Thursday, March 3, 2011

Zoos and Extinction

Today's class led lecture on zoos and species conservation was reminiscent of my undergraduate philosophy class and the day that I argued unknowingly with zoology management masters students on the inappropriateness and inadequacy of zoos in today's society. Before I even go into a discussion of what I saw in class this morning, I should state that I am not anti-zoo. From a very early age I made frequent trips to the zoo with Mom, Dad and/or Grandma. I can remember looking down on a rainy day as rhinoceros played and splashed mud on me and the old kangaroo walk where we could get into the pen with them. So I got nostalgic and pulled up some old Youtubes for you from back in the day. Notice how much more hair everyone has then...

You want to talk about a man with a vision and an excitement for animals, it's Jack Hanna.

Of course, for the Columbus Zoo, the days of simple concrete and glass pens with animals "enriched" by a bouncy ball are long gone. The Columbus Zoo is fortunate today to be the top zoo in the country and if you visit it, you'll easily understand why. With excellent attention to detail, exhibits has been remodeled to more closely represent natural habitat and give animals more space whilst still offering a good view of most animals to the average zoo-goer. This is a fantastic educational opportunity and I credit zoos with instilling my first love of animals and my parents for encouraging this from an early age. Once on a farm, this love grew into a career passion which I will carry with me to the end.

It is important, though, to also remember that not all zoos are as fortunate with funding and opportunities as the Columbus Zoo. The Potter Park Zoo, for example, in Lansing, Michigan, is a great example of the old-style zoo with limited enclosures and simplistic environments housing many old animals. This to me seemed like the retirement home of animals and to some it might seem like the animals are forgotten in this place. But if you talk to the zookeepers, you'll find that they are doing their best with the resources and staff available to provide very good care and high levels of scientifically accepted enrichment forms in order to stimulate these animals and better their everyday lives.

Zoo proponents often argue that the primary function of a zoo is to promote conservation through reproduction management of species and education of the general public. This is a function many zoos perform more than ever now as zoos try to transition from a public entertainment enterprise to a more globally responsible institution. And I will be the first to admit that aside from National Geographic, and Jane Goodall, the zoo is the next on a list of influences on me from a young age about the impact of humans on the planet (followed by Bill Peet). But in today's age, how does the zoo help conserve species? Saving a species in a zoo doesn't mean that we can re-release it later. If the habitat is destroyed, then what's the point?

Someone in class made the comment that preventing human destruction of a species is a good thing, but to allow a species to eliminate another is "natural". What is the difference between one being natural and the other not? I refer you to a previous George Carlin video about "saving the planet" which I won't link here today. But on the topic of extinction in the end, what's most amazing to me is that today we were going through recent extinctions. These recent extinctions were the animals on the endangered species list back when I was in elementary school. And just like that, they're gone. Wrong or right, artificial or natural, it just is sad to me to have to say that a species is gone from the world forever, in our time now.

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