Critics Question Zoos' Commitment to Conservation

Zoos have acted as safe havens for many endangered species. But many critics call 'foul', saying zoos have stepped far beyond conservation.

Since approximately 1250 B.C., when ancient Egyptian records describe birds, lions, and giraffes in captivity, zoos have entertained millions with exotic animals behind bars. Today, with species threatened and habitats disappearing worldwide, zoos are playing a new role in conservation. But are they really achieving what they claim? A growing number of critics argue no.

According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), there are over 10,000 zoos worldwide. In the U.S. alone, the Department of Agriculture licenses 2,400 "animal exhibitors," of which 212 are members of the AZA, an organization that requires high standards of animal care, science, and conservation.

Accredited zoos are expanding their efforts far beyond keeping animals alive in captivity. No longer simply modern-day arks, many zoos have become strongly proactive in conserving wild animals, reintroducing endangered species, and restoring habitats. Last year, AZA zoos carried out 2,230 research and conservation projects, half of which were field projects in over 80 countries. Many of these projects were partnerships with over 575 nonprofit, governmental, and private organizations.

The Toledo Zoo has been working with the Nature Conservancy for a decade to link its Karner blue butterfly breeding program with the restoration of the butterflies' habitat in the oak savannas of Ohio. The Minnesota Zoo's "adopt-a-park" program donates resources to help save some of the last Sumatran and Javan rhinos on Earth.

As important as conservation is, so is education. People look to zoos as learning centers. According to a 1992 Roper poll study, zoos and aquariums were the third most trusted messenger of wildlife conservation and environmental issues, trailing only National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau.

"I see the conservation education efforts of zoos and aquariums becoming more essential in the future as the trends toward urbanization increase [and interactions with wildlife decrease]," says Michael Hutchins, Director of Conservation and Science for AZA. New studies and innovative measures are being undertaken to move education beyond often-ignored signposts by animal enclosures.

At the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, visitors use touch-screen computers to choose which animal in the real African Congo their admission fee will go towards saving. Since the exhibit opened in 1999, more than U.S. $3 million of those admission fees have been used for the zoo's conservation projects in central Africa. Heralded as a model exhibit, it allows visitors to learn practical information and to put this knowledge to use.

The Bronx Zoo, along with four other New York City zoos and aquariums, is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The WCS is considered a world leader in designing innovative exhibits and effective environmental programs that reach an international audience, with conservation projects in 53 countries.

The Critics

While conceding that zoos have become more proactive and benevolent in their efforts, critics still feel that "good zoos" are in the minority. Among the 2,400 animal enclosures licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 212 are under the strict regulatory umbrella of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The other 2,188 are not.

David Hancocks, a former zoo director with 30 years' experience, estimates that less than 3 percent of the budgets of these 212 accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts. At the same time, they point to the billions of dollars spent every year on hi-tech exhibits and marketing efforts to lure visitors. Many zoos not affiliated with the AZA spend nothing on conservation.

Conservation efforts aren't always successful. Benjamin Beck, former associate director of biological programs at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., found that in the last century, only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild. Of those, most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos.

"Zoos, overall, are still menageries," said Rob Laidlaw, a captive wildlife specialist and executive director of ZooCheck, an organization he founded to help ensure captive animals receive proper care. Overall, he believes, there are too many animals in too little space. "Zoos keep animals alive, but they can't maintain all of the behavioral or social aspects of these species in their current enclosures."

When it comes to education, Hancocks points to studies saying visitors leave zoos feeling uninspired and uneducated. Rather than walking out determined to help save wildlife, they go away disenchanted. He wonders if this indifference is due in part to outdated animal enclosures, inadequate space, and the poor quality of "natural" habitat exhibits, such as a reliance on artificial-looking synthetic rocks.

"Zoos have painted themselves as saviors of the wild," says Hancocks. "I fear this has instilled a false sense of security in the public mind. Many people now believe they don't have to worry about saving animals, because zoos are doing the job."

"Uninventing" Zoos

Both sides agree that zoos can be peerless tools for conservation and education. Both Hancocks and Hutchins would like to see zoos enact greater conservation measures in the wild and become more "ecosystem-based," with larger enclosures and more natural vegetation and surroundings. Highlighting local ecosystems is also highly stressed.

However, they diverge when it comes to making this happen. Hancocks says zoos need to "uninvent" themselves into new institutions. Most important, he says, they need to rid themselves of outmoded, display-only attitudes and establish new priorities.

"Sadly, too many zoos are playing the fiddle while forests are cut and burned," says Hancocks. "They are putting their creativity into self-congratulatory messages rather than into tackling the big, bad, really ugly problems that exist in the wild."

Hutchins, on the other hand, believes that institutions are "right on track," adding that "most if not all [AZA institutions] would like to move towards this ideal conservation movement, if they had the resources." As always, changes of this magnitude require significant funding, a difficult mission in times when public funding is dwindling.

Hutchins believes that as zoos' priorities continue to evolve, so will their funding. He cites a study done at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo which found that conservation, research and educational programs offered the best opportunities for attracting new funders. As the public increasingly views zoos as protectors of wildlife, they want to see their money going towards the preservation of a habitat or species in the wild, not just the construction of a new building.

"Today, more than ever, zoos need to think harder [about] why they are there and what role they will fill in conservation, education, and research," Hutchins adds. "Millions of dollars go to house artwork in museums, but there are more Rembrandts in the world than there are Siberian tigers."