5 Things We are Being Harangued into Telling Ourselves About Zoos

Hello, all!  It’s been awhile since I have written and there is really no other reason other than… life.  Life just gets in the way and, I will admit, I am already setting my sights on holiday posts and shenanigans.  I know, I know.  It’s only late September but I just can’t help myself.

Holiday photos and shenanigans, such as these, take preparation, people!
Holiday photos and shenanigans, such as these, take preparation, people!

And then, this article kept cropping up on my Facebook feed.  It’s titled, “5 Things We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves About Zoos.”  My friends would post it; groups that I am a part of would share it and express their disbelief.  I heard chatter at work, asking if we had seen or read it.  For me, it sounded like another excellent example of word vomit.  However, after seeing the link for the umpteenth time I went ahead and took the click-bait.  I grabbed a glass of wine and prepared myself for a purge of unbridled anthropomorphism and fashionable rage.  I read it… and was a little surprised.  No, there was nothing new about the reasons why society should attack zoos with pitchforks and torches.  The surprising part was that the author seemed to try and show some restraint, presenting the shadows of a traditionally persuasive argument.  As I have mentioned before, I hold cogent discussions in high regard… so, please.

Allow me to retort.

Lllleeet's get ready to RUM-BLE!!
Llllleeet’s get ready to RUM-BLE!!

Proposed Myth #1:  Zoos are for Conservation.

No dancing around here, the author went right for the heart of why we do what we do.  I respect that.  The author states,

While some zoos may contribute in small ways to conservation projects, the vast majority of animal species in zoos are not on the endangered list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat.”

Contribute in small ways.  Huh.  All of the education offered in dozens of ways to society by zoos  and aquariums notwithstanding, let’s get to what the author is referring to.  MONEY.  Zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)  alone provide an annual sum of $160 million in funds for conservation projects around the world.  Over 2500 projects in over 100 countries, to be exact.

Sea World parks alone, who I mention because my “opponent” did, has given well over $10 million in grants through their conservation fund that was founded in 2004 by Ginny Busch.  This does not include the $10 million they recently pledged to research of the critically endangered resident orca populations.  100% of the fund is given to conservation and research projects; this does not include any donations or monies spent from profits made by the parks.  There is plenty more money, time, blood, sweat, and tears that all zoos and aquariums have given gladly over the years towards conservation.  It just takes some looking (or talking to us like human beings) to find the information because we are just now beginning to “blow our own horns”.

Want to know who donates the most to conservation?  American sportsmen contribute $3 million a day directly to wildlife conservation and protection through license fees, land usage fees, and excise taxes.  That’s almost $1.1 billion a year.

This work has been done quietly for decades.  Haters gonna hate but it doesn’t make all of that work or donations disappear.

I said a hip hop, Hippie to the hippie, The hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop, a rock it To the bang bang boogie, say, up jump the boogie, To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.
I said a hip hop,
Hippie to the hippie,
The hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it
To the bang bang boogie, say, up jump the boogie,
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

Now, let’s look at our AR “free the cages” friends over at the author’s table.  PeTA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are the first two non-profits that come to mind.  As non-profits, all (or at least most) of their monies should be going towards conservation and/or education.  Right?  They wouldn’t possibly thumb their nose at our efforts if theirs didn’t at least match what zoos and aquariums were providing?

Here is the most recent report for PeTA on Charity Navigator (CN), where they earn 2 out 4 stars as a non-profit… meaning by CN’s standards, they are poor to middling in funneling donations towards much else other than crass campaigns aimed directly at your gag reflex.

Says the troglodyte that swallowed, and then vomited, a live goldfish for his television show. Wonder how much this stunt cost you, taxpayers?
Says the troglodyte that swallowed, and then vomited, a live goldfish for his television show. I wonder how much this stunt cost you, taxpayers?  Your compassion for animals underwhelms me, Steve-O.

The HSUS seems to be trying to clean their act up after an embarrassing “Donor Advisory” was issued by Charity Navigator in 2014.  They were channeling their inner Ebenezer Scrooge and giving less than 1% of their donations (around $135 million annually) to the programs they touted to support.  So tell me, HSUS, when exactly was it that you decided to rip off millions of consumers who fell prey to those tear jerker commercials?  Was it the plan from the jump or was it just too hard to see all that cash slip through your fingers?

greedy
Just remember, AR folks. When you point a finger, you have three more pointing back at you. #oldschool

As for “the vast majority of animal species in zoos are not on the endangered list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat”, that’s just straight up bamboozling.  Rescue and release is a heavily mandated process through the federal government.  Release is always the goal with wild animals that are rescued.  It is vital to get them back out there so they can breed.

Many of the animals that we care for permanently that are endangered, or critically endangered, are bred in the hopes of sustaining a population that could replace what’s going extinct.  This would happen in “utopia” when society finally joins hands to stop destroying their habitats, but we are always hopeful.  It will likely take several generations to faze ourselves out of the process if it happens; none of this matters yet because their natural world is on fire.  So, in order to sustain our populations, this means we trade as part of our Species Survival Program (SSP) to keep the bloodlines fresh and the genetics diverse.  Want to know what animals are threatened, endangered, or critically endangered so you can cross reference your local zoo?  Here you go, check it out.

Some animals we care for are not endangered, but are invasive or were confiscated (again, by the government) from irresponsible citizens. I have seen facilities housing tigers that were bought by drug dealers (Tony Montana-style), alligators raised on houseboats, monkeys with their teeth removed because they kept biting the person who bought them and pythons that suddenly weren’t so fun to own as a pet once they reached 11 ft. in 5 short years.  Many more animals were born at their facilities and humans are a part of their life, rendering them horribly vulnerable to harm in the wild.

There is much more to be said on this, but alas, I must move on.

Well, at least they aren't feeding potato chips or cheeseburgers. *facepalm
Well, at least they aren’t feeding potato chips or cheeseburgers. *facepalm

Proposed Myth #2: Zoos are the best way to learn about animals

Let’s all be honest, this is mired in opinion and we all know there is no shortage of those flying about.  There have been some studies done here, here, and here.  Some were written (or funded) by AR advocates and some by zoo advocates.

Ultimately, I can only speak for myself and what I have experienced firsthand.  I have personally spoken to thousands of people over the last 15 years as part of my job.  I have reached them from multiple posts; aquarist, biologist, marine mammal trainer, educator, and curator.  Did I get to everyone?  No.  Does everyone go to a zoo or aquarium to learn?  No, they don’t.  They predominately want to touch things, take awesome photos/selfies, and ride roller coasters.

Best. Photobomb. Ever.
Best. Photobomb. Ever.

The thing is that we don’t care what brought you through the door.  Once you are there, it is our job to jam some knowledge into your head and to plant the seed of critical thinking.  So for me, based on my 15 years of experience with endlessly discussing the same topic with the level of enthusiasm of doing it for the first time, this is my educated and professional opinion…

Zoos and aquariums are our loudest and most effective voices for learning about our natural Earth and its inhabitants, as well as the challenges they face.

Proposed Myth #3: Zoos are a ‘normal’ part of society

Okey doke.  Let’s look at the traditional definition of “normal”.

nor·mal

adjective

Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

noun

The usual, average, or typical state or condition.

So, what our author is implying is that you have been conditioned over time to just see the “abuse” of animals in human care as normal.  Did you have any idea that you were so weak-minded?  Neither did I.  The article then goes on to compare zoos to freak shows of yore and refers to the fascination we had with humans (on display) that were profoundly different or of novel quality.  Um, we still do that, genius.  It’s called “reality television”.

Just one of MANY examples of our modern day freak show...
Just one of MANY examples of our modern day Freak Shows…

There is not a single zookeeper or animal care professional who will even try to say that their habitats are the size of the wild.  What they will tell you is that they go to agonizing lengths to mimic every resource and environmental event that they need to behave naturally, independently and socially.  What they will tell you is that their animals are not releasable, which is a decree that is made by our federal government.  Take a wild guess what the other option is for most of them?  It rhymes with “sleuth-en-asia”. (I’m looking at you PeTA) 

What they will also tell you is that the better we do our jobs, the more naturally our animals interact with their environment and the more we learn about them and their intrinsic needs.  In turn, this helps us more effectively communicate to our guests how our choices as a human population affect their wild counterparts. 

Make all the sweeping statements about how vile you find zoos but our participation in research cannot be dismissed because it doesn’t fit in your “empty the cages” rhetoric.

I know, I know.
I know, I know. “Zoos are bad, m’kay?” and hearing anything else makes your face pucker.

Proposed Myth #4:  Animals are happy in zoos

Okay, I have answered this question myself many a time and it just takes a fundamental grasp of biology and animal behavior.  There is no way for us to tell if an animal is “happy” by the way we define “happy” as humans.  This is a perfect example of our author playing with anthropomorphism to make a point.  What we can do as zoo professionals is look for behavioral cues that let us know how animals are receiving their environment.  A wild animal’s day is focused on one thing: survival.  Every day is spent satisfying the first tier on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; physiological.  They don’t have the luxury of sitting around and musing if they are “happy”.  We (humans) can only do so through endless years of evolution and probably why we are so neurotic.

BTW, my activist friends.  Do you notice what is on the first tier?  Sex.  Keep that in mind when you scream for the termination of breeding programs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Animals in our care have food, shelter, and all the other components provided for them without fail which then leads us to securing their mental health and enrichment.  What the author of this little think piece is trying to underpin his argument with is a phenomenon we call “stereotypical behaviors”.  It’s when, for any myriad of reasons, an animal repeats a behavior for noticeable time periods.  It can be a reaction to an internal or external stimulus.  It’s something we look for with a critical eye as it can be a warning sign that something is up.  And what is “zoochosis”?  That is a term coined by animal rights activists and not a term we use in zoological facilities.  Psychosis is, again, a human condition that is still very much in the research phase.  Science learns more every day.  Funny, while we are still learning the inner workings of human psychosis, our friends in the AR movement purport to know the inner workings of an animal mind.

That’s truly extraordinary.

Nobody does.
Nobody does.

As for eating excrement?  Sometimes this can be a stereotypical behavior; sometimes it is completely normal.  It depends on the species, the social group and hierarchy, the overall health and diet of that species, if an animal is in estrous, and many other variables.  They are not humans so eating feces isn’t something that earns them social ostracism.  So please, if you see your male dog lapping up urine recently evacuated by a female dog do NOT flip out and diagnose them with “zoochosis.”

Besides, the vet knows you only want that diazepam for yourself. *wink*

drugs

And finally (Thank God), we are at the final myth.

Proposed Myth #5:  Zoos Care.

*Sigh.*  You can make up your own mind on this one.  This “point” has the feel of the circle jerk of “I know you are but what am I?”  Talk to your local zoo or aquarium professionals and ask what their experiences are.  Ask the rescue and rehab workers what it’s like to be them and the emotional exhaustion they experience.  This “myth” is a paper tiger and, quite frankly, the author doesn’t even support this argument well him or herself.  What caught my eye was the suggestion of “observing animals in the wild or visit a sanctuary”.   Really?  So, viewing animals in a sanctuary is different than viewing them in a zoo.  Why?  Because they are non-profits?  I think the majority of sanctuaries are performing miracles, having to rely on the scraps society throws them to provide quality care.  It’s either feast or famine with a sanctuary; when animals are fashionable they have funds pouring in.  When the attention dies down, it’s back to pulling veggies from their own homes to create a diet that day.  Guess who donates a lot of money, resources, staff, and support for many sanctuaries on a consistent basis while society tunes in and out at their leisure?

Come on…you know!  You only get one guess!

If you said, “For-profit zoological facilities”, you are correct!

I'm always down for cookies.
I’m always down for cookies.

Now, the suggestion to go out in the wild for a “natural encounter” as an alternative.  There are some great programs and some terribly destructive ones.  As the demand for wildlife encounters grows, legislation is simply not keeping up and funds are scarce to enforce existing regulations.  Watch a perfect example of a “legal” area to swim with federal protected manatees and the ramifications shown HERE.  Our Florida Manatees migrate to find warmer waters annually, they cannot tolerate water below 68 degrees.  It is imperative they find it in time (and stay there) to avoid cold stress and the subsequent frostbite (necrotic tissue and loss of limbs), suppressed immune systems, and respiratory issues.

So, yes.  I strongly support the avenue of viewing animals in human care when this is the other option.  A thousand times, yes.

At the end of the day, make up your own mind.  Utilize your critical thinking skills and determine for yourself how you feel about zoos, aquariums, and animals living in human care.  Maybe it will lead you to support your local zoo/aquarium or maybe it will lead you to contributing to conservation in your own, effective way.  It is, and always will be, your choice.

Ultimately, the most unpleasant experience I’ve seen imposed on any animal today while writing this was forcing a Santa hat on that cat.  You live life on the edge, sir.

I have a Gator game that is beckoning (GO GATORS!) so, until next time…

Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll!

We bleed Orange and Blue!
We bleed Orange and Blue!
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