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Do zoos have a place in our society?

Yes, zoos do important conservation work

By Sean Willett, February 12 2015 —

went to see Loka the Komodo dragon the first weekend she was on display. Parking myself in front of the glass wall, I watched her for what felt like hours — only moving for the gaggles of children that wanted to get a better look at the two-metre long lizard. Loka barely moved, only turning her head to return the gaze of her visitors.

To a casual observer, Loka’s lethargy might be concerning. Komodo dragons are supposed to be active hunters, so why is this one so still? It’s tempting to blame the zoo — for placing this animal in an unnatural environment, for keeping her fenced in, for removing the opportunity for her to hunt for food. But like so much of the zoo, there’s more to Loka than what the public can see.

Loka is 28 years old, making her the oldest female Komodo dragon in captivity. She’s also small for her age, as adult dragons can reach up to three metres long. If Loka was in the wild, her age would stop her from hunting, and scavenging would be difficult due to competition from larger individuals. Instead, trainers give her food regularly, play with her and keep her warm and comfortable. 

This is what visitors to the zoo don’t usually see. A tremendous amount of time and attention goes into ensuring the happiness and health of the animals by meeting the unique needs of each species. While there are still zoos that keep their animals in sub-par conditions, almost all modern zoos are devoted to maintaining the best care possible. 

The Calgary Zoo, for example, sent their elephants to an American sanctuary when it became clear their facilities weren’t able to properly house such large and complex creatures. Animals can be kept happy and healthy in captivity as long as their needs, both mental and physical, are cared for.

This can be difficult, especially with large predators like Komodo dragons. But when it’s done well, it’s obviously worth it. Captive animals are invaluable for zoological research into animal behaviour and intelligence, especially with animals that can be difficult to study in the wild. 

Zoos also take part in endangered animal breeding programs, making it easier to bring back threatened animals from the brink of extinction. Vancouver Island marmots and the enigmatic whooping cranes are just two of the many animals the Calgary Zoo has helped to protect in this way. 

Of course, there’s a simpler reason zoos are worth having. As I stood and watched Loka, I couldn’t help but notice the wonder in the faces of the children in front of me as they gazed into the eyes of an animal they once only knew from nature books and TV documentaries. It was the same wonder that I felt as a child at the Calgary Zoo, a wonder that grew into a lifelong appreciation of the natural world. When we’re constantly putting our planet at risk, zoos are ambassadors for the animals we need to protect.

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No, zoos should make us uncomfortable

By Susan Anderson, February 12 2015 —

remember watching the black bear at the Calgary Zoo pace back and forth in front of the glass when I was 11. I was thrilled to be so close until I saw the deep tracks in the mud from the bear pacing the same path again and again.

I’m told that zoos help animals. They take care of them, do research and make children happy. But zoos still make me uncomfortable. I don’t think any animal is healthiest when kept in a cage. 

But I still enjoy seeing the animals. Gorillas are a strange kind of mirror. Komodo dragons are out of a fantasy novel. Meerkat pups are just cute. 

Zoos serve a purpose because we’ve lost our real connection to wildlife. Our experiences of wild animals are often from children’s toys, sports teams and TV commercials.

Zoos counter this disconnect with caged animals. They help us feel connected, just for a moment, with nature. There are beautiful paintings of natural landscapes, large plaques noting the generosity of oil companies and soothing quotations about saving the planet for our grandchildren. But it’s a carefully curated experience, not the real thing. 

Humans have removed animals from their original habitats. Animals in zoos aren’t part of ecological communities. Zoos can’t show that wolves control elk populations so that aspen can grow so beavers can eat so wetlands don’t erode. They don’t consider that wolves pass local knowledge to their puppies about how to survive in a particular place, because a wolf in a cage doesn’t need that information. 

Zoos don’t go far enough to challenge our misconceptions. While looking at these animals, we might briefly feel the need to conserve them. Signs say that the penguins’ ice is melting, the rhinos are losing their habitat and the snow leopards are nearing extinction. And zoos do perform necessary and effective conservation work. They often house species that are extinct in the wild and allow researchers to study animals up close. 

But zoos lull us into a false sense of pride. We feel satisfied and comforted with the zoo. We get hyped over all the good we’re doing for animals. 

Don’t feel comfortable with it. Zoos aren’t enough. Humans have destroyed the natural world to such a degree that we’re leaving a defining mark on the geologic record. We’re causing an uncountable number of extinctions. We have irreversibly changed life on the entire planet. 

We need to reconnect with animals and realize the dangers of a world without healthy ecosystems. We need to mourn the loss of wilderness. If we feel comfortable with zoos, we’ll never want to do more.

We’ve ruined most of the world we live in. And zoos need to make us feel uncomfortable enough with that reality to change it.

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