By Trisha Crowe
A moment of silence for Marius the giraffe, and then…..What?
Boycott the Copenhagen Zoo?
Boycott ALL zoos?
I say let’s rally around something we can agree upon….that the mistreatment or exploitation of any species is not ok. The difficult thing is that how each person defines these terms is a highly personal decision. It is based on the innumerable messages we get as we grow up about what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, and how we either feel or are taught about other living organisms.
As a self-professed animal lover I personally was stunned to see Marius’s story in the headlines. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of “animals are just like humans”, vs. “animals are here only to serve us”, I think we can agree that most of us do not want to see a healthy two year old giraffe killed and then publicly skinned and fed to lions. In our cultural views the Copenhagen Zoo’s handling of this issue has been an abomination, no doubt. But now what?
Based on reaction I have seen online, many people are ready to reject zoos altogether. I can understand this sentiment because there was a period in my life when I decided that I did not want to go to zoos anymore. Instead of feeling happy, uplifted or educated it seemed like I always left zoos feeling sad for the confined animals (from this point I will use “animals” loosely to represent all zoo and aquaria species). I thought the enclosures were mostly too small and too sparse, there weren’t enough enrichment opportunities for animals to play or exhibit natural curiosities, and on top of all of that some animals didn’t even get to leave the confines of their “holding areas” (I saw these as concrete cages) very often.
Flash forward; it took me almost 10 years to realize that the decision I had made to stay away from zoos did not do one bit of good for any animal anywhere. I realized that zoos are not going away. In the United States, zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have higher attendance per year than all major sporting events combined. And did I really want them to go away anyhow? No, what I wanted was for them to be better. I decided that the right thing to do was not to ignore the problem, rather see what I could do to improve things. With this goal in mind I enrolled in a master’s program in landscape architecture. I did my thesis on zoo exhibit design with an eye on contributing to the design and construction of better enclosures and holding areas.
My revised attitude towards zoos has taken me a long time and has not always been easy; however since 2006 I have met with dozens of zoo and aquarium professionals who have given me a world of valuable time and a lot of insight. I have talked with keepers, horticulture staff, directors, COO’s, CFO’s, education staff, marketing staff, designers, and development and membership staff. While these people all have different educational backgrounds and varying views on animal “rights”, every single person I have met has had at least this in common – their love of wildlife and their desire to make a positive contribution to their organization and its occupants.
After having all of these conversations I realized that my past view of zoos was based on a very limited sample size and little real information. What challenges do zoos face? Why do they take the actions that they do? I really had no idea and unfortunately this made me mistakenly clump every negative act of every individual at every zoo into one category – bad.
What I have learned over the past ten years, however, is that zoo professionals are out there working hard to make positive changes. Within the past thirty years we have come a very long way. While in the 1970’s I had a lot of fun throwing marshmallows and peanuts to the elephants at my local zoo I am much happier to know that species diets have been well considered and are contributing to healthier animals. The 1980’s saw a widespread acceptance and execution of the use of more naturalistic enclosures. Enrichment opportunities – things like big blocks of ice with frozen treats inside or design elements which allow for an animal to exhibit their naturalistic behaviors – have grown into their own field of expertise. The psychological well-being of animals is now at the forefront of zoo keepers and administrator’s minds, so efforts have increased to address stress-based or “zootypic” behaviors such as animals pacing. But here’s the thing, change cannot happen overnight. And it cannot happen without passionate people letting their voices be heard.
I once felt helpless to do anything that would make any difference at all, but I eventually decided that my way to try and make a difference was to get my degree in landscape architecture and become a member of AZA. Now I am also trying to raise awareness that what zoos really need the most right now to continue their transformation into the kinds of institutions we want them to be is our support.
Regardless of your current impression of zoos they are a valuable resource and carry valuable messages to the public. They connect humans to wildlife in an up-close and personal way not otherwise possible. With increasingly dynamic education they foster participation in global environmental initiatives and help create a public concerned about the future of our planet, and wide-ranging conservation programs aim to preserve a vast variety of species in their natural areas. Zoos and aquariums are some of the only places left where a kid would rather look at what is in front of them than what is on their phone or computer screen.
So today I implore you, don’t dismiss all institutions. Become a member at an AZA-accredited zoo you have confidence in to show your support. Volunteer at your local zoo or aquarium. Write a letter when you are bothered by things you see. Get involved with a wildlife conservation initiative that you believe in. In the case of Marius the giraffe, write the Copenhagen Zoo an email voicing your concern.
Change cannot happen without us.
Trisha Crowe has been a team member in Pittsburgh, PA-area businesses focusing on design, planning and environmental issues for over 10 years. Trisha’s passion – and primary reason for completing her Master’s of Landscape Architecture in 2010 – is zoo exhibit design.