Some Zoo Appreciation

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In his novel LIFE OF PI, as one commenter reminded me last week, Yann Martel gives a fantastic defense of zoos. Modern zoos attempt to meet animals’ needs much more humanely than was done before, but I still have some grave concerns about the true quality of life for many captive animals. In my research, however, I came across this recent interview by Eric Berger in his SciGuy blog, with Jane Goodall, on why sometimes zoos are better than the wild. I want to quote Jane’s response in full and I certainly submit my limited perspective to this esteemed, expert opinion. To the question “Do you support chimpanzees in zoos, or is that something you’d rather not see?” Jane replied,

“It depends on the zoo. I’ve just been getting horror reports on some chimpanzees in third-world zoos, which make me shiver. But there are still roadside zoos in the United States that make me shiver. Quite honestly when people ask me, I say to think about the various situations in which chimpanzees could live. It can be the best of all places in the wild that are protected, like Gombe. Then there’s lots of other wilderness areas, but unless the chimps are lucky and in a far away place, their forests are going to be disturbed by people cutting them down for timber or to move in, and they can be hunted as they are across large areas of Africa. So you might not want to be there.

At the other end of the extreme you get five-foot by five-foot cages in medical research labs in very sophisticated countries including the United States, and you get very bad zoos and circuses. Then you get the really good zoos which have large enclosed areas, with enriched environments and a group of chimps together, keepers who love them and understand them and an adoring public. Then I say suppose you were a chimp, and that’s what some of these animal rights people can’t get their minds around, it’s what they think is best for the chimp. I want people to think about what the chimp would prefer. So if you’re a chimp, your best choices may be to be in a secure place in the wild, or a really good zoo. None of the other options are really of any use. This kind of idea that any kind of wild is always good is not right.”


Some zoos are doing their part to strengthen diminishing populations of animals still living free in the wild. In the USA many zoos participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA’s) Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program, which aims to manage the breeding of specific endangered species in order to help maintain healthy and self-sustaining populations. The end goal of many SSPs is the reintroduction of captive-raised endangered species into their native wild habitats. According to the AZA, SSPs and other programs have helped bring the following, and other, species bank from the cusp of extinction over the past 30 years: black-footed ferrets, California condors, red wolves. Zoos also use SSPs as part of their research to better understand wildlife and population dynamics, and to raise awareness and finance to support field projects and habitat protection.

While there are some success stories, many biologists consider SSP programs to be in constant need of reassessment. AZA zoos have been key, for instance, in establishing a stable population of bongos, a threatened forest antelope native to Africa, through captive breeding programs under the SSP program. Many of these captive-bred bongos have subsequently been released into the wild Of course, for every success story there are many other examples where results have been less satisfying. SSP programs for lowland gorillas, Andean condors, giant pandas and snow leopards, among others, have not had such clear success. Many, many animals bred in captivity are very hard/impossible to reintroduce into the wild. I still have many questions about zoo conservation strategies, but I do want to cite a couple of specific, recent zoo conservations successes.

Vancouver Island Marmot : Around 50 of these animals exist in the wild, but thanks to breeding centers at the Toronto Zoo, the population is now over 150; and pups have started to be reintroduced into the wild.

Bald Eagle : The San Francisco Zoo has been instrumental in breeding and releasing captive eagles, and has reintroduced more than 100 bald eagles over the past 25 years.

I want to finish by reccommending  a wonderful, new biography for young children, on the life of Jane Goodall, Me… Jane, by Patrick McDonnell. A great book for young animal lovers and to inspire all childhood dreams. (Book # 26 in the Read to Me Picture Book Reading Challenge)



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6 Responses to Some Zoo Appreciation

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    Excellent article Joanna. I have always held Jane Goodall in high esteeme for the research and work she has done. So it was a treat to watch the video on the work being continued at Duke University to preserve and document Jane’s life work. She presents some very good arguments both positive and negative about whether to leave an animal in the wild or put it in a zoo. With so much of the animal’s habitat destroyed in Africa and around the world, they are prey to everything.

    I only know from my own expeiences with the ongoing research at the Columbus Zoo and focus on funding conservation projects in Rwanda, especially for the Gorillas, that many zoos have their hearts are in the right place. They do everything to create a more natural habitats for the animals, and their research is endless. I appreciated learning about the Vancouver Island Marmot, which I knew nothing about, and the program for Bald Eagles at the San Francisco Zoo. Never told you this, but early in my career I did PR for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and was involved in a huge Coastal Zone Management campaign to clean up Lake Erie. The Bald Eagles existence was threatened by pesticides in Lake Erie causing their egg shells to be thin — very few chicks were born. It was an exciting time because ODNR was able to turn many things around since the 1970s. Your article touched me in many ways.

    And, I can’t end without mentioning that the”Life of Pi,” remains one of my favorite books — especially since the zoo featured was in Pondicherry, where my son was born. But, I learned so much about animal behavior in that book, which I have transferred to my own pets. I found it fascinating how zoo keepers knew something was wrong with an Ostrich, for example, just because it may have moved to a different location in its pen. I made similar discoveries with my dogs and I can observe what may be wrong with greater clarity.

    So much to talk about on this subject. Outstanding!


    • Joanna says:

      Yes, I really did appreciate jane’s different take, especially that “in the wild” really depends on what that “wild” is these days. Pat, you really have had some amazing experiences through your work in journalism and as a volunteer. Your PR work for ODNR must have been very rewarding. Of course each time I think of Life of Pi, I think of you now, knowing your son came from there. The Life of Pi, is wonderful on many different levels. I love how you were able to transfer your knowledge gleaned to your pets. Thanks for such a in depth reply, I love it.

  2. Both your post and Patricia’s response are fascinating, Joanna. I’m learning so much!

    Certainly there are some zoos that are doing good and valuable work, and I appreciate Jane Goodall’s words about “where the chimpanzee would rather be”… but there are still so many places where animals are mistreated, or not given proper care. It makes one wonder what can be done to deal with the places that are not providing quality care and environments while supporting the ones without which some species might now be extinct.

    • Joanna says:

      Beth, I think you are going to “enjoy” my next post, as I look again at some of the zoo mistreatment and what we might be able to do. I appreciate you looking at the issue form all angles.

  3. Diane says:

    Being an animal lover, and like Beth I found your post and Patricia’s comment very interesting.
    In NZ we are big on conservation, be it nature, or wildlife. You will no doubt have heard of our Greenpeace activists in protecting marine life. Much we have to learn is off shore in other countries, and our zoo’s often help breed and return to the wild our native species.
    If you ever have the pleasure of traveling to NZ you will notice we also have very strict boarder controls about allowing anything into our country that could endanger our vegetation and animals. (not even an apple in your handbag will get in). It is always interesting to hear others views, so thankyou Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      I have indeed read/watched much about Greenpeace. Island nations like NZ or the UK have a much easier job of controlling their borders and it is good news that NZ is so strict. I would, of course, love to visit as the nature and wildlife sound wonderful.

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