Monday, June 29, 2015

Why I Love Zoos

I'm currently reading a book by Peter Laufer called 'Forbidden Animals', about the trade in exotic pets. It's an absolutely fascinating book so far, but one thing I do notice is that the author and several of the subjects he interviews is that they're not particularly fond of zoos. Opinions have ranged from "I hate zoos" to "zoos are nothing but misery for animals", and that's only by page 65. I doubt I'll get many complimentary statements on the subject by the end of the book.

This is far from the only time I've read uncomplimentary statements about zoos. They used to upset me, but I've come to understand that my experience of zoos is very different from that of the people like Laufer and the people he talked to. I've been very lucky in that my zoo memories come from a much happier place, both for myself and for the animals, and I do want to talk about it for a bit because I fully believe that there is a difference between being opposed to zoos in principle and being opposed to the way many zoos operate in practice.

To start, it's worth understanding that the Minnesota Zoo opened when I was three years old, less than ten miles away from my house. My parents bought a zoo membership every year for most of my childhood, which meant that admission was free, and as such they were perfectly happy to take my sisters and I to visit on a weekly basis. The exhibits have changed slightly over the years--I'm still slightly surprised at times to find komodo dragons and DeBrazza's monkeys where I vividly remember caimans and sloth bears--but I am familiar with every inch of that zoo.

This is important, because as a child I also happened to be a big fan of the books written by naturalist Gerald Durrell. Durrell was famous for his vivid, colorful accounts of the trips he took collecting animals for zoos, but he was even more famous for his decision to stop collecting animals for other zoos, which he thought were run badly and took little account of the welfare of the animals, and to start running his own zoo founded on his philosophy of what the role of a zoo should be in society.

For those of you not interested in chasing down all those links, I'll sum up. Durrell believed that the primary purpose of a zoo was to act as a habitat for animals that were endangered--a reservoir for the species in the event of extinction in the wild. He believed that it was the job of a zoo to make sure that these animals survived until they could be reintroduced to the wild as a species, and that displaying them to the public was primarily important to educate people on the role they could play in conserving nature. Keeping an animal purely for entertainment purposes was highly discouraged in his philosophy.

This filtered down to his philosophy on exhibit design. His priority, first and foremost, was the comfort of the animal. Viewing comfort of visitors wasn't even second on the list (that was ease of use for keepers). Exhibits should be as large or as small as needed to match the animals' preferred territory, and they should have areas to go if needed to get away from people. He was a pioneer in feeding animals the food that they preferred in nature, and in designing "enrichment"--activities that mimicked their natural behavior and kept them interested and engaged in daily life. (This is very different, by the way, from "animal shows". In a zoo designed according to Durrell's philosophy, animals are not asked to perform in any way, shape or form.)

The Minnesota Zoo, as long as I can remember, has been designed around those same philosophies. It is so close to Durrell's idea of a zoo that many of the exhibits are identical to the wildlife park he founded. When I go there, even today, I see happy, fulfilled animals that are not just surviving but thriving thanks to the hard work of dedicated people who put the animals' welfare first and foremost. I've been very lucky to have that as my amazing zoo all my life, and I sometimes forget that not everyone has had those experiences.

So for those of you who don't like zoos, I do understand. I hope that you follow those links and read about zoos that do treat the animals well, and I hope that we all someday reach a point where Durrell's philosophy has prevailed in the zoological world. Because a well-run zoo is really an animal's best friend.

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