Jun. 1st, 2016

ritaxis: (hat)
A fellow I follow on Twitter asked this question sincerely so I'm trying to answer it. It's not a Twitter sort of answer: it has parts, and history, and nuance. So here it is.

Zoos started off as conspicuous consumption. Some rich person would show off how much wealth they had by accumulating exotic animals and keeping them confined. There wasn't too much thought put intto the animals' welfare. Since the emphasis was on the large and dangerous sorts, the approach towards managing the animals was all about being tough and forceful. The lives of the animals were not all that good.

Over time, zoos became places for public entertainment and more and more, public education. At first this education was "See what marvels the earth has." But as zoos also became places for biological study, the education of the public also became more sophisticated. Everything from evolution and ecological biology to animal behavior was presented in zoos. What also happened over time is that zoos changed in their orientation to the animals and in their orientation to the world. The more zookeepers knew about the animals, the more this changed.

Even when I was a kid a zoo was a fundamentally sad place. The animals moped in small cages. But already this was changing, along with the purpose oif zoos. I read about this change in one of my favorite series of books, Gerald Durrell's memoirs of animal collecting. He started out collecting exotic species from around the world for zoos in Europe. He wrote affectionately and humorously about the animals and his adventures, but in later books he started collecting for a different purpose. He started feeling an urgency to save animals from habitat degradation and overexploitation. He founded his own zoo dedicated to just that. I don't know how much of a ioneer he was, but it was his generaton of zookeepers that began to develop zoos with the modern sensibility.

Modern zoos invest whatever resources they can muster into appropriate environments for their animals. Not all animals really need a safari park type of zoo, but few of them can thrive without some sort of specialty environment. For some of them, it only means that they need a place to hide (a box with a hole in it might do, but there are arificial hollow logs made just for this purpose). Others need places to climb, or complex environments that change from day to day so they can explore. Attention is paid to the kind of social life the animals need. Some animals need a decent sized group to live in. Others are so solitary that they are terribly stressed if they have to share a space with another.

Something I learned when Emma started her job as a zookeeper is that most modern zookeepers are women. This seems to have gone along with a change in mindset about animal care (there's a chicken or egg question here I can't begin to answer). You rarely see a zookeeper with a cattle prod, and never with a whip, anymore. Instead zookeepers use cognitive-behavioral training to teach animals what they need to know to be safe in the zoo environment, to be comfortable and content, and honestly, for the entertainment of the animals. The last time I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they brought down the albatross who lives on the roof (who I had met on an earlier visit thanks to Emma's back-of-the-exhibits access). The handler said to the audience, "You may think that we've brought our albatross here for your entertainment. In reality, we've brought you all here for hers." The albatross proved this was correct by craning her neck around to observe the audience, and when she exhibited her behaviors for them, she was clearly comfortable, relaxed, and enjoying herself.

But why do zoos even persist? We're moving away from the private zoo, the animal-show aspect is diminishing, we all agree that animals should have a natural and comfortable life, everybody hates confinement.

Remember Gerald Durrell and his idea for a safe haven for animals? Many (most? I don't know numbers) zoos see themselves this way. Petting zoos for children are made up largely of rescued domestic animals. At Happy Hollow, where Emma works, a lot of their animals are geriatric, old animals who would have died long ago if they weren't at the zoo (and many of those are on "quality of life watch"--once they reach a point where they are in a protracted state of dying, and they are not getting anything out of living longer, the keepers will help the animals complete their dying). Other animals end up at the zoo in other ways, like the injured turkey vulture (he's kind of vindictive, but so beautiful). But mostly zoos are a haven for species more than individuals.

Everybody knows about pandas, how they have so much trouble living and breeding in the wild. They're such an extreme example that they're not a good one, because they take up a lot of resources for indifferent breeding success. Let me tell you about the lemurs at Happy Hollow instead. Madagascar has a terrifically dangerous situation with respect to its environment. It's large for an island, but an island it is, and it's terribly stressed from many directions. Colonial exploitation combined with limited space for indigenous agriculture and also climate change have resulted in great pressures on the forest habitats of the lemurs.Add to this the direct exploitation of the lemurs. Currently the Malagasy people are trying to heal their environment and save their indigenous species, but they are poor and have few resources (and mixed motivations among the people there, to be honest). They are making progress, but it will take time to save the lemurs' habitat. The lemurs don't have time. Zoos provide a safe haven for lemurs to live while Madagascar works on their end. Happy Hollow is one of several zoos providing a refuge for lemurs, They participate in a breeding program for a couple of species, giving the lemurs a place that is safe and congenial to live out their lives and raise their babies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's albatross lives on the roof because she was injured also. But more importantly, the aquarium is a center of conservation work. This takes several forms. One is informing the public with displaysincluding  just what does happen when a plastic bottle hits the ocean, or what we find inside the stomach of a prematurely-dead seagull, or with activities that teach ways that even children can actively contribute towards rebuilding the health of the oceans. Another is sponsoring research. ALmost all animal research has environmental repercussions, even if it's something like how birds learn their songs or what spiders do with all those eyes.

For people, zoos provide a place for research, some of which is vital to preserving species and their habitats, and education: go to any zoo now and you'll see chatty signage and docents who will tell you everything from the life cycle of the animals they're presenting to what you can do to help preserve their habitat. You're going to see it brought home again and again that people are not the only animals that matter. Modern zoos represent a worldview that no longer puts humanity at the top of a ladder of existence, but now in the middle of a web of life, distinguished mostly by our power to destroy or enhance the world around us.

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