A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Zoos Talk about Their Conundrum

zoos-1-082912How much should a zoo tell its visitors about what’s happening in the wild to the kinds of animals they have in captivity?

Should they risk scaring people away by saying that we’re already deep into a Sixth Great Extinction? Or should they keep quiet and just say a few fun things about how fast, for example, a cheetah can run?

An article by New York Times environment reporter Leslie Kaufman delves into the question and offers some unusual insights from the people who run the zoos and admit to being leery about telling their visitors very much of value:

Many managers are fearful of alienating visitors — and denting ticket sales — with tours or wall labels that dwell bleakly on damaged coral reefs, melting ice caps or dying trees.

Instead, most zoos do things like putting up a sign near the polar bear exhibit saying that the Arctic is melting, but won’t go further than that.

Paul Boyle, vice president for conservation and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the trade association of the captivity industry, explains that during the 1980s and 1990s, when zoos and aquariums tried to inform their visitors about things like the destruction of the rain forest, the visitors didn’t like it:

“The [zoos] wanted to attract people’s attention, but what we saw happening over time was that everyday people were overwhelmed.” It did not help that a partisan split had opened in the United States over whether global warming was under way, and whether human activity was the leading cause.

With its predominantly conservative audience and patronage, the Georgia Aquarium is especially queasy about introducing people to the plight of the kinds of animals they have on display:

Brian Davis, the vice president for education and training, says to this day his institution ensures its guests will not hear the term global warming. Visitors are “very conservative,” he said. “When they hear certain terms, our guests shut down. We’ve seen it happen.”

Other zoos and aquariums agree. Some of them try to find acceptable ways of passing on a message about conservation:

Today’s guides also make a point of encouraging groups to focus first on the animals, leaving any unpleasant message for later.

At the New England Aquarium’s giant reef tank, visitors peered over the side and watched sand tiger sharks, sea turtles and tropical fish swim around a giant coral reef. As a diver entered the tank to feed the fish, a guide explained that the smaller ones tend to hide in coral for safety.

A few minutes passed before she told the crowd that corals around the world are bleaching and dying because of a pronounced rise in ocean temperature and acidity.

Upon leaving, the visitors were briefed on positive steps they could take, like using public transportation or bikes and being cautious about energy consumption.

Most zoos do have some kind of pro forma message about climate change. And a few are actively working to balance the fact they’re holding animals captive with the fact that they have an obligation (a legal obligation when it comes to captive marine mammals) to educate the public.

Working with cognitive scientists and experts in linguistics and anthropology, a coalition of aquariums set out in 2008 to develop a patter that would intrigue rather than daunt or depress the average visitor. After the group was pleased with the script, it secured a grant of about $1 million last year from the National Science Foundation to train staffs across the nation. This month, the foundation awarded the group an additional $5.5 million for a five-year education effort.

But other scientists are somewhat dubious of the notion that going to a zoo can be an educational experience. After all, any zoo is, by definition, in the business of stopping wildlife from being in the wild.

“Zoos have been making claims about their educational value for 150 years,” said Jeffrey Hyson, a cultural historian and the director of the American studies program at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The zoos “say a lot more about what they think they are doing than they can really demonstrate.”

The complete article is here. But if a zoo or marine park is claiming that a major part of its raison-d’etre is to educate people about wildlife and the natural world, but is also explaining why it can’t fulfill that mission, then you have to conclude that there’s something about the whole model that simply isn’t working.