The Cruelty of Nature

Dillard creates a remarkable sense of contrast in the middle part of her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by using the chapter “Fecundity” to upend the reverent tenor that had dominated the book, up until this point. Throughout the book, Dillard has appeared as a sort-of translator. She takes scientific principles and weaves them into an engaging and richly poetic book that makes them accessible to all. And generally, she takes a tone of wonderment at the complexity of nature. She spends pages marveling at the complex veining in a goldfish’s’ fins and she depicts the life and death of a male praying mantis as though from a romance novel, thus giving a powerful surge of emotion to what might otherwise be dry topics.

But then she enters the chapter titled “Fecundity”, and I almost want to say that the wheels come of the train here, but I suppose that isn’t quite fair. In this chapter, the reverence for the complexities and intricacies of nature seem to be replaced with something akin to pure contempt. She writes how:

“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that bird and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, ad that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori” (162).

I find the obvious change in tone to be jarring, as a reader, and interesting, analytically. Jarring, because it occurs with little preamble or warning; interesting, because the “miracle” of new growth seems to be one of the things least likely to cause someone marveling at the processes of life to lose faith in the process. I have a hard time imaging Thoreau or Leopold or Muir declaring the death of older generations and the birth of new ones to be anything but another perfect example of the sublimity of nature.

I understand, in a sense the turn that she makes, and the place from which Dillard comes when she makes these observations. But I find it interesting to see the human emotion on such raw display in this chapter. She has tended to walk a line where her own emotions are portrayed as awed—even over terrible and unfair events, like the great Virginia floods. She also takes her personification of nature further in this chapter than previously, describing it as careless, cruel, and uniquely unkind.

This chapter leaves me with many questions; I wonder why she went to such great lengths to change the feeling of reverence Dillard had built up to this point—after this chapter, she largely returns to her prior attitude, describing instances of connection with nature, and deep insight into the scientific workings of the world. So what was the point? I wonder how she wanted to reader to feel. I was left feeling almost as though she did the topic a disservice. I’m one who is usually in favor of a level of anthropomorphizing and characterizing animals and nature, but this seemed extreme and lacking context to me. I’m curious whether, as the book resolves, this topic will reappear and it will begin to make more sense to me.

Do the Mountains Still Call?

This week’s medley of readings, with the exception of Emerson, consisted of writers who became prominent in the years and decades following Thoreau’s death. Of these writers, I will focus on three—Emerson, Muir, and Leopold. Emerson and Muir have in common, along with Thoreau, that they are amateur naturalists, and their writings are celebrations of the awe-inspiring sublimity of nature. Leopold is a trained scientist, and his writings do, in some ways reflect this, often investigating specific aspects of the natural world and how they are connected.

The obvious questions are how Emerson, Thoreau’s contemporary, compares to him and how environmental writing seems to have developed since these two earlier writers. In some ways, the answers to these questions seem just as obvious. Emerson shares some notable similarities. His discussion of the stars and of the ownership (or lack thereof) of land are remarkably reflective of some passages out of Walden. Leopold is markedly different in content, being far more scientifically bent. In terms of subject, he is less philosophical than Thoreau or Emerson—he is tangible and rooted in the physical, measurable world. Muir falls somewhere between these two, in my estimation. He begins to move towards Leopold in statements such as his declaration in My First Summer in the Sierras, that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. This is a clear allusion to the interconnectedness of nature, a key principle in the natural sciences, from ecology, to cell biology, to biochemistry.

So the differences are apparent and obvious. However, if you’ve been paying close attention to the brief discussion above you have probably already noticed that the differences highlighted are mostly derived from the content the authors write about. In other areas, their writings are actually quite similar. Thoreau by far, uses the most intricate and convoluted literary conventions. His sentences are long and winding and his writings are deeply steeped in metaphor and symbolism. But other stylistic and tonal aspects are held in common between all four writers—particularly Emerson, Muir and Leopold. Perhaps the most obvious of these traits is the tendency to use vivid, powerful imagery. Even Leopold is high descriptive in a way that is far more poetic than we would probably associate with scientific writing today. How many evolutionary biologists have you heard saying or writing “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”? Few, if any, I would imagine.

In many ways, I feel like the deep interconnectedness between celebrating and studying nature, and poetic, engaging writing is lost on many researchers today, who bemoan that the public is losing interest science and discovery. They expect the facts and innovations they uncover to speak to the general public in the same way that the scientists themselves view them. By now, we should be learning that it doesn’t work this way. I firmly believe that a large part of bringing science back to the forefront of the public’s mind is returning to a way of writing about the natural world that has been left behind. The mountains are calling, but unless a new Muir or Leopold tells us, there’s no way most of us will ever know.  

The Wildness of Simplicity

It is easy to think of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a celebration of complete wildness—after all, it was Thoreau who penned the now-famous saying “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. On first glance, or after only a cursory reading, Walden can seem filled with similar sentiments. It cannot be ignored that the book catalogues season upon season spent away from regular human company. Upon closer inspection, however Walden can be read a different way; a way that contains a far more complex message.

The scenes of nature and wildness throughout Walden are tempered by references to a more human and conventionally unnatural presence. In Jedediah Purdy’s 2013 blog piece for the Huffington Post, he reflects on this observation, saying: “The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them.” The ways that Thoreau does this are myriad. In almost every chapter that includes scenes of ecological observation or pastoralism, there is an accompanying reminder of human interference—or, to use Purdy’s word, profanation. Some of these references are more powerful, more visceral, than others. One of the most striking comes from the chapter “Spring”. Thoreau writes:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No you don’t—chickaree— chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.” (230-231)

The cursory read of this passage might seem quite wild—Thoreau is among the animals, after all. His house is among them and he depicts himself as wholly powerless to impose his will upon them. How many of us, born in cities and suburbs, or even in farm country, have even found ourselves in the presence of red squirrels, let alone witnessed their breeding season antics? In today’s world, this rust-colored, thick-furred relative of our familiar gray squirrel is often as much a hermit as Thoreau thought of himself. They stay away in the deep pine woods of New England and only venture south along the wild spine of the Appalachians, where humans are much fewer and further-between.

But then one reads more closely. Thoreau records the cheerful, if odd, music of squirrel courtship and then, if the narrative can be trusted, attempts to quiet the sound. He stamped to disturb them, to see if he could convince them to quiet themselves, or at least to continue their amorous activities elsewhere. Furthermore, the only reason that Thoreau is a witness to the scene is that he has placed himself among the squirrels. They are under his house, one has to assume, since there had been no house there for years. The newcomer is Thoreau, not the squirrels, and it is his presence that causes the tension and drama that is portrayed. When taken in context with the rest of Walden, Thoreau’s presence among the squirrels is, in this reading, the harbinger of the coming suburban sprawl. Thoreau is but an early intruder into the squirrel’s world, simply the member of human society that has struck out furthest from the village first, and will soon be followed by many more.

It is not surprising that this reading is not popular among some. As I write, I can hear generations of self-declared environmentalists and conservationists before me crying foul—how can the great the environmental and ecological saint that is Henry David Thoreau be forerunner to the tremendously destructive building practices of today? And I have a response to those who say this, or rather Thoreau does. In the same breath that he uses to describe his efforts to quiet the squirrels living below him, he says, almost wondrously, that the neighbors were beyond his ability to silence. He goes so far as to describe how they seemed to curse him with their “strain of invective” (pg 231), and pronounce their irreverent tone towards him as being irresistible to hear. The significance of this would be that even as humanity creeped into the woods at Walden Pond, nature was pushing back—thus the wilderness that Thoreau praises is not truly wild because of its purity. Instead, it is wild because it manages to retain a touch of wildness despite the impending violations at the hands of the human world. And in Thoreau’s world, a creature as small and seemingly inconsequential as the button-eyed red squirrel is the focal point of the natural world’s rebellion against the looming threat of human oppression. A Thoreauvian metaphor if ever there was one.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Thoreau’s proclamation on the crucial nature of wilderness is Thoreau’s proclamation on simplicity. In Walden he declares, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (69). This declaration has probably been taken at face value, just as the statement on the necessity of pure wilderness has been. The reader who is unprepared for the commitment and deliberation needed to read can read that statement and assume that they have read all they need to know about Thoreau and simplicity. However, I would argue that there is as much room for conflict in this proclamation as there is in any other Thoreau wrote.

And yet, Thoreau betrays his truer purpose. He does not truly believe in simplicity as we would be expecting to understand it. He may not even truly believe that simplicity is simple. In “Conclusion”, he writes the following of the person who is willing to engage in an experiment as he did with his stay at Walden Pond:

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (241)

He presents simplicity as being the gold standard and a pure thing in one line, and in the very next explains how the act of complicating one’s life is what allows for simplification. The ideas he plays with here—the “expansion” of former knowledge, a newer more “liberal” set of ideals, a “higher order”—these are not the words to describe that which is classically thought of as simple. These words describe deep and complicated thought and reflect what the reader knows to have been long and tumultuous meditation during his time at Walden Pond. Furthermore, the ideas that solitude is not truly to be alone and that poverty is not truly impoverishment are not ideas that are easy for anyone to wrap their heads around. Yet Thoreau claims that these experiences are the signs of having reached a true simplicity in life.

And here lie the ironies of Thoreau; complexity is the key to living simply and understanding plainly. Similarly, wilderness is not truly about being pure and untouched by humans, but about how the wilds of the world push and pull against the encroachment of the human world. The fact that Thoreau presents these two facts in terms that are almost paradoxical is, I think, the saving grace of Walden. In our world, it is easy to be lost in the complexity of the world, and to view our place in that world as hopelessly muddled. It is easier still to decry the loss of wilderness as the greatest crime of our era, and in some way these things are both true. But then Thoreau steps in to remind us that, in order to preserve wildness, the must be something to preserve it against. Without complexities beyond measure to wade through, we can’t reach a simpler understanding of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Our Way to Shore

“Walden” came to a close with two conclusions, much in the manner with which it opened with two introductions. Similarly, one served as a broad and philosophical conclusion, and the other as the conclusion to the “story” of living at Walden Pond. The chapter “Spring” served the latter function. In it Thoreau recounts the way that spring came to Walden, thus ending his recounting of his first full year there. It’s a very visual and sensory chapter, with much time devoted to observing the physical changes that occur in the world—the migration of birds, the melting of ice shelves and sheets on the pond edge, the springing forth of new vegetation, and so on. In the chapter titled “Conclusion” Thoreau zooms far out; he talks about the wideness of the world, of the way he felt he had lived a life at Walden and how returned to town because he had more lives to live. He almost seems, at times to be urging the reader to push the horizons of the world and never to settle into placidity.

I had originally intended to continue to track my investigation of simplicity this week, but upon reading the two linked articles, I want to bring my focus elsewhere, at least at first. I read Kathryn Schulz’s “Pond Scum”, and was torn between equal parts horror and fascination. These emotions were not so much geared towards her conclusions, for in some ways I found them understandable. Instead, it was her presentation of her conclusions. She denounces Thoreau’s apparent moral superiority and lack of humor all the while seeming to assert her moral superiority over him in an entirely draconian and witless manner. She denounces “Walden” for what she perceives as an elevation of individualism and self-importance, but the whole time does not allow for the possibility that Thoreau might have meant something other than the meaning she read. She assumes her reading is the only correct one, and that because she takes issue with his mode of living and because she cannot find humor in his writing that his existence is immoral and his writing is devoid of comedy. In other words, whether she is correct or not, she proves herself to be guilty of every charge she lays at Thoreau’s feet.

On the other hand, I found Purdy’s take to be interesting in that he seemed to glean much of what I did from the book, and also may have offered a solution to my wrestling with the treatment of the concept of simplicity. Purdy seems to suggest that the reading of simplicity is simply the “wrong” reading for the modern era. He quickly acknowledges that “Simple “preservation of the world,” as Thoreau named it, is not an option anymore, just as nothing today is truly wild”, and then moves on discuss why in the modern age there is another, more applicable reading of Thoreau. The reading that not only holds onto the brilliant ecology and environmental observation of Thoreau, but also elevates and investigates the interplay of the natural and the human, and how they existed in each other’s spheres even in Thoreau’s time, as when he observes that

“The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them. It may be that even to think of nature, let alone act on it, is to make it a joint product of human and natural activity, so that even to come to the pond is to profane it, but profanation is simply the condition of the world”.

I believe that this is the direction I will begin to move in. I am not sure I want to abandon simplicity in favor of other arguments as Purdy did, but I will, instead try to link the various spheres of the world with each other and solve simplicity through observation of them.

There are the Stars, Behind the Clouds

This week’s set of readings spanned chapters that addressed everything from educational culture in 19th century America, to the interaction of the human and naturals worlds, to the human interaction (and lack-thereof) that Thoreau experienced in his time at Walden. These themes are from the chapters “Reading”, “Sounds”, and “Visitors”, out of Walden. “Reading” it turns out, is really less about reading than it is about education and state of the average New Englander’s intellect. Thoreau seems deeply concerned that the knowledge of the classics and thus, the truest wisdom of the world, is being lost. “Sounds” then, takes a sharp and surprising turn; after talking about the books he brought with him, and using them to frame and begin his arguments about knowledge, Thoreau acknowledges that he himself have very little time to dedicate to reading and studying his books while at Walden. Instead, he immerses himself in the ways he passed his time, and uses a moment in which he was drifting in thought after work, to discuss—partly through extended metaphor and symbolism—the way the natural and human world were increasingly bumping up against each other. While a standalone chapter “Visitors” really strikes me as a “set” that goes with the prior chapter “Solitude”. Simply by looking at the two titles, a fairly accurate picture of these chapters is painted. Thoreau ruminates on the state of his solitude in one, and in the other, recounts the visitors—from vagabonds to runaway slaves—that he received in his time. In a way, he also presents what he gained from each other these visitors, or at the very least, what attributes about these wayfarers were particularly striking to him.

In keeping with my prior investigation of Thoreau’s treatment of complexity, I found the chapter “Reading” to be one of the most captivating of those I have read thus far. I think that one reason for this, is quite simply that it directly addresses a highly tangible subject matter. It’s easy for a college student to grasp, relate to, and form an opinion, on the matter of education. But even beyond that, there are so many moments of potential contradiction in this chapter. There are far too many to investigate all of them in any detail, so I will highlight one passage that I found particularly powerful. Relatively early in this chapter, Thoreau comments that,

“However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” (Thoreau, 77)

It’s a long passage, a whole paragraph, but in it lies the crux of my fascination with this paragraph. In the last entry, I wrote about I felt that Thoreau was decrying or at the very least, warning to be cautious against over complication. He seemed to be making a case for viewing the world in simpler, plainer terms. Here, it would seem he makes the exact opposite argument. It would appear that Thoreau is attempting to say here that there is a deep necessity to listen past the noise and try and see what is “behind the clouds”. He also seems to suggest that in writing a higher level of thought and expression can be reached, and that the understanding of this expression must be strived for through close and careful examination.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it sounds as though Thoreau is pushing the idea of “complicating” a thought, and thus countering his own argument in favor of simplification. I wonder if he is trying to build to an explanation of how one can look at a complicated thought simply? Or if he truly is using this thread as a way of sounding out his own thought process?

Simplicity

The first two chapters out of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden both feel like introductions, but different “types” of introductions. The chapter titled “Economy” reads like a very detailed forward, in some way: Thoreau establishes what I think of as the premise of the work, namely the ways in which he feels cultured, “civilized” society seems to have lost a purpose by over-advancing. In this first chapter he demonstrates this idea by establishing what he believes are the essentials for human life—these would be food, fuel, clothing, shelter—and then detailing how society has complicated each of these necessities until they have become burdensome and unhealthy to maintain.

The second chapter is more an introduction to the book itself—it is less cerebral, in a way. It discusses how Thoreau had long gone through the motions of purchasing land, and while he had never actually acquired any, he thought of himself as having, at one point, lived in nearly all the farmland that he had seen. He then describes the place where he finally lived outside of his mind; where he built his physical house. Thoreau then becomes more philosophical, and discusses the nature of the simplicity with which he lived. Even though this is a less tangible topic than the earlier part of the chapter, he still grounds this discussion in the location he chose to live, and the way he comported himself while living there.

There were a number of passages which, for one reason or another were particularly attention catching while I was reading. I will admit that some of them were simply because I particularly liked or didn’t like them, and had relatively little additional thinking initially attached to them. However, one section did prompt a stronger, immediate reaction. In the opening of his discussion of simplicity in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” Thoreau writes,

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” (Thoreau, 69)

By this point in my reading, I was not at all surprised that Thoreau would proclaim such a thing. It seemed like he was merely stating in plainer speech an idea he had been ruminating on throughout his work thus far. His bemoaning of the state of the homeowner, his interest in the labor of his own hands, and not of the tools which he sees as dominating his world, and many of the other things Thoreau has written up till now, can all be seen to be extended and complex versions of this simpler declaration.

And so, while it makes perfect sense, it made me wonder at something that might, at first, seem only tangentially related. I almost instantly paused in my reading to wonder at how much one’s times shapes a person. I read a New York Times article (linked below), just today, about the massive loss of species our planet is currently facing. I have read many an article and book about this topic of late, and this one was not, in some ways, any more or less novel than others. But it did impress just how magnificently huge the task of slowing—not stopping, for that ship has long since sailed—the loss of species is. The logistics and coordination involved are astronomical, global, and complicated.

Upon reading about Thoreau’s declaration of how beautiful and desirable simplicity is, in cares and thought and deed, I found myself thinking how selfish such a thing seems to me. The wildness and simplicity that Thoreau dwelt in during the time encompassed in Walden seems destined to vanish. In my experience, the necessity is to see and recognize the complexity of the world. I wonder if I am like the prince in the Hindu story Thoreau relates—too used to my concept of the world as mired in a cobweb of interconnected disciplines and confounding ethical and practical dilemmas of our time, to see that the world is much simpler than I “know” it to be. But then alternately I wonder if Thoreau might have been a product of his time as much as I am mine. Would he have spouted entirely different philosophies if he was trying to retire to Walden Pond in 2016 instead of the 1840s? Would he acknowledge today that complexity is simply the way the world works? Or would he still find a way to see the path to simplicity without forsaking the natural world to a tragic fate?

Word Count: 762

Links…

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.

http://www.ranadorada.org/captive_propagation.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/2011241/Is-Jane-Goodall-about-to-lose-her-post.html

http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/

http://www.goscienceseven.com/ecology/ecology%20unit%20pdf/studAmphibianextinction.pdf

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/science/zoos-bitter-choice-to-save-some-species-letting-others-die.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert