Critics Question Zoos' Commitment to Conservation

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"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 He wonders if this indifference is due in part to outdated animal enclosures, inadequate space, and the poor quality of "natural" habitat exhibits, such as a reliance on artificial-looking synthetic rocks.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."

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