I've actually encountered very few of the anti-zoo crowd myself... in real life, anyway (they abound online, in Facebook and in comments sections). I've met a few, though... even dated one, actually; I like to think I converted her, though I can't be sure that she didn't backslide after we parted ways. There really is no way to boil the blood of a zookeeper faster than to introduce these folks into a conversation (especially if you do so while tapping loudly on the exhibit glass). I've kind of made peace with the fact that they are there, and that some of them I'll never be able to reach.
Lately, however, there's been something bothering me. It's what I've come to identify as "The Other Extreme." It exists in every animal care field, from agriculture to the entertainment industry, and zoos and aquariums are no exception. They are a group - and I use this term only in the most informal sense, since they are not organized under any label - that has risen as a natural counterbalance to the sometimes (well, ofttimes) ridiculous excesses of the animal rights' groups. Their main unifying ideology seems to be that any critique of any aspect of the animal care profession is a direct assault on the entire community, and that any challenge to any facility or individual who cares for animals is a challenge to all.
Politically, these keepers tend to be more conservative than others, so I'm sure they won't be offended when I compare them to a different group - the NRA. Like the gun industry, the exotic animal profession really could stand to have a little more restriction and a few more guidelines. I'm not saying that because I like red-tape (I do not), but because I've seen too much bad crap go down with animals in the hands of owners - be they private pet owners, professional handlers, and, yes, some zoo administrators - to believe too much in laissez faire. There need to be standards on what people can have what animals and do what with them. To these keepers, however, every step towards regulation (no matter how minor or rational) is just a step on my least-favorite rhetorical device, "the slippery slope." That makes any conversation a nonstarter.
Right now, the rules vary a lot by state and jurisdiction. Florida, for instance, requires persons wishing to own dangerous exotic animals to complete hours of training and inspection. In Delaware (of all places), anything seems to go. Often, it seems like it takes one tragedy to push the pendulum from one direction to the other. Ohio used to have pretty lax animal ownership laws. Then came the Zanesville incident...
What makes the "Other Extreme" keepers extra-exasperating to me isn't their hyper-aggressiveness online, usually demonstrating itself by throwing out insults, accusing other keepers of being animal rights' activists, or claiming that AZA is working with PETA and HSUS to sell out all of the other zoos. Don't get me wrong. That's annoying. It's not dangerous though. What is dangerous is a mind-set that creates an us-vs-them mentality where, in order to win, we try to make the "us" part as big as possible, and invite some unsavory characters into our tent,
I have absolutely nothing against private ownership of exotic animals... provided that it's done in a manner that does right by the needs of the animal in question (proper diet and veterinary care, species-appropriate enclosure and social group, etc) that in no way jeopardizes wild populations (see: Spix's macaw). I do have a major problem with irresponsible pet owners who - intentionally or otherwise - mistreat their animals, or abandon them after they become too great of a responsibility. I have problems with tourist traps which exploit animals for profit while jeopardizing the health or safety of animals and customers alike. By inviting these people into our coalition, we dilute and cheapen the message that we should be standing for - conservation and education, ensuring a place for wildlife in the world for generations to come.
At the end of the day, I believe in zoos and aquariums (and responsible private owners) as stewards of wild animals. I will stand up for this belief against PETA, or HSUS, or any keyboard-warrior or armchair activist. But I am NOT fighting on behalf of someone who wants to breed monkeys that they can snatch from their mothers, dress up in costumes, and have pose for pictures with tourists. Nor am I standing up for someone who claims that breeding ligers is great for conservation.
A reluctance to criticize animal care practices which are sub-par also holds our profession back. Zoo critics like to paint zoos as barren prisons of concrete slabs and iron bars... and that's what they used to be. We changed, but we only did so because of the bomb-throwers and the malcontents, they people who were willing to say, "This isn't good enough, and we need to do better." If those people had been shouted down or drummed out of the profession, the zoos of today would be much worse places... if they had survived this long at all.
And to anyone - keeper or curator or private owner - who insists that we all have to stand together, otherwise we'll get picked off one-by-one, I'm going to have to say: We'll have to agree to disagree.