it Like it is: A View From a Former Zoo Staffer
Richard H. Farinato
zoos still serve to entertain the public, providing basic family amusement
for their visitors. Despite the pronouncements of the AZA (American
Zoo and Aquarium Association, the self-regulating organization of accredited
zoos) about conservation, research, and education, there is little hard
evidence to prove that zoos do any more than entertain.
There is one basic premise that must be taken into account when looking
at the whole zoo issue. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture licenses
more than 1,800 exhibitors of wild animals. AZA-accredited facilities
make up no more than 10 percent of this group. It is misleading to say
that the relatively few AZA facilities represent the actual state of
zoos in the U.S. Even within that 180-member group, the varying quality
of exhibits and care is incredible and sometimes appalling. Accreditation
by the AZA does not guarantee a consistent level of quality among zoos.
AZA and AZA-accredited zoos have held themselves up to the public as
the norm, or the reality of zoos. This is far from the case. The norm
is the underfunded municipal zoo, or the roadside attraction, or the
private collection that is open to the public. The small handful of
high-end zoos that may in fact engage in conservation programs benefiting
wild animals in the field are not typical of American zoos; they are
the rare exception. When you look closely at the actual participation
of the majority of accredited zoos in "conservation", what
you are likely to find are donations of crayons and coloring books or
used reptile cages to zoos abroad, or sponsorship of keeper training
courses. Such minor activities are then called cooperative efforts in
conservation and education. Sounds great, doesnt it?
Another highly touted conservation effort are the SSPs (Species Survival
Programs). If a zoo simply exhibits surplus males or retired breeders
of an SSP species, it is thereby said to be participating in the "conservation" of
that species. It is situations like these that make people and organizations
skeptical about the claims of the AZA and its member zoos. Much effort
goes into marketing and public relations, for the purpose of laying
a veneer of science and education on what is basically the business
of buying, displaying, breeding, and selling exotic animals.
Zoos wont Disappear, so...
Zoos are not going to disappear. The animals in them are not, in
general, candidates for release, and in many cases there is no habitat
to use as reintroduction areas. Zoos must become the centers of education
about animals and their role in the environment that they claim to be.
They must stop the frivolous production of animals that will later be
unwanted by them and disposed of without a care. They should accept
that some species (including marine mammals, polar bears, great apes
and elephants) are unsuitable display animals whose physical and mental
needs cannot be met in captivity, and fundamentally change the way those
animals are kept. Zoos should make the commitment to phasing out their
captive populations for display and redirecting their funds and expertise
to the conservation of wild populations and their natural habitats.
It is only public pressure that will change zoos. Visitors need to
focus on the bottom line issue of any zoo: animal care. Forget the
conservation, and the Christmas light extravaganza, and the boa constrictor
at the birthday party at the zoo. Look at the animals. Are cages large
enough for what lives in them? Do the elephants spend 16 hours a day
in chains? Is the food of good quality? Does the staff show care and
compassion? Look for the commonsense indicators of good care. If theyre
not obvious, find out why. In many cases, zoos are tax-supported. They
literally belong to the public, and the public can demand that their
animals be treated correctly and humanely.
Richard H. Farinato is Director of the Captive Wildlife
Protection Program of the Humane Society of the United States. He is
a former assistant zoo director and has extensive professional experience
in the management of wild animals, including 15 years working in zoos.
He now serves as a spokesperson for the protection of captive wildlife.
For information visit www.hsus.org
or call (301) 258-3150.