elephant eye

The homepage of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) advertises: “Visit an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium and help make a difference for wildlife”, implying that merely visiting one of these commercial establishments is a conservation action on its own. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for it, it is an apparently effective marketing message.

A recent report of the birth of a chimpanzee at the Sunset Zoo in Kansas was accompanied by this from zoo director, Scott Shoemaker:

“Births like this are a testament to our AZA community – a great example of how we ensure these endangered animals are around for generations to come while we work to eliminate the serious threats they are facing in the wild.“

But it isn’t clear exactly how Shoemaker and his colleagues plan to deal with those “serious threats.” The message is obvious: There’s no need to worry about chimpanzees, they’re safe with us, and you and your children will always have an opportunity to see one.

In the past few months the Georgia Aquarium has applied to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the U.S. for captive display, using conservation as a justification. William Hurley, senior vice-president of the aquarium claims that marine institutions need a strong captive population for research that can help safeguard the beluga as its Arctic habitat is transformed by a changing climate.

“If you don’t have enough of these animals in our care and don’t have enough to extend that for more decades,” Hurley said, the aquarium will be unable to unlock “the secrets these animals hold.”

However, the beluga population held captive is not endangered and obscure statements about “unlocking secrets” do not make for a conservation plan.

In fact, zoos are often explicitly referred to as Noah’s Arks. A 2006 book by Jeffrey P. Bonner entitled Sailing with Noah: Stories From the World of Zoos is an example.

The zoo and aquarium industry has used the public’s increasing awareness of conservation issues to re-brand itself as a modern-day Noah’s Ark.

The zoo and aquarium industry has used the public’s increasing awareness of conservation issues to re-brand itself as a modern-day Noah’s Ark. Through their captive breeding programs, these facilities claim to be in the business of safe-keeping those species who are bound for extinction. The mass extinctions of many charismatic animals, such as elephants, lions, great apes and others provide a convenient justification for confining individuals of these species in artificial enclosures. Combine this with the false claim that animal displays lead to increased conservation awareness on the part of the visiting public, and it’s clear that the zoo and aquarium business has seized upon a brilliant rhetorical tool for public relations.

How realistic are all of these “conservation” efforts? Animals are complex organisms that thrive in an intricate dynamic environment. Once their natural habitat and ecosystem is gone, it is nearly impossible for captive animals to be reintroduced “to the wild” to lead natural lives. There will be nowhere for them to go. Zoos and aquaria spend minimal resources on reintroducing captive animals to their natural environment. And even if the industry stepped up its commitment to wildlife conservation, it is highly unlikely they would be successful given the rapid disappearance of natural ecosystems.

Beyond these critical issues, it might be argued that the Noah’s Ark messaging of zoos and aquaria actually contributes to extinction trends. Dr. Randy Malamud, author of Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (1998) suggests that zoos are simply palliating anxieties about a disappearing natural world and providing false hope that species are being protected. This kind of talk supports the dangerous notion that as long as enough individuals are in captivity we need not concern ourselves about their natural habitat – an attitude that clearly does not promote environmental and ecological efforts. Moreover, a recent peer-reviewed paper by Schroepfer et al (2011) provides evidence that seeing chimpanzees in commercials and in entertainment venues distorts the public’s perception of their endangered status in the wild and actually hinders chimpanzee conservation efforts.

These are alarming “tip of the iceberg” signs that the Noah’s Ark messaging of the zoos and aquarium industry may actually be hampering conservation progress. But why should the zoo industry worry? Tickets will be half-price on holidays and children under two will still be admitted free.

5 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Noah’s Ark Propaganda

  1. To be left alone, like Frederick Douglas once said, and American Indians also said, is what the animal kingdom wants. Captive breeding romanticizes their exploitation. It’s much more noble to leave them alone.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Marino, for articulating the argument against zoos so well. None of the AZA’s arguments make any logical sense to me, and the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 beluga whales is particularly odious, given the facts about belugas and the deleterious effects of marine mammal captivity.

    Your last two paragraphs are especially spot-on. Zoos like to claim that when the public sees animals in zoos, it fosters a love for them and compels the public to support conservation efforts for animals. But I have yet to see one zoo employee or board director prove this with facts or any data whatsoever other than their PR spin. Again, thanks for a great blog post!

  3. While I agree that some of the standards and practices of zoos and aquariums are scientifically questionable and should be brought to the fore for debate, the general position taken in the article is one that could only be taken from the comfort and luxury of a monied class. I’m an avid outdoorsperson who has been blessed with the opportunity to see many incredible animals in their natural environments all over the world. I started off life as a working class city kid. Zoos and aquariums have me the opportunity to see animals I never knew existed and stoked the flames of my love and curiosity so that when I got older and had the opportunity (and resources) I could travel to see the animals and places I only read about on those little plaques. Zoos provide an opportunity for to learn about the world for an entire economic class that is, unfortunately, too often left out of most conversations about educational opportunities. The corruption of science in the name of industry is nothing new. While zoos themselves may not be the epicenter of the conservation movement, I have to wonder how anyone can possibly measure what is the long-term net effect on conservation-consciousness of giving people opportunities to see a live Orca or getting to touch a sea turtle. Zoo visitors, let’s not forget, are also stewards of the earth. Not just the people holding the keys to the cages.

    1. Dear Patricia – Thank you for your thoughtful comments. No one wants to disenfranchise a whole group of people but there are many important considerations here. First of all, given the price of admission to places like Sea World it isn’t accurate to say that a poor family of kids would be able to enjoy it. One can spend hundreds of dollars walking through the turnstiles of a zoo or aquarium. Second, although the claim of conservation-consciousness raising is made, it is up to the zoos to provide the evidence, which they have not. Third, all kids have the opportunity to learn about animals on TV and in videos and on websites. There is no evidence that seeing an animal in a zoo creates more education than these other venues. If there is, I’d like to consider it. Fourth, seeing animals in zoos is not requisite for caring about the animal. Consider dinosaurs. No child has ever seen or touched one, yet they are beloved by children everywhere. And finally, I do think we need to consider this issue as one that pits basic needs of nonhuman individuals against the luxury wants of humans. It is not necessary to see and do everything in life. I would contend that the assumption that we should be able to see a giraffe or elephant in our own cities and towns is just an assumption. I would ask, is it worth the suffering of the individuals in those cages for an afternoon of entertainment? I contend that a very reasonable answer is, no. When one adds to the mix the hypothesis that zoos might actually be hindering conservation, and I would say we really need to consider the fact that more harm than good is being done.

    2. Patricia, you said that zoos and aquaria gave you a love and curiosity for animals and that you traveled to see them in the wild. Aside from supporting the travel industry, what did that do for the animals themselves? Other than the pleasure you gained from seeing them in various locations, are you doing anything to help conserve them? Or are you only considering yourself and your own pleasurable life experiences here? Do you work for stronger marine mammal or environmental protection laws? Do you donate to any organizations working to protect animals in the wild?

      And have you considered how devoid of pleasure life is for a dolphin or whale forced to spend its entire life in a small aquarium tank? Did you know that on average, cetaceans in aquaria live only a fraction of their natural lifespans? Did you know that they often suffer both physical and mental disorders, including depression and stereotypy? Did you know that many dolphins in aquaria around the world were captured in the wild, either stolen away from their confused and frantic pods, or spared because they were “pretty” enough for life in an aquarium while their families were slaughtered in front of their eyes? Do you know about Taiji, Japan? Is confining them for life for the pleasure of humans worth the high price they pay?

      Patricia, I was privileged to stand on a beach at midnight in South Carolina and see both a mother turtle laying eggs in her nest, and further down the beach, hatchlings breaking out of their shells and following the moonlight into the water. I saw wild dolphins, manatees, and stingrays in Florida. Nothing I saw can compare with what people see in the artificial environment of an aquarium.

      Zoos and aquaria claim that they are about education and conservation. But in reality there’s no conservation; in fact it’s the polar opposite, knowing about Taiji. And there’s no true education, because it does no good to show people animals who are a mere shadow of their former selves, forced to perform silly tricks. Dolphins, orca, and other intelligent, self-aware creatures are turned into cartoonish caricatures by marine parks. It does an especial disservice to children to expose them to such displays and teach them that those poor animals are “normal”. Marine aquariums are a lie.

      I too visited zoos and aquariums as a child, but it was primarily documentaries that fostered a love so deep it compelled me to advocate for animals. Please do not dismiss the power of television, videos, film, and other media to influence people. I may never get to go on an eco-friendly whale-watching cruise, but I will go without before paying admission to a marine aquarium to see them.

      And those admission prices? Here’s an example: one of the worst aquariums in North America, Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, charges $42.95 pp for adults and $35.95 for seniors and children under 10. With tax, a family of four (two parents, two children) will fork over roughly $178 just for admission. That doesn’t include extras like the beluga whale encounter, or food and refreshments. A day at Marineland is upwards of $200.

      That’s something most families can afford? In this economic climate when many families are struggling to pay mortgages, bills, put food on the table and shoes on their children’s feet? A lot cheaper and much more educational to rent a documentary.

      I implore you to reconsider your thoughts on zoos and aquariums. In truth, they are nothing but glorified prisons for animals.

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