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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Advocates for Animals

Earlier this week, I wrote a post asking readers to voice support for the red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina, threatened by political interests.  As soon as I finished the post, I followed my own advice and sent off an email to US Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for them to continue to support red wolf reintroduction.  I didn't send the email from my official work email account, however, nor did I mention that I was a zookeeper.

I would have liked to, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to.

Zookeepers, aquarists, rehabbers, and other wildlife caretakers tend to be a loud, unruly lot.  We strive to do the best possible job taking care of our own animals, and always try to do it better.  We tend to be critical (sometimes unbelievably so) of those who we disagree with in terms of animal care.  Many of us are young, impassioned (despite whatever jaded attempts at worldliness and cynicism we sometimes try to cultivate) and became zookeepers as much because of idealism as we did love of animals.  Put simply, we want to change the world.

Now, the bosses upstairs? Meh...

Well, I mean, I get it.  I understand that the directors and presidents and board members also care about animals.  It's just that they have to be more careful than we are, because they are responsible not for chopping the feed and shoveling the poop, but for bringing in the money that keeps the facility open.  To do so, they would just as soon be on good terms with everybody.  When the zoo brass does take a hard stand on an issue, it tends to be one safely on the other side of the world, like the bushmeat crisis in Africa (after all, who among our guests is eating gorillas).  The solution?  We ask them to give money.

The problem is that it can be very hard to get people to make a change to save animals on the other side of the world (unless our guests really are eating gorillas).  We need to make a change here.  And that means challenging people to learn more and do better.  It can mean challenging people to rethink what they already think they know.  And yes, that can mean offending people.

Consider rattlesnake round-ups, where rattlesnakes are collected in large numbers (often by pouring gasoline down their dens, harming or killing other species in the process) and then killed in a cheerful, carnival-like atmosphere.  It's a proud tradition in parts of the American South.  It's also barbaric and ecologically destructive.  It would be great to see a southern US zoo take a stand against it, through educational programs and displays... though doubtlessly it would offend some visitors who participate in these events, or have friends that do.

Or consider palm oil.  Many people could probably tell you that deforestation is the leading threat to orangutans, clouded leopards, and other Southeast Asian rainforest dwellers.  Fewer could tell you exactly what is responsible for much of that habitat loss - palm oil plantations.  Recently, some zoos, led by Cheyenne Mountain, have begun speaking up about palm oil and it's impact of wild habitats and are making their voices heard.  It's still nowhere near loud enough, though... remember all that fuss about tuna until it became "Dolphin Safe"?  That's the level of attention we need for this.

The polar bear in the room, of course, is global climate change, a threat to all ecosystems, everywhere.  Not only does it imperil Arctic dwellers like the polar bear, it impacts a host of other species, from sea turtles (in which the sex of the egg is determined by temperature) to addax and other North African antelope (threatened by drought and desertification).  Yet how many US zoos and aquariums actually speak up about climate change?

Very few... because they know that about half of the electorate typically votes for a party that doesn't take global climate change (NOT global warming) seriously... and the other half doesn't like being preached to.  For many zoos, politicians hold the purse strings... or they are dependent on wealthy donors who might not like having their business practices critiqued.  A zoo that is seen as being too "political" could find itself in trouble, possibly have its funding cut in retribution, or even have its tax-exempt status questioned.  Look at the Belize Zoo - director Sharon Matola took a stand against a destructive dam that the Belizean government was planning, then BOOM, suddenly the proposed new national dump is slated to open... right next to the zoo.

Besides, guests don't want to come to the zoo or aquarium to feel bad, they want to have a good time seeing animals. Why, the director/CEO may ask, risk chasing them off with doom and gloom?

Part of it is because it's our job.  The major part is because only by educating people can we inspire change.  People can't work towards fixing a problem until they know there is a problem.  We don't have to beat people over the heads with negative messages and gruesome graphics and depressing figures until they go home and swallow the contents of their medicine cabinet all at once (or, more likely, just don't renew their membership).  Too much negativity can shut people down, make them feel overwhelmed and unwilling to care.  What we can do, however, is find positive messages behind and try to rally visitors behind them.

Outside of the St. Louis Zoo (one of my favorites, I might add) is a very large metal sculpture, depicting several life-sized animals.  Its name also serves as the zoo's motto - "Animals Always."  It's a fitting motto for St. Louis, one of the zoos which does the most for wildlife conservation around the world (including in its own state of Missouri).  It would be an even better motto for the zoo and aquarium community as a whole.

We should strive to make as big and positive a difference as possible to animals around the world, in the zoo and in the wild.  We should not be afraid to speak up about what we feel is wrong and negatively affecting animals and their habitats.  We should pick our battles... but never surrender principles.

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