Recently I saw a wonderful video, “Potoka Giraffe Runs at Brookfield Zoo.” The weather at their zoo had improved enough that the giraffes could be safely let out of the barn into their yard, and Potoka was galloping about with pure joy.
Yet many of the comments on the video were extremely negative, declaiming that captivity was cruel and captive animals should be set free to live in an idyllic Lion-Kingesque wilderland. I do not think that these commenters were mostly haters or trolls.
I completely understand where this ideological impulse comes from. As a child I visited the Buffalo Zoo several times. The exhibits there were mostly cement boxes with cage fronts where, for instance, tigers lay uncomfortably on display for hours. It was difficult to see how the lives of those animals could be anything but miserable.
There are probably many zoos around the world with similar conditions today. I would not like to google ‘worst zoo.’ However for decades now, developed-world zoos have been running with rather more noble and beneficial objectives than displaying sullen wildlife. Zoos serve several important functions.
Zoos are hubs for intensive research. They are the bases for many important conservation projects that breed and release threatened species repopulating ecologically depleted areas. They serve as safe harbours for individuals who for one reason or another cannot live in the wild. And perhaps most importantly they expose increasingly urbanized people to wildlife and provide populations with educational resources.
It is possible today to live your life entirely disconnected from anything outside urbanity. This impairs people’s ability to have a sensible proportionate understanding of many important issues in conservation, ecological management or environmental issues. It helps people to feel outrage when a Cooper’s Hawk preys on House Finches at their bird feeder. It helps climate-change deniers and industrialists ignore habitat loss.
Zoos have the potential to mitigate ignorance of the natural world and help people make better decisions. But they cannot do that without funding and they cannot get funding without broad public support.
When the Toronto Zoo opened, it was a model of enlightened design. But over the years it has become less so. A big part of this is a loss of funding. Funding cuts are enabled by both public apathy and a failure to understand the value and importance of Zoos.
And while wildlife stands to suffer considerable harm from such an ideology, in the long run, failure to invest in conservation organizations that do something more than role-play publicity stunts, will impoverish us all.