The Last Defense Against Us: Zoos and Aquariums

Despite the fact that it’s a chilly day, slightly gray, and overcast day, I’m almost sweating as I look out over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I am, perhaps obviously, at the National Aquarium, a world-renowned facility dedicated to education, conservation, and research. When I turn around, behind a waterfall, a screen of palms, and a barely-visible black netting, I can see a couple flying foxes and I can hear the warble-y chatter of several species of Australian finches. I’m about as close to heaven as I can be—this is as close as I’ve ever been able to come to most of these species, and seeing them in the microcosm they live in, is almost like being able to look through a window and see Australia outside instead of the rainy, cloudy Baltimore skyline.

One thing that fascinates me, perhaps because it can, at times, confuses me, is the animosity that some animal-lovers feel towards zoos and aquariums. There was a time when these facilities could rightly be criticized for negligence and maltreatment. Thankfully, those days are mostly over. While there are still going to be facilities that do not undergo accreditation processes, and therefore escape submission to rigorous scrutiny, the vast majority of zoos and aquariums are very safe and ethical places. All that being said, I do want to give credit to many of the detractors of zoos: there are legitimate concerns that they express, and it is these that I am more interested in discussing than generic criticisms of animal care conditions.

I think that most reasonable concerns brought against zoos and aquariums boil down to a very basic and reasonable concern. Zoos and aquariums, while they may not be negligent in their care of animals, cannot possibly offer to animals the same kinds of experiences and freedoms they would experience, were they not captives. This is, in many ways, completely true. However, it also represents, what I believe, is an increasingly flawed view of the way the world works.

There was a time, perhaps not so long ago, when it was still reasonable to expect that, with enough hard work, there was a large body of species that would be able to be preserved in their natural habitats without significant need for species to be removed from their habitats. That time is past. Today, some studies suggest that as many as a third of all amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and roughly a sixth of all birds are facing extinction. The threats come from a myriad of sources—climate change, poaching, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and the increased risk of disastrous pollution events (think Deepwater Horizon, or Exxon Valdez), to name a few major ones. Additionally, while some post-industrial countries are beginning to see a turn towards green energy sources and conservation entering the mainstream political conversation, more countries are yet to industrialize. In the latter category of countries, smoke spewing from factory chimneys and stacks is seen as a sign of modernity and progress. Expecting to be able to preserve 35% of all life on earth (a “happy medium” scenario; some studies suggest this figure could be as high as 50%) in completely natural situations, when we’ve probably already committed the world’s seas to a mean rise of several inches and when many countries want—and, perhaps, need—to industrialize at any cost, is, at best, naïve; at worst, it strikes me as criminally negligent and ignorant.

In a climate as hostile to the conservation of species as this one, I think that people need to first rethink the purpose that modern zoological facilities fulfill. The model for successful zoos and aquariums has been moving away from a facility built and maintained for the entertainment of people for decades. Increasingly, zoos and aquariums have been relating new mission statements. Education of the public as to the risks facing wildlife, and research in order to better care for and protect individuals, and species, are now often cited as zoos’ primary purposes. This is not just a publicity stunt either.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Panama became the epicenter of one of the most terrifying biodiversity crises of modern times. During this time, it became evident that massive numbers of amphibians were dying off. Huge areas of rainforest, formerly hotspots for research and biodiversity, were, almost overnight, purged of amphibians. The culprit was eventually revealed to be a member of the Chytrid genus of fungi. This particular species of Chytrid fungus lives on the thin, porous skins of amphibians. Because amphibians absorb much of the oxygen they use for respiration through their skin, having something obstructing the pores and thickening the surface of the skin is deadly. The Chytrid seems, most often, to cause death by asphyxiation and cardiac arrest. What’s more, while the fungus vulnerable to some disinfecting agents, it’s not really possible to bleach all of Australia and the Americas, which is about what it would take to eliminate Chytrid from parts of the world that it isn’t native to.

So what is to be done when all the frogs in the wild on three continents are dying? To begin with, they really have to be removed from the wild; otherwise, they will undoubtedly go extinct. Once out of the wild, they can be bred and studied in environments free of the disease. To date, scientists, vets, and zookeepers have managed to keep Chytrid out of the breeding facilities, which house dozens of species and are scattered across the world. What’s more, in this controlled environment, it might be possible to develop a vaccine of sorts to allow for the future release of the frogs.

But the case of the frogs and the fungus is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the importance of zoos and aquariums in conservation. Each day, nearly 100 elephants are killed in Africa. In some portions of central Africa, one in six Chimpanzees are caught in wire snares; most of these will not survive the traumatic experience. In Mexico, almost 80,000 parrots are caught out of the wild each year and smuggled into the US, Europe, and South America for the pet trade. A staggering number of these birds are chicks, and an even higher number—perhaps as many as 85%—do not survive the conditions imposed on them during their travels. For many species that are currently endangered, it is currently far safer to live in zoos and aquariums than in many portions of their wild range. The beauty of zoos and aquariums, however, lies in the fact that a species’ residence in one does not have to be permanent. Take the Golden Lion Tamarin, for example. After a population decline that landed them as a Critically Endangered species in 2003, a breeding program and reintroduction effort spearheaded by the National Zoo, allowed for the establishment of several new (albeit small) populations and, while still listed as Endangered, they are doing far better than they were a decade ago. This demonstrates that if it is possible to return a population to the wild without immediately compromising them, zoos and aquariums are more than willing to do so.

All this being said, zoos and aquariums, by their very natures, exist as public enterprises. Many receive public money, and nearly all really heavily on private donations. Because of this, they cannot spend all of their funds attempting to save species. If they did, they would fail. To keep this from happening, they must be able to exhibit species the public is interested in: thankfully, this includes many endangered species, such as the aforementioned African elephant. On the other, many are not in serious need f conservation. Most penguin species are not considered endangered, but they tend to be popular with guests. Even here, however there is great benefit to having these species exhibited. It is extremely important to bear in mind that people want to understand animals they care about. Therefore, more common, popular, species can be used to educate the public about adaptation, habitat, and ecology—themes that might be harder to impart upon a crowd listening to a species they are only vaguely aware even exists.

Despite the educational benefits, many of the critics of zoos and aquariums will argue that only endangered species that require conservation should be kept in captivity. However, beyond the educational purposes, there are other reasons why you can’t simply just exhibit species of conservation concern. As stated above, the non-threatened species may be far more popular than the threatened ones. These species are the ones that bring the donations, that allow for admissions prices to be raised, that sell cute stuffed toys in the gift shops, etc. Without these species pulling in money, there are no funds available for the species of conservation concern. And if individuals aren’t being taken out of the wild to be exhibited in captivity (which they aren’t—that’s been illegal for decades), and they’re being exhibited in humane conditions (which we’ve already addressed here) and they are fulfilling educational and conservation-functions, then they should not be considered any different than species of conservation concern, and their captivity should be, likewise, considered vital to the preservation of species.

I spent four years in a volunteer program at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. In those four years, I did not meet a single person there that was not dedicated to the care of the animals, and we consistently had animals in excellent exceeding their life expectancies by years and years. The exhibits the animals lived in, especially the newer exhibits are roomy and offer a wide-range of enrichment and very natural, high quality landscaping. In a statement about the Edinburgh Zoo’s new primate facilities, Jane Goodall expressed that “the choice is between living in wonderful facilities like these, where they are probably better off, or living in the wild in an area… where one in six gets caught in a wire snare… [and] are shot for food commercially”. It is time to realize that our world is no longer the place it used to be. Extinct means forever, and for many endangered species, the only thing standing between them and extinction, is a zoo.

Note: Here are some of the resources that I used when writing this, and good places for people interested in conservation, extinction, and zoos, to look into.

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert