Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How to Save Zoos? Focus on Education, Conservation

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How to Save Zoos? Focus on Education, Conservation

Article excerpt

How to save zoos? Focus on education, conservation


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Author: Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, Professor - Applied Evolutionary Ecology, Laurentian University

One of my earlier memories from my childhood is visiting the Frankfurt zoo in Germany. I watched several elephants in an indoor enclosure, and while they were huge and fascinating, it also saddened me to see such magnificent animals in captivity. I also remember having straw thrown in my face by one of those elephants, although my parents dispute this.

Now, with my own children, we visit the Toronto Zoo with all of its animals in more naturalistic enclosures, and the many educational and conservation programs and displays. It's a different world.

For many, zoos are central to some of their favourite memories as children. Seeing lions, tigers and elephants and other less familiar animals, never mind smelling them, can be a wonderful experience.

But the role of zoos in society has led to serious discussion about whether zoos should even exist. A strike earlier this year by workers at the Toronto Zoo had many musing about whether the zoo should re-open at all. The Toronto Star reported that social media and emails they received argued "zoos are outdated, inhumane attractions that should be closed outright, or converted to animal sanctuaries."

That's a widespread sentiment, manifested in part by the existence of organizations such as Zoocheck, which acts to "promote and protect the interests and well-being of wild animals," including those held in captivity.

Zoos a thing of the past?

Some of the negative perceptions of zoos may be the result of their past. The modern zoo is based on a history of colonialism in which exotic animals from faraway lands were brought back for public amusement. A particularly ugly aspect of this history occurred when Indigenous people from colonized countries were also brought to Europe and the United States for display at human zoos, even as late as the 1950s.

While the ethical questions surrounding zoos today are not as controversial, they are no less important.

The social contract that zoos have with society has changed. Due largely to animal welfare concerns, the general public now has a predominately negative view toward the display of animals solely for entertainment, and the traditional zoo as a menagerie is no longer considered acceptable.

The modern zoo must become more than a source of entertainment, and must embrace conservation, research and education as part of its mandate. For example, in its most recent strategic plan, the Toronto Zoo has stated one of its goals is to become a zoo-based "conservation centre of excellence."

Increasingly, zoos must also now be accredited. For example, in Canada, CAZA (Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums) has an accreditation program that ensures animal welfare and promotes conservation research and outreach with the public.

Similar organizations exist globally, including in the United States (where the AZA has taken a global lead in zoo accreditation requirements) and Europe (EAZA). While there is room for criticism about how these organizations manage their programs, it's clear that accredited zoos are the standard to which the modern zoo must be held.

Modern zoos are institutions that reflect complicated and sometimes conflicting values related to entertainment, conservation and animal welfare. …

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