Embassies for Life

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The fundamental mission of zoos and aquariums should be the care and conservation of the species they keep. The operations of these institutions should manifest this commitment, thereby setting an institutional model or exemplar for their visitors and all people. This may be effectively done by conceiving of these places as embassies for other species. Caring for the individual animals kept as ambassadors is a way of demonstrating respect for their wild kin and their natural environments by us, a species increasingly divorced from natural environmental settings.

How do we care for these ambassadors? Most zoos and aquariums have veterinary staff or associates who provide medical care, and some also have nutritionists to assure that the provision of food for the animals is adequate for their being and comfort. Moreover, many facilities are measuring the physiological and behavioral well-being of their animal guests, including relationships with their keepers. The caring undertakings have also included improvements to the conditions of the enclosures in which the ambassador animals reside. Such improvements include the addition of vegetation or structural elements like one-way glass, providing better separation from human visitors. Moreover, there are increasing efforts to situate the ambassadors in realistic simulations of their native environments, including the company of other species, as in natural ecosystems.

Beyond providing care for their animal guests and assuring reasonably informed and respectful access to them by visitors, how do these institutions generate cultures of care and conservation? This responsibility has been served by traditional educational methods such as signage, lectures, and interactions with educators, trained volunteers, or animal husbandry staff. While these ways of storytelling reinforce visitor’s interests in individual animal welfare and in conservation of the exhibited species, they have not been effective in motivating people to take part in a caring and conservation-minded society. However, there may now be ways to facilitate the transition from visitor gratification, whether for entertainment or education, to visitor engagement such that people would be inspired to care for the ambassador animals as species to be conserved. Such an approach may be feasible through use of institutional apps for mobile phones, whereby animals could be represented as speaking directly to people about their own care and care for their species and its environment. And, for the general public, zoos and aquariums may now employ brief video messages on the Internet to reflect the care they are providing for individual animals or their species through field conservation programs and projects.

The Canopy of an indoor rainforest Developing a culture of care and conservation must necessarily extend beyond the walls of these institutions. In this regard, zoos and aquariums should partner with local, regional, national, and international wildlife conservation and environmental organizations and others concerned with animal welfare. These associations will give the institutions ample materials with which to communicate the situations of the ambassador animals represented in their embassies.

A final path toward fostering a culture of care and conservation may lie in recruiting visitors and the public to become members of the global citizenry concerned for the future of other life as well as that of our own species. In this approach, conservation must be presented as caring. The very existence of creatures of other kinds depends on the provision and maintenance of conditions suitable for them to thrive; this responsibility, so to speak, has been that of the natural world in all of its evolutionary diversity, adapting and changing alongside the physical world through the ages. However, as a species, we have been grossly changing the world physically and biologically, as is very evident with climate change. With regard to other terrestrial life forms, we have apparently been changing their interrelationships since we developed agriculture a few thousand years ago. From a moral standpoint, we owe it to other life that we take up our responsibility to conserve, to care for all life. And this can only be done when people awaken to an awareness, as global citizens, that we must change our behaviors to fit within the planetary boundaries for our own existence and for all other life.

Image Credit

“Zoo Zürich Masoala Halle (Masoala Rainforest)” by Wendelin Jacober. (CC BY 2.0)

  • George Rabb

    George Rabb (1930–2017) was President Emeritus of the Chicago Zoological Society and served as Brookfield Zoo’s Director from 1976 until 2003. Dr. Rabb received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his bachelor’s degree is from the College of Charleston, South Carolina.

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