Dear Zoos and Aquariums,
From the very beginning I want to make clear that I am an ex-zoo supporter, which means I have refused to go to the zoo in years and will not visit you any time soon.
My childhood, like many others, includes school and family trips to the zoo and aquarium where as a child I would wonder from cage to cage trying to find the animal that was hidden somewhere in the exhibition. However there came a point in my late teenager years, that I could no longer support the sight of an animal being locked up in a cage. No matter how fancy the cage was, to me it was still a prison with no escape. In his article “Fostering a New Relationship between Humans and Nature,” Alejandro Grajal mentions how the perception of poor animal welfare/cruelty and loneliness could in one fell swoop sabotage any cultural sense of care and conservation. And this is exactly what happened to me, to the point that I refuse to go to the zoo.
I am not an ignorant in the topic and have read that zoos have become critical in helping save many species on the verge of extinction thanks to special programs and investigation. I also understand both Grajal’s and Wesley Schultz’s ( in his article “Pathways to Connectedness”) argument that illustrates how zoos provide that contact and real-life experience with nature—that seeing an animal in the flesh is very different than seeing one across a screen—and creates a more realistic and meaningful impact. However, I demand better from zoos and aquariums if they are indeed going to be the positive change agent that will bring a culture of care and conservation to our unsustainable and ever losing biodiversity world.
Zoos have been around since the Victorian age and since then human kind has degraded, endangered, and destroyed the biodiversity of this world in a magnitude not ever seen before in human history. So obviously their strategy is not working. What is the underlying message of paying to see wild animals locked up in cages? If you think about it, it is the most anthropogenic stance there is. We (humans) are so superior and separate from the natural world, that we can lock it up and visit it for entertainment through a glass wall or iron bars. How does that foster a more ecocentric view of our home Earth? For zoos or aquarium to truly foster a culture of care and conservation, they need to be more ecocentric in their focus, essence, and message. We have to figure out another way to create that connectedness with nature and the natural world without keeping it captive. We have to show we are part of a natural system, equal to other life forms. We have to let go of the current physical model of the modern zoo and replace it with large protected reserves where people go to see animals and nature in its essence, free and savage, being mere observers and not the captive of innocent prisoners.
Thus while I expect more from zoos and aquariums and hope they see the flaw in their counterproductive anthropogenic approach (if indeed the goal is a culture of care and conservation and not merely profit and entertainment), I would also argue that they are limited in their impact on people’s lives and can’t cause that much of behavioral change since this type of experience is very limited. People visit the zoo once in a while; it is definitely not a recurring everyday activity. Thus other sectors hold a greater responsible to create this culture of care, conservation, and connectedness with nature and hold more power to make a greater impact, sectors such as our education system.
Thus zoos and aquariums, while you alone cannot bring about the changes needed in human behavior to foster a culture of conservation, the power and influence you do have is at the moment sending the wrong message.
You can do better and I hope you do. Our dying world needs it.