them to harness their powers for good, rather than evil. Unfortunately they fall victim to the same issues that plague all of us, the need to make money to survive.
However imperfect they may be, zoos still occupy an important position in the world. While I have spent most of my career in zoos I have never actually seen myself as a “zoo vet” but rather a “wildlife vet” who worked in a zoo. Working in zoos has given me the opportunity to treat and rehabilitate injured wildlife, investigate disease outbreaks in wildlife, and embark on research projects to improve the health and welfare of the creatures we share the planet with. As wild animals do not have owners they do not have anyone to pay for these services, which are subsidised by zoos.
For better or worse, zoos are at least making an effort to understand and breed endangered wildlife with a view to hopefully returning it to its ecosystem. Consequently they are an enormous repository of knowledge and expertise when it comes to the biology, husbandry and health of the world’s fauna.
They are also making an effort to address the myriad issues that have contributed to species becoming endangered in the first place, such as promoting sustainable palm oil production and labelling (http://www.cmzoo.org/conservation/palmOilCrisis/resourceKit.asp), encouraging the use of toilet paper made from recycled paper (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/wipe-for-wildlife-campaign), funding the training of Wildlife Protection Units to prevent illegal wildlife related activities in Sumatra (http://www.perthzoo.wa.gov.au/act/wildlife-conservation-action/success-stories/protecting-sumatras-wildlife/), and providing indigenous communities in Kenya with alternative forms of income to alleviate some of the pressures on local wildlife (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/beads-for-wildlife-campaign).
All reputable zoos have education programs because everyone understands the important role the next generation must play in moving the planet into a sustainable future.
It would be nice to think that a trip to the zoo encourages people to embark on some form of previously unthought-of conservation activity but, as we have seen, this can be notoriously difficult to prove. Still, all the ancillary activities which a visit to the zoo subsidises should be justification enough for the zoo’s existence. Unfortunately zoos often fund their projects by entertaining visitors in ways which potentially undermine those conservation messages. As long as that continues it is necessary to provide constructive criticism in order to bring them back onto the right path.
Dr. F. Bunny