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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Party Animals

There are three topics that you are supposed to avoid in polite conversation: Religion, Sports, and Politics.  I've already crossed the threshold on religion, and I don't know enough about sports to be offensive, so I'm going to have to settle for politics.  Which, considering what happens later this year, is fair enough.

It is, after all, an election year.

If you asked any voter... seriously, any... to make a list of the top twenty, thirty, you know, why not make it an even fifty, issues that they think of when it comes to election year, I very much doubt that zoos and aquariums will make the list for any of them.  It's unlikely that most people would think of any animal issues, with conservation simply being a part of that nebulous something called "Climate Change" or (even vaguer) "The Environment."

I wouldn't expect them to.  I work at a zoo and I don't look at presidential candidates to see what their position on zoos are.  You know why?  Because I doubt any of them have one.  Except for Newt Gingrinch.  That guy loves his zoo visits...

Zoos, as a whole, tend to shy away from politics.  Part of this is out of a desire to be welcoming and inclusive of the entire community, which can be difficult if some members of the community perceive your institution as having a bias against their beliefs (even if said members of the community are, in fact, crazy).  Similarly, many zoos and aquariums rely on tax dollars for at least some of their budget... money which is doled out by politicians.  It doesn't do to cozy up too closely with the Democrats, only to have the vengeful Republicans come into power and slash your funding, or vice versa.

While zoos are seldom an issue on the political radars of many presidential candidates (the lower you go down on the totem pole, the more of an issue they become, until you get to the Toronto City Council), decisions made by politicians and their appointees do have major impacts on zoos and aquariums.  Funding is one such issue; zoos, like everyone else, are tied to the economy.  When the economy booms, zoos and aquariums prosper.  When the economy doesn't, zoos struggle... for the most part.  During the recession of a few years back, many zoos and aquariums reported upticks in attendance as local families, finding themselves unable to afford vacations away from home, spent more time visiting local attractions.  Likewise, the Great Depression ironically saw a huge boom in zoo growth and expansion, beneficiaries of FDR's New Deal.

Laws concerning captive animals also impact zoos and aquariums.  These are rarely decisions made by presidents themselves, but but Cabinet members, under-secretaries, and down the line.  For example, the Department of the Interior recently has made some classifications of certain large snakes as potentially invasive species, banning their importation into the country as well as their movement between states.  That's a complication for zoos seeking to move those animals from one facility to another.  Another example, not at a presidential level - the state of Michigan, I recently learned, outlaws the breeding of large carnivores.  Zoos weren't the target of that law, but no exemption was made for them.  As a result, Detroit, Binder Park, and the other Michigan zoos can't breed those species.

Also, there is the question of support for the most important goal of a zoo or aquarium - conservation.  How much money a government is willing to invest in conservation, what partnerships it is ready to form, nationally and internationally, and what priority it is going to give to wildlife conservation vary depending on who is in the Oval Office (among a few hundred other variables).

I'm going to try and not blunder into the error of saying that one political party is necessarily better for zoos and aquariums than the other.  In the United States, the Democratic Party has (in recent years, anyway) been seen as the party that has a stronger emphasis on environmental issues and conservation.  Many zoos and aquariums are located in cities which, even in the Red States, tend to be administered by Democratic mayors and city councils.  The irony, of course, is that the harshest critics of zoos - PETA and other animal rights organizations - are themselves fairly left of center, so zoos often find themselves in the crossfire between wildlife-conservation-liberals supporting the zoo and and animals-rights-liberals opposing it.

Taken as a whole, the Republican Party has a less vocal commitment to conservation (though there are exceptions!).  Republican politicians, however, often show support to zoos and aquariums (provided they don't cost the taxpayers too much money) on the basis of their commitment to family-oriented community facilities which, incidentally, often have a net-positive impact on the local economy.

Politics in America is divisive, and probably apt to get more so.  Liberals blame conservatives for this.  Conservatives blame liberals.  Increasingly, aspects of our culture - hobbies, books, music, institutions - get divided into one camp or the other, sometimes for actual political reasons, sometimes for reasons that make nothing remotely resembling sense.  Zoos and aquariums, at least for the time being, remain neutral ground.

Generally, that's a positive thing.  They can bring together large groups of people, including those that would never really think of themselves as becoming conservation voters, and give them a chance to experience a slice of the natural world that they otherwise might never encounter.  Conservation, I've always felt, should never be a politic issue, something that if one party is "for", the other must be against just on principle.  It should belong on everyone.

At the same time, I sometimes worry that an effort to straddle the line leaves zoos in the difficult position of not being bold enough as advocates for animals.  Because there are sometimes political issues that are more than a matter of funding for the species that zoos work with - sometimes they really are matter of life and death (ask a red wolf).

So yes, zoos should bring people together in a nonpartisan manner.  But they should do so for a cause - the cause of conservation.  It shouldn't matter if a visitor enters the gates supporting Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Jeb (exclamation point optional) Bush or Bernie Sanders.  When they leave, they should be at least a little stronger in their support of animals.

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