The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, recently published an article addressing conservation efforts in relation to animal rights. This, (and an interesting discussion on Tumblr,) has inspired me to delve deeper into the issue of zoos, aquariums, and conservation.
In response to the question of whether or not zoos and aquariums are important, a post was made in a discussion on Tumblr by a captivity supporter citing The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) handbook entitled “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter.” The handbook focuses on education as contributing to wildlife conservation. Part 1 of the handbook, explains the results of a study which polled the general public, religious leaders, politicians, and conservation biologists. The poll found that the majority of the public, religious leaders, and politicians, support zoos and aquariums. However, “more than half,” of the conservation biologists polled had been anti-zoo and aquarium at one point, criticizing such facilities for their lack of education and conservation efforts. No more data regarding the opinions of conservationists on zoos and aquariums is provided in the handbook. This is unfortunate because conservation biologists are the individuals who directly observe the affects of conservation efforts by zoos on wild populations.
The rest of the handbook focuses on a survey of the general public, and their views on whether or not zoos and aquariums are fun and educational. The opinions of the public on these facilities, hold no bearing in whether or not zoos and aquariums are actually educational, or conservation-oriented.
In truth, there is no evidence to suggest that people learn about animals at zoos and aquariums, at all. In fact, a study conducted by the AZA demonstrates that people do not increase their overall knowledge of animals at zoos and aquariums, and only 10% of those in the study had an increase in knowledge of conservation. The only major affect of zoos and aquariums had on their patrons, came in the form of an attitude change toward the environment. A little over half (54%) of people left the facilities feeling more responsible for environmental issues. Of course, whether or not these feelings manifest into actions is not supported by any evidence whatsoever.
If education of the public related to an increase in conservation efforts, it logically follows that countries and areas with the most zoos and aquariums should be world leaders in conservation. However, there are countries such as Japan, that have more aquariums and marine parks than any other country on the planet, yet also are the world leader, not in conservation, but in whaling and dolphin slaughter.
Another link I received to support the view that zoos and aquariums have an important role in conservation, took me to this article . The article uses the main argument employed in defense of the captivity industry’s conservation efforts: that zoos and aquariums are saving endangered species through reintroduction programs. Captive breeding programs are seen as an insurance against extinction. Even some supporters of marine parks claim that the captive breeding of orcas and dolphins is an act of conservation to preserve the species in case they were to become endangered in the future. In reality, many captive whales and dolphins could not be released because their owners have not preserved their genetic diversity to make them suitable for life in the wild. Many captive orcas are unnatural hybrids, as would be their offspring, which means that their entire lineage would be unsuitable for release. Does possible reintroduction of future generations justify the current captivity of animals?
There are 233 AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, but only 43 species reintroduction programs. Many species reintroduction programs are not zoo or aquarium based, but are based on government and wildlife agencies. Benjamin Beck for the Reintroduction Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC), used data from reintroduction programs to determine how successful such programs are in creating a viable wild population out of an endangered species. He found that only 16% of reintroduction programs were successful. (Ethics on the Ark x) This may be due to the fact that the species are being reintroduced into the same situation and habitat which endangered them in the first place. Zoos and aquariums tend to believe that they can save wildlife by bringing it indoors, but do little to help preserve the land. In fact, some of them are environmental polluters themselves, and in the very least encourage the high-consumption American culture that is so damaging to the environment.
The fact that there are few reintroduction programs, and such a small success rate, should be enough to take this off the list of defenses for animal captivity. However, even the promotion of these programs by zoos, have their own harmful side-effects. Zoos and aquariums often promote reintroduction methods as if they were arks, built to preserve and save the world”s endangered species.”So far, zoos have had only a modest, and in some cases insignificant, involvement in reintroduction efforts, yet, as an industry, they have grossly overstated their own importance in this area, often for self-serving reasons.” (x) The public picks up on this message and as a result, an attitude of complacency may grow among zoo patrons who believe that zoos and aquariums are solving the problem of wildlife endangerment, when in fact, they are not. This also promotes a man-manipulates-nature attitude which is oftentimes what endangers a species in the first place.
Zoo and aquarium conservation also helps to harm wildlife in that it focuses on the preservation of a species as a whole rather than the welfare of individual members. Oftentimes individual animals must be sacrificed in a captive setting in an attempt to save their species. “You have to be prepared to have a very objective cost-benefit analysis,” says the Chair of Zoology at the University of Adelaide. Another issue is the single-species management promoted by zoos and aquariums. That is – the attention is on attractive species, rather than a variety of biological collections which rely on each other for their existence. People are often drawn to zoos or aquariums because they want to see one attractive species (which the facility often spends vast amounts of money promoting and advertising.) As a result, other species are often put on the back burner.
Many of the arguments for zoos and aquariums comes from arguments proposed by the AZA. In reality, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the zoo and aquarium industry. Focusing on the glossy image of AZA credited facilities gives a sanitized view of the industry as a whole, which also consists of sideshows, and run-down facilities.
I have included a lot of information in this post, but I hope that it wasn’t too difficult to understand. There is obviously so much more information that I did not touch on in this post that can be found by reading “Ethics on the Ark: Zoo & Aquarium Biology and Conservation” by various authors, or “Last Animals at the Zoo: How mass extinction can be stopped” by Colin Tudge.