Writer @benwallacewellssteals a bit of my thunder in his recent article The Case for the End of the Modern Zoo ( http://t.co/XzoTpN42pR ). One of the central questions of my next book and of the project I have proposed to the folks at National Geographic for their Expedition Granted program (http://bit.ly/1jITOd1 ) asks some fundamental questions about the future of zoos, aquariums, and marine parks.
Now, I don’t for one moment believe we need to do away with them. But I do suspect that zoos, aquariums, and marine parks may be at a cross-roads and may need to make some fundamental changes in the way they do business. Perhaps they will need to reconsider how (and whether) they keep certain animals – like killer whales, elephants, polar bears, and apes. Perhaps it is time for a rational discussion that explores what is truly best for the animals, asking who is right – the zoos and marine parks who want to keep doing business as usual, or the people who are lining up to shut them down altogether? The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in between as Wells suggests: “In 25 years, there will likely still be some way for Americans to see exotic animals. But I will be pretty surprised if those places have cages, mirrors, smoke machines, and conference-room tanks for 12,000-pound whales. There may be nature preserves. But it seems to me that we’re pretty rapidly reaching the end of the era of the modern urban zoo.” I wonder if he will be proven correct?
A Voice for Animal Welfare
If we could create an authoritative, international voice for animal welfare, while ensuring continuing support for zoos, marine parks, and aquariums as indispensable partners in conservation, would you be interested inparticipating? I know, it sounds like a pipe-dream – along the lines of world peace, human equality, or ending poverty – but it just seems like such a worthy cause. That is what my project at National Geographic is all about. http://expeditiongranted.nationalgeographic.com/project/the-search-for-eden-project/
Here is what makes this project unique – we will not be asking for money! There are already enough “conservation” organizations out there asking for money. This movement is about intellectual capital. It is about raising consciousness.
How about filling out this short survey and let’s see where it goes:
Zoos, Aquariums, and Animal Welfare
When it comes to zoos and aquariums and the welfare of their animals, it seems that everyone has an opinion. There are those who support them – more than 700 million yearly visitors worldwide. And those who oppose them – look at the furor stirred up last year over the movie about killer whales and the recent killing of a healthy giraffe at a Danish zoo
So, should we do away with zoos and aquariums or is their contribution to public enlightenment and to conservation just too compelling? In the United States alone, zoos and aquariums have spent more than a billion dollars on field conservation projects over the last 10 years. Who else can say that?
I would like to explore this issue in some detail, visiting cities in North America and Europe and talking to the people at the center of this controversy – the zoo keepers, the animal rights activists, and the public at-large. The goal of the project is to begin a rational discussion that explores what is truly best for the animals. I will explore these issues and set up an ongoing, international forum for discussion – a discussion that will take place via social media and a series of on-line seminars. I would also like to develop a think-tank of people with open minds, clear thinking, long-term vision, and compassion for animals to come together with a common purpose – to preserve animal populations that are at the mercy of the relentless advance of human civilization.
A Vision for the Future of Animals in Captivity
Perhaps we can develop standards of protection similar to the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples (which protects the rights and dignities of those human populations that cannot defend themselves) while ensuring that the valuable contributions of zoos, marine parks, and aquariums are honored and supported. .
How do we stop the decline of species on a planet that is hungry for human space? I don’t have all of the answers, but I want to ask the questions.
Zoos of forty years ago did not have the same ethical standards they have today. I don’t know how the Toronto Zoo, for example, acquired 6 or more infant lowland gorillas in 1974, but I’ll bet they would handle it differently today. One clue about the origin of those gorillas might be found in the accounts of Dian Fossey’s 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist. Fossey rescued a young gorilla named Coco in early 1969 from an office in the nearby city of Ruhengeri, Rwanda. The baby had been captured with the sanction of the government, for delivery to the Cologne Zoo in Germany in exchange for a Land Rover vehicle and an unspecified amount of money. Fossey wrote in her book that “ten members of the gorilla group were killed in the capture [of Coco]”. A week later, another infant was brought to Fossey’s camp. This animal, which she named Pucker, “had come from a group of about eight animals and, like those of Coco’s group, all the family members had died trying to defend the youngster”. Both Coco and Pucker ended up going to the Cologne Zoo and died within a few months of each other less than 10 years later.
According to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website, fewer than 900 mountain gorillas are left in the world today and the Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorilla population is also endangered. In fact, all gorilla habitats are threatened. The conservation activities of the Fossey Gorilla Fund take place on many levels and places, in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the United States, and around the world. In Rwanda, their Karisoke™ Research Center protects gorillas and cares for rescued gorillas in Parc National des Volcans. Their programs in the Congo include collaboration with rangers at Virunga National Park on the eastern border with Rwanda and with a network of community-managed reserves in a 42,000 square mile landscape further west that is the habitat of the lowland gorilla.
Founded by Fossey in 1978, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. The Board of Trustees is made up of environmental activists, celebrities, and (most interestingly) zoo directors. It is also interesting that this organization, which is keeping the Karisoke Research Center in operation and which raised more than $3 million in 2013 for the conservation of gorillas in Africa, does it all from an address at the Zoo in Atlanta, GA. In fact, if not for the work of zoos, this critical conservation work would not be happening and mountain gorillas might already be extinct. This is particularly ironic, given that Fossey wrote in her book that zoo gorillas are “exhibited simply for exhibition’s sake” and photographs of her beloved Coco and Pucker revealed “their depression … during the years of their confinement in the Cologne Zoo” – arguments that are still being made by animal rights activists today.
Dian Fossey was no supporter of zoos, which is understandable given the way zoos of the time treated her animals – both in captivity and in the wild. But Fossey could not have foreseen what zoos would become. For her, the zoo was a concrete cell with iron bars and a tire swing, not today’s family groups of gorillas living naturalistic areas, some of those areas measured in acres. And what would she make of the fact that without the involvement of zoos, her conservation efforts, and likely the gorillas themselves, would have long ago ceased to exist.
Given how much zoos have changed in forty years, I wonder what they will look like in another forty? I just hope gorillas are not extinct. Maybe we will have learned how to talk to them by then – although I am not sure that is a conversation I would be proud to have.
Opening the crate of a newly arrived animal at the zoo is always a tense moment. You never know whether the animal will walk out calmly, refuse to come out at all, or come flying out like the human cannonball at the circus. That is why I was nervous and excited at the same time – I didn’t know what to expect. It was late evening and we had just returned to the zoo from the international terminal at the airport. The heavy bedding of wood shavings and straw was both comfortable to sit in and soothing in its scent of fresh pine, as I sat cross-legged in the twelve foot by twelve foot holding stall in the Toronto Zoo’s quarantine building. Our job that evening had been to pick up two wooden crates from an international flight at the airport, return to the zoo, and uncrate the animals. We were to give them some food and water and, if they appeared healthy, leave them for the night. The veterinarians would give them a thorough exam in the morning.
I had lifted the sliding door out of its track and laid it on top of the wooden crate and settled a few feet from the opening, peering into the darkness. My plan was to sit quietly and wait for the baby gorilla to emerge. Would he remain inside, walk out calmly, or jump out in a rage, biting and clawing everything (and everyone) in sight. The answer, as it turned out, would be a little bit of everything.
We sat staring at each other for a long time. His name was Joseph and he was settled with his back at the far end of the crate, looking at me without making direct eye contact. He was thirty pounds of black fur and dark eyes, clearly frightened and unsure of what to do next. As I was about to give up and leave him to explore after I left, he stirred and walked calmly out of the crate and into my lap. I wanted to comfort the little guy and welcome him to his new home. I knew he would be safe and well-cared-for with the best food, other gorillas for companionship, and modern veterinary care. It would be some time before I learned the real story of how gorillas came to be at the zoo. For now, I just wrapped my arms around him as I would one of my own sons.
We sat for a few seconds, with him in my lap facing away from me and then in slow motion, he placed his mouth over my bare, right forearm and bit down – hard. So hard, in fact, that I hollered in pain and jerked my arm away. I pushed him out of my lap as gently as I could under the painful circumstances and left the pen to examine my injury. The bite broke the skin slightly, leaving a bloody imprint of his upper and lower teeth like some dental impression. My worries about what diseases he might be carrying escalated ten days later, when he died. As it turned out, he had no transmissible diseases and obviously, I have survived with no ill effects. Fortunately, this was long before we knew about the Ebola virus and the other deadly diseases coming out of Africa or I would have been well and truly freaked-out! 1
The date was May 9th, 1974 – 40 years ago today – and Joseph had arrived at the Toronto Zoo with Josephine, a young female of about the same age. I know of two other pairs of infant lowland gorillas that we received that year. How did these six baby gorillas from the wilds of Africa find themselves at a zoo in North America? I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea that I’ll suggest next week in Part two.
[NOTE 1: An excerpt from my next book, In Search of Eden: A Quest for the Perfect Zoo]
I have been doing some reminiscing (and some writing) about the early days at the Lowry Park Zoo. I love this photo of my son Jason and the story it tells, as he sits atop Buke – a massive male Asian elephant.
The Lowry Park Zoo, at that time, had one 24 year old Asian elephant named Sheena, who had been donated to the zoo in 1961 by the Park’s namesake, General Sumter L. Lowry, Jr. The new master plan had been designed around her and the building she inhabited, but in order to build her new facilities, she would need to be moved to another zoo for a few years. After searching far and wide, we found a good facility at African Lion Safari near Toronto Canada that would take her. They had proper facilities, other elephants, and a highly competent staff. All we had to do was figure out how to get her there. I described the process in my article for the Zoo’s newsletter in the fall of 1985.
Though highly trained, Sheena had not been handled in over ten years. She had become quite unmanageable and even dangerous to those who worked around her. But after a few days with the experienced elephant handler, Charles Gray, she was performing all of her old tricks and even seemed to enjoy the change in routine and the companionship of her handler. The next problem was how to get her out of the enclosure. So complete was Sheena’s incarceration, that there was not even a gate into her enclosure. Our friendly workmen moved in with their cutting torches and bulldozers, and after nearly an hour of cutting the heavy iron rails, an opening was made in the pen.
The next problem we faced was the uncertainty of Sheena’s reactions to her new found freedom. Would she respond to her handler’s commands, or would she run away at the first opportunity? The moment of truth arrived. As Sheena walked out of her pen for the first time in nearly 15 years, it became obvious that she was happy to be outside and yet very responsive to her handler. She quickly gained his confidence, and was soon allowed to wander happily around and explore the zoo she had lived in for most of her life. The rest of her loading and transporting was so uneventful as to appear routine. But that was not the end of the story.
In order to make transportation less traumatic, another elephant was brought from Canada to keep her company. A large male Asian elephant named “Buke” became the first elephant ever to share Sheena’s enclosure. Though she was coy to his advances at first and turned her back whenever he came close, she soon warmed up and remained close by his side as they explored the zoo grounds.
Buke seemed gentle enough, responding to his handlers like an anxious child, as the two elephants wandered the property untethered. It never occurred to me, as I placed my son on his back and snapped a picture, that Buke might have a dark side. But the next time I saw him was at his home in Canada later that summer. He was in musth (a period when bull elephants are sexually active and very aggressive) and chained to a tree – ready to kill anyone who came too near.
If you want to know how vehement and even hostile people are in opposition to SeaWorld, just read the comments at the end of the recent editorial in the LATimes, What to do about SeaWorld’s captive killers.
The State of California was considering a bill that would phase out killer whale shows, an idea that has gained greater popularity thanks to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, but the bill did not pass because it went “too far too fast” according the editorial.
The article seemed pretty even-handed to me. “Legislators,” it warned, “should keep in mind that requiring SeaWorld to suddenly shutter its signature attraction could destroy the rest of the marine park’s business. Though animal rights activists might think that’s fine, SeaWorld has invested heavily in its killer whale program and done so legally. In the absence of documented animal abuse, the company shouldn’t be stripped of its most valuable assets overnight.”
One of the problems I see in the arguments over killer whales (as well as apes and elephants) in captivity is that there doesn’t appear to be any room for compromise. While there are legitimate concerns over welfare of killer whales and I might even be convinced they should not be kept in captivity, that does not mean we should eliminate places like SeaWorld. The amount of good done for wildlife by zoos and aquariums is immeasurable. The ultimate irony in all of this is that people wouldn’t even care about killer whales if it wasn’t for the work done by SeaWorld.
People need to lighten up on their attacks on SeaWorld and on zoos and aquariums in general. And zoos and aquariums may need to listen to the people. “The next step, according to the editorial, “might well be the prohibition of captive breeding as well as a ban on bringing new killer whales into the state. SeaWorld would have years to devise a new headline draw while continuing to show its existing whales, but the public would know that, at least in California, an outmoded way of viewing the magnificent marine mammals is coming to a close.”
Seems like sound advice. I wonder if anybody is listening.