Posts Tagged David Attenborough

This Here’s A Zoo, And The Keeper Ain’t You

 

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

References

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.

 

 

 

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People, People Everywhere

Forget climate change, oil supplies or the rise of Manchester City. The biggest threat to civilization is the seven billion people who are wandering around even as we speak. If this number was cut to one billion or less we could probably exploit, pollute and destroy to our heart’s content without causing more than local perturbations. But, because there are so many of us doing it, the ramifications tend to be much more major. The Rwandan genocide did not really occur because of ethnic differences between two tribes of people. It occurred because Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on earth resulting in an extreme scarcity of resources. When there is plenty for all we can’t usually be bothered to make war on our neighbour no matter how much we dislike them.

As mentioned on previous blogs I am a big fan of the TED talks (http://www.ted.org), and there was a particularly good one recently by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, who drew attention to the fact that population growth, is declining. The data is quite elegantly displayed at http://www.gapminder.org. According to Rosling there are four reasons for this decline: increase in wealth, decline in child mortality, education of women, and access to contraception. If the world is to have a long term future these are the areas we must target.

We must help countries to drag themselves out of poverty. Individually we can facilitate this through the agency of organisations such as Kiva (http://www.kiva.org), which provide interest free loans to people in developing countries.

We must do what we can to decrease child mortality by supporting organisations such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI at http://www.gavialliance.org). Diarrhoea is the second biggest child killer in the world wiping out 1.3 million children each year, and rotavirus is the main culprit responsible for 450,000 deaths annually. GAVI plans to distribute rotavirus vaccine to 40 countries by 2015.

Women must have access to education and couples must have access to contraception, so they can decide for themselves how many children they want. There was another excellent TED talk by Melinda Gates on this topic (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/melinda_gates_let_s_put_birth_control_back_on_the_agenda.html). See also http://www.impatientoptimists.org/Topics/Family-Planning for more information.

David Attenborough, in his documentary, “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” stated, based on Canadian academic William Rees’s concept of an ecological footprint that we can support 15 billion if we live the way the average Indian does and possibly up to 18 billion if we all live like average Rwandans. However, if we wish to live like the Europeans that number drops to 2.5 billion and falls to 1.5 billion if we all decide to become Americans.

While we have seen an exponential growth in human numbers from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion now that does look like levelling off at around 9 billion by 2050. To continue to grow at our current rate in order to support our aging populations, as some would suggest, is total nonsense and completely unsustainable. We cannot produce more children to support those who are now aging, because we would then need to keep producing even more children to support those when they age, resulting in an ever increasing spiral of disaster. The concern centres around how many people, who are not working, can be supported by those who are. With our increasing emphasis on technology and movement away from manual labour older people can remain active in the workforce for longer. Bear in mind that, generally speaking, children do not work and need to be supported and educated for 16 years or more, especially in developed countries. This means parents and caregivers are also drawn out of the workforce to provide that care. Fewer children mean lower education and health care costs and more people working. According to figures from Population Matters in 1976 there were 71.6 dependents for every 100 working people in the UK, more children than older people. By 2011 total dependents had dropped to 60.8. With lower birthrates and longer lives this is projected to rise again so that, by 2051, it will be back to 71.5. This time there will be more older people than children but the net result will be the same (http://populationmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/ageing_populations.pdf).

Unless we discover other suitable planets that will allow human habitation we cannot permit ourselves to be sucked into any arguments that favour a continuing increase in human population. As a result of gains made in prosperity, health and freedom of choice our population is beginning to level off. We need to make sure that continues, while devising new and innovative ways to feed, water and care for the billions that are already here and still to come.

Dr. F. Bunny

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