Can man ever protect and preserve nature in a controlled environment?

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I think the real question is not “how,” but “can” zoos and aquariums foster cultures of care and conservation in a world awash in online information—often superficial and unfactual—relied upon by world citizens to form opinions and make decisions?

I worry that mankind has universally entered The Twilight Zone of the opinionated but uninformed citizen, and I can only speculate as to the innumerable reasons that brought us there.

Being involved in the broadly defined “animal welfare” industry, I frequently receive on-line “demand change” petitions that have the best of intentions, but sometimes illustrate superficial knowledge of a particular subject or issue. I often feel like the target for someone’s agenda de jour who assumes I’ll jump on a human-herd bandwagon for their cause.

Personally when doing research, I prefer long form journalism, which I realize is no longer the norm; and while some argue its decline amounts to a very real “loss in public knowledge,” others point to today’s information overload that requires short stories. Thus today’s constant stream of tidbits of information delivered through social media, such as Tweets and blogs. And as we have come to learn, anyone can disseminate anything via the Internet whether or not its fact or fiction.

A quick search on the Internet for opinions about zoos landed me at for the question: Should we ban the keeping of animals in zoos? Based on the petition results and comments, zoos and aquariums face an uphill battle.
The 69% voting YES cited these justifications: “one of the greatest injustices of all time,” “these animals spend most of their existence trying to escape,” “these animals do not want to be kept in captivity” and “zoos are prisons.”  The 31% that voted NO essentially said, “Save animals from extinction. Some of the animals in the world are nearly extinct so why don’t we try and save them. If some of the exotic animals are extinct by the time the next generation comes around, we won’t be able to show our children because we have not stopped the animals hunting the exotic animals.”
Another quick search for species extinction brought me to, which had no attribution to the source of the facts. Nevertheless, that web page said, “Scientist believe that about 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct” and “It is estimated that approximately half of the species alive on earth today may become extinct within the next 75 years.”  It pointed some of the blame for extinction at us humans, but also listed other non-human, sometimes natural, reasons.

Mankind’s attempt to understand and control nature is not new. Menageries of wild exotic and often ferocious animals have a long history starting in the ancient world. The oldest known zoological collection—estimated at 3500 BC—was discovered in 2009 during excavations at Hierakonpolis, Egypt.  The dig revealed a menagerie of “exotic animals that included hippos, hartebeests, elephants, baboons and wildcats.”

Approximately 2,000 years later, around the time it is believed the Bible was written, Genesis 1:26 recorded, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”  And the ancients certainly took that to heart; and then some.

William E.H. Lecky, a 19th-century historian wrote of the Roman games first held in 366 BC that “in a single day, at the dedication of the Coliseum by Titus, five thousand animals perished.” 19th, 20th and 21st century bear-baiting, rat-bating, cock-fighting, dog-fighting and man vs. bull-fighting respectively are testaments to one man’s entertainment being another man’s social justice cause.  Why is animal cruelty entertaining to some humans?

Perhaps from the beginning humanoids were simply wired with the need to try and manipulate and control nature; especially the wild animals they hunted and ate, or which hunted and ate them—or simply killed them with a neck breaking bite, a sting or venomous bite. The exotic and ferocious animals brought back to Rome to be slaughtered were perhaps meant to illustrate to the Roman citizenry the challenges their Legionnaires faced in subjugating foreign lands and peoples, and yes, exotic ferocious animals. Hail the conquering heroes and their dominion over the beasts.

Was modern man any different when in 1906 William Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo (NY) and Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, displayed in a cage with chimpanzees and then an orangutan the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga “as an example of the ‘missing link’ between the orangutan and white man”?

Perhaps the New York Zoological Society (founded 1895) took a giant public relations step in the right direction renaming itself the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) with its mandate to “Advance wildlife conservation, promote the study of zoology, and create a first-class zoo.”  WCS sees part of its work as “saving the animals’ wild cousins” and “improving animal wellbeing in the parks.”

Google “conservation organizations” to see how many there are in the world dedicated to saving the environment and wildlife. Then watch the documentary Cowspiracy and see the executives of world renowned nature, wildlife and conservation organizations act clueless and brain-dead when asked to comment on the enormous destructiveness—both environmental and to human health—of the global animal agriculture industry.  

According to Cowspiracy, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, which exceeds the combined exhaust from all transportation exhausts generated through the fossil fuels burned for all road, rail, air, and marine transportation; transportation exhausts are responsible for 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent study published in Science of the Total Environment points a finger at human meat-eaters and their demand for food animals and the resulting impact on land use as “as the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna. Already a major cause of extinction, our meat habit will take a growing toll as people clear more land for livestock and crops to feed these animals.”

The fact is, the earth’s most destructive animal to the environment, to other animals and to itself is man; mankind continually demonstrates a self destructiveness—not to be confused with natural predation— not found in nature. Man has the selfish habit of getting what it wants, whether it is more edible meat, a Rhino horn as an aphrodisiac or cancer cure, or more water to waste from aquifers, such as America’s huge and vital Ogallala Aquifer that is fast disappearing and may now be beyond natural replenishment.

Mankind simply cannot stop itself from manipulating and attempting to control nature. Even in the companion animal industry hundreds of “designer” and “hybrid” dog breeds have been—and will be— created from crossing two AKC recognized pure breeds. Someday there may be a dog for every purpose and person under the sun.

Perhaps saving endangered species should be focused more like the hundreds of black and white African Rhinos that today range protected and relatively free (there are fences) on wide open south Texas grasslands where the geography and climate mimic their native African environment.

Whatever the future holds for our planet’s environment and wildlife, there is one thing I know that will not change or become extinct. That is the Animal Kingdom’s most unique human-animal relationship of man and dog.  The study of this unique relationship at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies has profoundly changed the way I now look at all animals, their cognitive abilities, and their interaction and value to humans.

With a global human population of 7.4 billion expected to reach 9 billion at the end of the century, perhaps the best mission for zoos and aquariums may be to simply be catalogers of the planet’s species past and present, monitor and record for history the cause of their extinction, and as the Center’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Nicholas Dodman suggests, freezing the egg and sperm—even DNA—to create a biological library for long term conservation of the species.  

This is just one man’s opinion based upon the vast amount of tidbits of information gleaned off the Internet.

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