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Monday, May 2, 2016

Coal Mines and Canaries

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts for the animal care community.   Last year, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had announced that they would be phasing their traveling elephant acts out of their shows.  Yesterday, the elephants took their final bow; all will be retired to Ringling’s elephant center down in Florida.  The reaction among the zoo community has been mixed, as it always is when circuses are called into question.  Some are delighted, seeing exotic animal performances in circuses as outdated and detrimental to the cause of conservation. 

Others are a mixture of furious and terrified that animal rights activists should have brought this to pass.  They fear that PETA, HSUS, and other anti-zoo organizations, emboldened over this and the recent news from SeaWorld, will come after zoos next.  PETA et al have basically confirmed their intent.

Needless to say, there has been a lot of doom and gloom, with some members of our profession (especially those not accredited by AZA, who suspect that they will be next) prophesying the end of the zoo and aquarium field.  They speak of vast sums of money being sunk into the political process, and rich anti-zoo lobbyists conspiring against us with bought and paid-for politicians.  They speak of indoctrination of school children.  More fake documentaries on the way.  The end is in sight.  I’m a pessimist by nature.  It’s easy for me to get riled by these fears.

That being said, I’m going to take a step back from the edge for a second and say something that I know is going to infuriate a lot of them.  It’s okay.  We are going to be alright.

No zoo or aquarium that I have heard of is shutting down.  In fact, every zoo and aquarium that I have visited and reviewed during the course of my time with this blog is thriving.  Many are expanding, spending millions of dollars for new exhibits for new animals, foreseeing attracting more and more visitors.  New aquariums are cropping up all over the country, from coastal cities like Jacksonville to Arizona.  The Arizona facility, I should mention, will be displaying dolphins, despite the whole “Blackfish is the ends of cetaceans in captivity” argument. 

Yes, some zoos are getting out of elephants; Virginia Zoo, since I have visited last, has sent their girls down to Miami.  Others, however, are building big new habitats to accommodate their elephants, and while some zoo elephants have been retired to sanctuaries, a la the Toronto Three, new elephants have recently been brought over from Africa, despite fierce opposition from PETA and its allies.

Furthermore, our zoos are reporting strong attendance and broad community support, and we’ve been able to leverage that community support into new partnerships that help us strengthen our messages of conservation and education. 

As to the political/lobbyist angle, let’s be realistic.  This has been a very contentious election cycle in the states, with candidates fighting about everything from such poltical classics as abortion, gun control, and terrorism to fantasy football and other obscurities.  Ever hear Hillary Clinton mention SeaWorld?  Or zoos in general?  I haven’t (though I have heard her daughter, Chelsea, speak of how much seeing elephants at the Little Rock Zoo inspired her with love of wildlife as a child).  I haven’t heard a word on the subject from Bernie Sanders.  Or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or John Kasich, or anyone else from either party who has since dropped out.  There IS, however, a bipartisan Zoo and Aquarium in the US Congress, which hosts a very popular Zoo Day on Capitol Hill every year.

None of this is to say that we could become complacent.  There are people who want our facilities to shut down, which will rob us of the tools, the potential, and the audiences that we need to carry out our missions. We mustn’t be blind to this, and we must not back down from challenging them when they spread misinformation or lies about how our facilities operate.  If SeaWorld made one mistake against Blackfish, it’s that it waited too long to speak up, instead hoping that the noise would simply die down.  It didn’t.

We should also remember that hardcore anti-zoo folks are a small group.  Most people remain open minded on the subject, and if we engage, explain, and educate, we can win them over, hearts and minds.  We should never be afraid to talk with the public, especially those who seem to have some concerns with what we do, so that we can counter the message of PETA and their ilk with the facts.  That means admitting sometimes that we aren’t perfect, but acknowledging that we are striving towards perfection. 

At any rate, the day that we stop focusing on our mission and spend every day simply fighting back against adversaries, real and imagined, is the day we’ve already lost.

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