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Can Zoos Save Animals from Extinction?

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Ruffed lemurs at the St. Louis Zoo – part of a program to save the species in Madagascar

As the number of species at risk of extinction soars, zoos are increasingly being called upon to rescue and sustain animals, and not just for marquee breeds like pandas and rhinos but also for all manner of mammals, frogs, birds and insects whose populations are suddenly crashing.

The New York Times explores how zoos are trying to join the efforts of nonprofits to salvage animals around the world who are heading rapidly into extinction.

Writer Leslie Kaufman visits the St Louis Zoo and sees how the people there are trying to make decisions about which kinds of animals they can perhaps help – like through captive breeding programs – and how they have to make triage-type decisions as to the ones they simply can't take on.

In 2006, [Dr. Jeffrey P. Bonner, president and chief executive] assembled his senior curators — each in charge of a different class of animal — along with donors and city planners to help make painful choices.

At meetings like this, budget issues crash into each other. The zoo decides to spend $18 million on a new pool for sea lions. But sea lions aren't remotely endangered; it's just that they're one of the most popular attractions at the zoo. To which you might reasonably say, well, if that's what people buy tickets for, then that's the way it works. Except that the zoo is funded by public, taxpayer dollars. And what's left of the budget after these "improvements" are made is not remotely sufficient to run a real program for endangered animals. Instead, frogs and other amphibians who need help but who aren't zoo attractions, are stuffed into cupboards and other small spaces in hopes they can still be helped.

And that takes us to the heart of the problem:

In their first century, American zoos plucked exotic animals from the wild and exploited them mainly for entertainment value, throwing in some wildlife education and a touch of preservation. When wilderness began disappearing, causing animals to fail at an accelerating pace, zoo officials became rescuers and protectors. Since the 1980s, zoos have developed coordinated breeding programs that have brought dozens of animals, like the golden lion tamarin of Brazil, back from the brink.

The increasingly difficult challenge is to be a force for conservation while continuing to put on a show.

But with all the good intentions of the zoo officials, the two missions are simply not compatible. Writing a separate post on her own blog, Kaufman says:

The problem, most zoo officials say, is that supporting their live animal collections is so expensive that they do not have money left over to finance conservation in the wild.

And the zoos are inevitably deceiving themselves as well as the public when they say that they are "educating" people to care about wildlife.

... Are zoos really handling their live collections in a way that helps their kin in the wild? Zoo officials say part of their mission is to inspire visitors to contribute more to conservation, but it is hard measure how successful they are at doing so.

Animals don't need to be managed and saved and given charity. They need to be left alone.

Note the use of the word "collections". That's basically how the animals are seen – in the same way as we describe art collections or antiques. They're something you collect and admire, but they're not seen as living beings with lives of their own to be left to lead those lives without being captured, bred and exhibited.

This is not to pour too much cold water on the efforts of caring people at many zoos who want to help. But it is to say that as long as nonhuman animals are seen as things to be exploited by being collected and exhibited, we will fail in our efforts to "manage" them and "save" them. Animals don't need to be managed and saved and given charity. They need to be left alone.

Of course, that's not going to happen. The genie is long gone from the bottle, and the exploitation is way beyond containment. Efforts to do a bit of good on the side – on the part of the very institutions who led the exploitation – will accomplish little.

We should at least understand, however, that as long as zoos see themselves primarily as a source of entertainment – which is all they can ever be – their efforts to use their "collections" to save some of the animals is somewhat akin to an elite furniture store setting aside a few dollars to protect mahogany trees in the rainforest.

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