I often find my jobs timely.
This past school year, I worked at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization — and, right on cue, a pro-BDS group formed on campus. This summer, while working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, national debate about zoos resurged after a child fell into the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit, leading to a male silverback gorilla, Harambe, being shot and killed.
We’ve heard the questions before: whether zoos should still exist; what role zoos play in conserving and aiding wildlife; how zoos can care for wide-ranging, intelligent animals in necessarily compact space. This time, though, I’ve approached the debate over zoos with a unique perspective. Working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, I’m not just another occasional zoo visitor; I also know, to an extent, how a zoo works behind the scenes.
What I’ve learned this summer has convinced me that good zoos — note the adjective — are important conservation organizations, playing a necessary role in species survival.
A general mark of a good zoo is AZA accreditation. Approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors have USDA licenses in America — but less than 10 percent of those exhibitors are AZA-accredited. The distinction recognizes the highest standards of operations and animal care. More specifically, though, I use the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as my model. A zoo like Cleveland’s employs staff who care genuinely, deeply, about the welfare of all animals in its care. Moreover, they turn that care into action. In the early 2000s, staff worried the Zoo didn’t care for its African elephants well — so they spent $25 million to build a state-of-the-art elephant exhibit. Concern for the Zoo’s Amur tigers led to the new, stunning Rosebrough Tiger Passage, which opened this summer. That doesn’t mean every exhibit is good — they’re not. Because of how much money it costs to build new exhibits, they can’t be. But the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has recognized its weaknesses and combats rather than ignores them. Our Zoo has improved, and will continue to, instead of remaining stagnant. Our animals benefit from that drive and awareness.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo also supports conservation in the wild. I would know: as my last assignment, I’m compiling a midyear report about all of the Zoo’s field partners and key projects. Altogether, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo runs, partners with or funds 35 organizations and projects, ranging from Education for Nature – Vietnam’s work combating wildlife trafficking in southeast Asia to the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which mitigates human-wildlife conflict to help prevent livestock losses and retaliatory killing of carnivores by local pastoralist people in Tanzania. Our field partners work to protect species as large as elephants and as small as turtles. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is securing a future for wildlife by helping to protect dozens of species around the world.
To me, a good zoo must exhibit those features: active commitment to its animals’ welfare and to wildlife’s survival around the world, in word and deed. Not all zoos match that model. I feel lucky every day I go to work that the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the zoo I grew up knowing and loving, does.
But for many people, those commitments aren’t enough. Some people think keeping wild animals in captivity, no matter how fair the conditions, is morally wrong. Some people reserve that opinion for animals of particularly high intelligence and sensitivity, such as gorillas, dolphins and my beloved elephants.
I understand this position — and often, its holders are right. Too many zoo exhibits serve its animals, particularly sensitive ones, poorly. For two main reasons, however, zoos provide a necessary service in keeping these creatures in human care.
The first is that, to put it frankly, humans suck at respecting other species. Through unsustainable hunting, habitat destruction and other exploitations of the environment, humans have caused the endangerment of hundreds of species, intelligent creatures such as gorillas and elephants among them. To help combat these problems, American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions contribute more than $150 million each year to wildlife conservation efforts worldwide, according to the 2014 AZA Annual Report on Conservation and Science. Zoos have also been involved in the bolstering and reintroduction of more than two dozen species, including the scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, California condor and the Wyoming toad.
I wish, of course, that humans didn’t leave such carnage in our wakes. Yet here we are, with climate change roaring full-speed ahead and dozens of animals extinct because of us. Until we allow our values to undergo a radical shift, we must support zoos and other conservation organizations working to help protect and secure wildlife and habitats to prevent the disappearance of species. And frankly, judging by our broad environmental apathy even today, that point of change won’t come any time soon.
In addition, I consider zoos important for a somewhat more abstract conservation purpose. I believe fully that seeing an animal up close — witnessing just how much larger it is than you, smelling its fur, admiring its habits — is the single best way to make people care about that animal. No photo of an elephant can substitute for seeing one of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s pachyderms in person. I’ve witnessed this effect a few times this summer: young children gazing in awe at the elephants, being dragged away but turning back for one last look.
One instance, however, stands out. A few weeks ago, while observing Willy, the 13,000-pound male elephant, an older couple walked into the building with a baby in a stroller. When they reached the fence in front of Willy’s enclosure, they lifted the baby — a tiny creature, with big, blue eyes and wisps of brown hair — out of the stroller. The older woman held that baby in her arms, facing Willy, and started telling the child about elephants.
The baby interrupted her, with one word: “Wow.” Instantly, the older man and woman began freaking out: that “Wow” was the baby’s first word. And Willy had earned it.
That child didn’t say her first word when she looked at a photo of an elephant. She wasn’t moved to wonder over an illustration. She experienced true awe and amazement when she saw Willy in person — when his wrinkled skin, his floor-length trunk, his reaching tusk were all right there, so close she could almost touch him.
That experience is magical. That experience is what makes people, from infancy to adulthood, care about animals and their conservation. And for the vast majority of individuals, that experience can only happen in the presence of wild animals at zoos.
When I think about my summer at the zoo, I think about that little girl’s beaming grin, with dimples just beginning to bloom. Her instant wonder justifies both my support for zoos and the work I’ve done these past few months. Good zoos can produce as much magic as Disney World, which many more real-world impacts. I’m grateful they exist to help protect species worldwide, and that I’ve been able to contribute in some small way.