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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Zoos and the Eleventh Commandment

"The personal attacks against me during the primary finally became so heavy that the state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, postulated what he called the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. It's a rule I followed during that campaign and have ever since."

- Ronald Reagan

"Getting real tired of your, s—t, Copenhagen…”

That was my first reaction to seeing the news about the culling of four lions at the Copenhagen Zoo, fairly shortly after the infamous giraffe-cull incident earlier this winter.  I get it – there’s a much different mentally about animal husbandry in Scandanavia than there is the United States.  Still, it seems to me that zookeeping is as much an art as it is a science… and the Danes seem to be so wrapped up in the hard science of it – especially as it relates to population management – that they’re missing out on the other aspects of the zoo.

The incident, of course, re-sent the spasms of controversy that went through the zoo community following the giraffe.  Among the various squabbles was a thread that I’ve seen following many incidents.  It’s been there all along during the Blackfish debacle.  It was there when Ohio, Maryland, and many other states debated legislation that clamped down on private ownership of exotic animals and so-called “roadside zoos.”  It is there whenever there a zoo or aquarium is in the news for not-good reasons.

When – if ever – is it okay to criticize another zoo?

Zookeepers, as a rule, are a fairly unruly lot.  They are young, they are idealistic, and they are passionate, with the result that they tend to shoot from the hip.  Many speak their minds freely and dispense criticism readily, whether at their own zoo or at one they’d never heard of before a continent away.  They aren’t simply negative Nancy’s or compulsive whiners, though – they genuinely feel that they are exposing problems and shining lights on them, so that said problems can be fixed and conditions improved for animals.  Seems noble enough…

Then there is the other team.  They are firm believers in the united front.  In their worldview, the animal rights groups and their allies in politics and the media want nothing more than to shut down all zoos, aquariums, circuses, and petting zoos, down to snatching away that cute little painted turtle your elementary school teacher kept in her classroom back when you were in third grade.  Any movement against any member of our community – even the nastiest, most disgusting pit of a menagerie that makes no contribution to conservation or education and has appalling animal welfare – is a move against all of us.  “They’ll start with the private owners,” they foresee, “than the non-accredited zoos, then the accredited ones.  First they’ll ban marine mammals, then elephants, then great apes, then big cats and bears…”  If you give a mouse (or a PETA member) a cookie, and all that…

Considering that the animal rights groups have made moves against the most respected, recognized zoos in the US, I can understand their concern.  This is especially true when it’s voiced by the smaller, private zoos, who would be the first to go if this scenario unfolds.

I’m inclined to take a more tactful version of the first approach.  I don’t like receiving criticism too much myself, especially if it’s delivered in a confrontational tone by someone who doesn’t really know what’s going on.  That being said, it seems to me that policing our own community is the best way to make sure that we’re all on the ethical straight-and-narrow, continually improving ourselves so that outside forces don’t feel as inclined to step in. 

We won’t always agree, and there are plenty of issues of controversy (orcas, elephants, euthanasia, pinioning, etc) to keep us arguing for a very long time.  Every advancement in our profession was considered controversial at one point or another; William T. Hornaday was one of the most progressive zoo professionals of his era, but he balked at the idea of using moats to replace bars at the Bronx Zoo – he felt that they kept animals too far away from people.  Now they are commonly used (including at the Bronx).
On some areas, we may never come to agreement.  Keepers come from different backgrounds, different cultures, and have different experiences.  Someone who breeds endangered amphibians for release into the wild is going to have a very different outlook than someone who trains raptors for free-flight shows.    That’s okay.  What is important is that, while respecting one another and not questioning each other in terms of commitment to the animals (unless it’s blatantly obvious that something is horribly wrong), we continue to push, urge, and chide one another into doing better for our animals. 

That’s who we are all really there for, after all…

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