Caring about Conservation, I Support Zoos

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.


Near Work’s End, Tackling a Pachyderm-Sized Problem

It’s strange that as of today, July 21, I have about one month left working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo — really, less, since I’m taking a pre-planned vacation August 7-12. My individual days don’t rush past me, but every time I look back, weeks seem to have flown by.

My responsibilities so far haven’t changed much. I still do regular observations of the elephants, and still delight in seeing their individuality. I still watch footage of the elephants at night, documenting their instances of play and recumbent sleep. (I wish everyone could see Moshi and Martika play-spar with each other, I really do.) I still do assorted conservation assignments, helping out with and other work.

Currently, though, I have one big project — not my last one, but still significant. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the nonprofit accrediting body which includes more than 230 institutions in the U.S. and abroad, provides some resources for zoos and educators to teach the public about conservation issues. Yet AZA members do not currently have easy access to educational materials and resources about the second-biggest threat to wildlife worldwide, the fourth most profitable global crime: the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade has contributed to the demise of not just my loves, elephants, but also rhinos, tigers, orangutans, pangolins, snow leopards (Cleveland has a baby right now!), Asian turtles — the list goes on. Dozens of species are threatened by poaching to meet human greed, not to mention those species’ environments and the livelihoods of people who live there

Unlike many of our world’s problems, such as Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, the illegal wildlife trade is solvable. We can stop it. Public awareness reduces demand for wildlife products. Trade bans actually work if they aren’t sabotaged. The trick is raising that public awareness: to lessen demand, to encourage lawmakers to pass trade bans and to make it harder for corrupt politicians to circumvent those bans for personal interest. (Unashamed plug: if I’ve now made you aware and you want to reduce demand, go here. If you want America to have one of those lovely trade bans, go here.)

Because AZA’s zoos and aquariums receive more than 183 million visitors every year, AZA has a unique opportunity to influence the public’s views about the illegal wildlife trade. Hence my big project right now: writing a proposal for AZA to develop resources about the illegal wildlife trade for its member institutions to use.

It’s important work, and I’m honored my supervisor Kym is trusting me to write it. It’s also, as you can probably guess, very challenging. I’ve never written a formal proposal of this sort before. As I write, I’m figuring out how I want to structure my proposal; how many facts I can include without sounding overbearing; which sources I should cite; what resources, exactly, AZA should make. And that’s just the beginning: because I work over-carefully, I’ve confronted far more quandaries, large and small, than just those. (Focusing on the proposal without going on Facebook is a whole issue in and of itself. I’m working on it.)

Even though this proposal relies most on my existing skills — writing; organization; persuasion, to a degree — it’s become my hardest assignment. That’s been an important reminder of humility, and an even better opportunity to improve as a student and worker. This paper is far from my last assignment, but for the first time this summer, I feel my job winding down.

After all, I just have three weeks left. I’m at the end of this column now, and that’s still bizarre.

Courtesy of Zimbabwe and China, Another Threat to Elephants: Enslavement

Nature University | National Geographic

Nature University | National Geographic

It seems that where elephant welfare is concerned, every rose has its thorns — or every pole has its hook.

Yesterday, I rejoiced over America and China’s joint agreement to enact near-total ivory bans. The move represented a huge breakthrough in saving elephants, as China and the U.S. are the world’s first- and second-largest ivory consumers. I squealed when I saw the headline; I posted a brief, impassioned status about it on Facebook. For not even a day, I had renewed hope that perhaps, we can save elephants from extinction — perhaps, we can afford them the lives they deserve as emotional, sentient beings.

Now, again, I bow my head in despair.

In March, the Zimbabwean government captured 80 elephant calves, stealing them from their families in Hwange National Park and storing them in cages. Four months later, Zimbabwe sent 24 of those calves to China, flying them there in the dead of night.

Chinese zoos are known to mistreat their elephants, valuing them only for the money they harness from visitors. The zoos rarely have the resources to meet elephants’ physical and behavioral needs, putting elephants’ health at risks in both their enclosures and lack of proper medical treatment. Moreover, China lacks legislation to protect animal welfare, giving the zoos — which often beat, prod and starve animals, elephants and otherwise, to teach them unnatural tricks — nearly free reign.

As such, it should have come as no surprise that when National Geographic released photos of the Zimbabwean elephant calves in China, the animals showed signs of malnourishment, neglect and outright abuse. In fact, I was not surprised — I knew better. Seeing the images, however, remained shocking.

The calves, such as the one pictured above, suffer bloody cuts, swells and abscesses. According to Scott Blais, the CEO of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, most of the cuts were likely caused by infighting among the calves, some of whom have small tusks. Taken from their families at such young ages, the calves are missing essential years in social development. Infighting reveals unnaturally aggressive behavior on the elephants’ parts — without their herds’ guidance, they have started losing empathy for one another, “a core element of their normal state of being.”

Bullhooks, often used to transport, discipline and traditionally “train” elephants, likely caused the other cuts. According to elephant behavioral expert Joyce Poole, none of the calves’ photographed injuries — whether caused by tusk or hook — have been treated. Rather, the elephants’ handlers are letting the wounds fester, causing some calves to develop infections and swelling.

The photos also show little to no food for the elephants: only grass, too short to eat, scattered across their enclosure. No water sources are visible either. The lack of adequate nutrition accounts for the elephants’ protruding bones and mottled skin.

In addition, some of the older calves appear to have had their tusks broken off at the lip. Poole called that occurrence “highly unusual,” speculating it might signify damage during shipment or pushing against the enclosures’ bars.

Zimbabwe last sent elephants to China in 2012 — eight calves, healthy in the wild, again stolen from their families. As of today, seven of those elephants have died. Chinese zoos’ maltreatment has caused creatures who normally live around 70 years in the wild to die before living a decade. Now, 24 new calves face that deadly fate.

Why is Zimbabwe kidnapping elephant calves, sending them effectively to their deaths? The Zimbabwean government claims that despite the current poaching epidemic, they suffer elephant overpopulation. Claiming to harbor between close to 100,000 elephants on land that can only hold 50,000, Zimbabwe’s leaders justify selling calves to offset that problem. However, wildlife groups disagree with their statistics.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit group, contends that Zimbabwe’s government has not audited their elephant population since 1997. Instead, the Task Force argues Zimbabwe has overestimated their figures to sell calves for $40,000 to $60,000 apiece. The Elephant Database — which receives reports from an international network of nonprofits and governments — found that Zimbabwe had only 47,336 elephants in 2012, down from 84,416 in 2007. The Great Elephant Census, a project aiming to calculate southern Africa’s elephant population by 2016, counted only 20,000 elephants in the region as of March.

Meanwhile, elephants as a species face extinction, due to an uptake in poaching and habitat loss. According to 96 Elephants, a nonprofit organization, 96 African elephants die every day — one every 15 minutes. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, released statistics showing that poaching rates currently exceed elephants’ birth rates. The United Nations reported in March that between 20,000 to 25,000 elephants are slaughtered per year, and conservation groups argue that African elephants face extinction within decades. Yet CITES has refused to classify African elephants as endangered. Moreover, CITES has sanctioned Zimbabwe’s elephant sale — trading most ivory is illegal, but trading live elephants is not, and the sale does not threaten the entire species.

That point of view ignores animal rights, and the rights that elephants in particular deserve. Elephants are among the most sensitive, intelligent creatures alive, close to humans. They recognize their reflections in mirrors; they can paint themselves; they cover loved ones’ corpses with dirt as mock burials; they cry when sad; they form lifelong relationships; they love. Stealing elephant calves from their mothers does not threaten all African elephants, but it inflicts inhumane, reprehensible treatment upon those unfortunate calves. Elephants drink their mothers’ milk until they are three or four years old; some captured calves have not yet reached two years. All the calves are missing vital emotional, social development. They have been abused and traumatized, and will likely die early, in wanton state.

Ending the ivory trade is essential, but for elephants, it’s not enough. We must respect them and their rights to natural, healthy lives. By treating its elephants as mere objects to sell, Zimbabwe is forcing calves into pachydermic child slavery. By beating their elephants and denying them medical treatment, Chinese zoos are holding calves in conditions that, if the children were human, would provoke riots.

Even as we celebrate advancements in elephants’ survival, such as America and China’s ivory agreement, we must remember the progress that remains to be made. Elephants are more than their tusks. To call ourselves not just human, but humane, we — Americans, Chinese, Zimbabweans and beyond — must enable elephants to live in peace. Just as we would protect our own children, we must protect elephants from slaughter, abuse and enslavement.