Twenty-First Century Zoos and Aquariums: Ambassadors for Nature

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The planet’s menagerie has become like shards of broken glass; we’re grinding the shards smaller and smaller. . . Anyone can read about how much we are losing. All the animals parents paint on nursery room walls, all the creatures depicted in paintings of Noah’s ark, are actually in mortal trouble now. Their flood is us.

—Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel

“What is the best aquarium in the world?” a little girl asked me, as she looked into the eyes of Sydney, the giant grouper from Australia living alone in a large tank in San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium.

“That’s an easy question to answer,” I said. “It is the ocean—the planet’s big aquarium, all 321 million cubic miles of it. It is where 97 percent of earth’s water is, and—no surprise —it is home for most of the life in the universe, as far as we know.”

“And the best zoo?”

“It is all of the living world, land, sky and sea together, humankind very much included. We share space with millions of other creatures who live with us on earth. It’s a tiny blue speck in the universe, but it is home for all people, everywhere, and all the fish, frogs, birds, bugs, trees, moss, and every other living thing. We need them to keep the planet healthy, and now they need us to take care of them. We’re all in this together.”

“Oh,” the girl said, looking back at the fish. “Does he know?”

Why Knowing Matters

Actually, until recently, even the smartest people on earth did not know how dependent every living thing, including all humans, are on one another as elements of the natural systems that have shaped the world over billions of years. Technologies that did not exist a century ago have helped solve mysteries about when and how earth was formed, when life first appeared, about when, how, and where humankind fits in, and what shapes the grand earth processes that continue to make this planet suitable for life in an otherwise inhospitable universe.

Children in the twenty-first century are the beneficiaries of knowledge that their predecessors not only did not but could not know about the earth and the universe beyond, and why all people everywhere (children especially included) have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to maintain the natural systems that shape the planet in ways that favor our existence.

Ten thousand years ago, when all of the people in the world were fewer than the population of a medium-sized city today, it was easy to understand how people and nature are connected, and to see how our existence is a part of, not apart from, the rest of life on earth. Food, shelter, clothing, and everything else required for life were obviously derived from the all-encompassing wilderness otherwise known as “nature.”

But with seven billion people, largely concentrated in densely packed cities where there is little chance of seeing stars by night or songbirds by day, where food comes packaged in markets and water is delivered in pipes, many people have lost touch with the reality of what keeps us alive. Nothing has changed concerning our absolute reliance on nature, the living planet that underpins earth’s biogeochemical cycles —a code word for “life-support system.” But those systems have undergone unprecedented decline, owing to pressures human activities impose.

Headlines in recent years are filled with alarming news: global warming, deadly diseases, rampant poverty, dreadful conflicts, the swift decline of pristine coral reefs, rainforests, and deserts and other ancient ecosystems as well as a dishearteningly long list of creatures from bats to bees, whales to water bugs, that may not exist in another few decades.

Yet as the twenty-first century unfolds, some would say that humankind has never before enjoyed greater prosperity. Population has grown from about seven million people ten thousand years ago to a billion in 1800, followed by an unprecedented seven-fold increase in two centuries. Globally, people are, in general, living longer, and are in better health with greater access to knowledge and opportunities for a good life than their predecessors. Sadly, the natural living systems that have fueled the advance of human civilization have diminished in direct proportion not only to our increasing numbers, but also owing to the application of technologies that make it possible to unravel in decades natural systems that have taken millions—sometimes hundreds of millions—of years to form. Many arrows point to our arrival at precarious “tipping points” that can be stabilized—or not—depending on actions taken within the next decade. Never before have we so clearly understood what our options are; never again will there be a better opportunity to act on what we know to be a precarious—but opportune—moment in time.

There is time, but not a lot, to turn from the relentless displacement and consumption of all that earth encompasses toward an era of urgent protection of the species and living systems that remain in good condition, restoring where possible what has been lost and respecting the underlying processes that hold the planet within a range of conditions favorable for life as we know it, which are called “planetary boundaries” by Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and by numerous collaborating scientists. Unwitting activities of the past two centuries, especially since the 1950s, have stressed four of the nine boundaries beyond safe limits. The other five are pressing the envelope.

If present trends continue, it is likely that coral reefs, most large sharks, blue fin tunas, some dolphin, whale, and seal species, and many kinds of frogs, birds, lizards, and countless other creatures will have been forever lost by the middle of this century. Old-growth forests, natural deserts, and pristine places everywhere are rapidly disappearing, consumed, or displaced by humans. The not-to-exceed limit of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already beyond 400 ppm and rising; biodiversity loss exceeds the intact minimum of 90 percent in critical regions such as Africa; about twice the sustainable amount of nitrogen and phosphorus for agricultural uses are now being consumed annually; only 62 percent remains of the 75 percent minimum required of the original forest cover needed to yield vital contributions to earth’s biogeochemical processes. Harvard University’s distinguished ecologist E.O. Wilson calls for at least half of the earth to be banked as intact natural reserves to protect vital biodiversity and the planetary processes they generate. Presently, parks that are open to the public but prohibit destructive uses safeguard about 14 percent of the land and 2 percent of the ocean.

Astronauts hurtling through space are acutely conscious of their life-support system, learning everything they can about how it functions, then doing everything possible to ensure that it stays in good working order. After all, their lives depend on it. If asked, how much of your life-support system do you want to keep in good working order, would the answer be 2 percent? 14 percent? Maybe half?

The Changing Role of Zoos and Aquariums

Aquariums and zoos large and small have in the past been places established to showcase animals as entertaining curiosities, with varying degrees of concern about the physical or psychological well-being of the animals themselves. That approach is undergoing a seismic shift in response to many individuals and organizations insisting that animals in captivity—and in the wild —be treated with greater dignity, respect, and protection from human harm. Some question the need to have captive animals at all, except in special circumstances: for rescue, for recovery from injuries, for when return to the wild is not feasible, or, in some cases, for providing safe quarters for breeding to stave off extinction.

In the 1980s, Christopher Parsons, the long-time head of the BBC’s Natural History Film Unit, envisioned an electronic zoo that would feature the best images ever recorded of wild animals in action: cheetahs bounding across African plains, snow leopards reclining on rocky ledges, pandas munching on bamboo, sperm whales engaging in open-ocean conversations, and even fragile jellyfish pulsing through pastures of plankton. A vast library of images has been assembled under the auspices of the nonprofit organization Arkive in the United Kingdom in keeping with Parsons’s dream of capturing as much as possible of the splendor of life on earth, with the urgent desire that the animals, not just the images, would continue to exist.

New 3D imaging and virtual reality experiences can now vicariously transport zoo and aquarium visitors into jungles, mountain peaks, under polar ice and into the great depths below, enhancing their understanding of what it might be like to be a jaguar, a whale, a honeybee or a maybe a deep sea shrimp.

Whether institutions are fostering wildlife recovery, research, education, conservation, or entertainment, attitudes about zoos and aquariums and their governing policies are changing, in part owing to the voices of people who have come to care about animals and the natural world through experiences they have had at those very places, often as children. I am one of those people.

As a child, I learned in school about elephants through pictures and stories. At the Philadelphia Zoo, I reveled in the essence of a fellow mammal who was magnificently huge, but who shared familiar features that I could relate to: eyes, ears, skin, a little hair, and a very impressive nose. I had no idea then about what has now been definitively documented: the enduring, close-knit societies of elephants, their emotions, their individual behaviors, their grief when family members die.

Now that I know, I share the ethical concerns that have inspired a number of zoos, including my beloved Philadelphia Zoo, to no longer keep elephants, but rather to retire existing captives to places where they have more elephant-friendly space and surroundings and a larger number of elephants for company. Returning captive elephants to their native homes is not realistic for many reasons, including the destruction of much of the natural lands they once inhabited, the current dangers of slaughter by ivory poachers, and the tightly-knit social structure of elephant families, which might or might not accept a newcomer.

Similar dilemmas are now faced by aquariums that have featured captive dolphins, orcas, beluga whales, and other marine mammals as star attractions for public amusement, but have recently been inspired to rethink the wisdom, ethics, and financial risks involved with continuing to do so.

Until well into the twentieth century, whales, otters, manatees, seals, and sea lions were regarded as commodities, valued for their fat, flesh, or fur, and rarely thought of as individual animals capable of solving problems, having families, or even feeling pain. Just as song birds and waterfowl were once treated as fair game, free for the taking, whales and their mammalian relatives have experienced a long history of conflict with humankind that is undergoing a rapid shift.

The film Free Willy created a public outcry aimed at returning Keiko, the actual captive orca that inspired the fictional film story, to the place of his origin, the coastal waters of Iceland. It took a lot of time, effort, and money to organize and eventually achieve that well-intended goal, but years of adaptation to captivity deprived Keiko of knowing how to effectively be a successful orca in the wild. After a carefully monitored release, he was able to find food and to travel hundreds of miles, but he did not succeed in being accepted by other orcas. But who knows? Given a choice, Keiko may have elected to have the two years that he experienced on his own in the wild rather than having a longer life in the confines of a small tank in a Mexican amusement park.

Other films, notably Blackfish, have had a profound impact on the public perception of the ethics of keeping intelligent, socially sensitive marine mammals in confined spaces. Even before knowing the devastating trauma and misery imposed on orcas and their families when individuals are taken for public display, in 1981 I was deeply moved by the plight of a lone orca who had been placed in an open-air exhibit in Hong Kong. From his vantage point in a small, barren pool at the top of a hill, he could see the ocean in the distance, but had no hope of knowing again the comfort of its embrace.

Dolphins have been popular animals in zoos and aquariums for many years, but the horror of what is involved with taking them from the wild, graphically exposed in the film The Cove, has sent shock waves through the institutions that have had various species of dolphins in captivity for many years. Once regarded as prime attractions (as they still are in many new aquariums in China), there are efforts underway to retire dolphins, even those born in captivity, to spacious coastal facilities with access to the sea. John Racanelli, director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is wrestling with this issue. He says it is, in a way, a good problem to have as it reflects a positive shift—a sea change in the way people view wild animals (and our sensitivity toward them) as something more than entertaining performers or candidates for consumption.

For all of the attention given to the ethical treatment of marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, it is puzzling that the incidental injuries and deaths imposed by fishing—especially large-scale commercial fishing with drift nets, trawls, and long lines—have somehow escaped comparable concern, although the impact is exponentially greater.

According to a World Wildlife Fund assessment based on the official records of fishermen worldwide, more than 300,000 wild marine mammals are killed annually on this planet in the process of taking millions of tons of fish, shrimp, crabs, and other ocean wildlife. Legally, a “take” of twenty thousand dolphins by fishermen is considered permissible under U.S. fisheries policy. Entanglement in Alaskan crab pots in Alaska and lobster pots in New England annually kills dozens of large whale species: humpbacks, northern right, fin, and minke. Millions of baited hooks dangling from thousands of long lines kill not just targeted fish species and unintended marine mammals but also thousands of sea turtles, sea birds, and unwanted fish that are discarded as allowable “bycatch.” Even more damaging are bottom trawls that capture shrimp and so-called ground fish by scraping entire ecosystems into very large nets, retaining for market only a fraction of what is engulfed. It is the equivalent of bulldozing a forest to capture a bushel of songbirds.

New programs aimed at educating the public about the importance of wildlife in the sea and on the land are growing in popularity and are fueling new respect, new care, and new policies about the relationship humans have with nature. Rather than bringing wild animals to places convenient to viewing by people, there are numerous ways in the twenty-first century for people to go to where wild animals can view them. Some aquariums and zoos not only are promoting field trips to local parks among their members, but are also collaborating with institutions to have travel programs to wild places, where whale watching, bird watching, and even fish watching are featured attractions. Citizen-scientists are engaged to make vital surveys that make possible evaluation of health and change over time.

The New England Aquarium in Boston supports a vigorous program of conservation research including expeditions that enlist citizen scientists to explore distant coral reefs as well as the nearby forests of kelp and local gatherings of seabirds and whales. The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa (see photo below) take visitors on vicarious journeys via indoor exhibits from far locations inland to the deep sea, complemented by programs that encourage visitors to go take the real journey, outside.

The Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium in Sarasota Florida, and the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, are examples of institutions that are primarily focused on oceanographic research but have developed public displays and vigorous outreach and education endeavors. Eugenie Clark, founder of the Mote Marine Laboratory and celebrated shark specialist, was ahead of her time in recognizing individual attributes of the fish that she studied. Out of respect for a small burrowing fish that she got to know personally during twelve years of close observation, she chose to abandon standard scientific procedures and not to capture and preserve it as a specimen after the end of her project.

She helped foster in me new ways of looking at fish, not just as would-be filets with fins, but rather as a kaleidoscopic assemblage of more than five hundred families encompassing well over 33,000 species—a greater number of back-boned animals than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. Many more await discovery even in well-known American rivers and streams. The fish specialist Richard Pyle, known for his dramatic descents into the ocean’s “twilight zone” using rebreathers in depths greater than five hundred feet, finds an average of thirteen new species per hour of dive time.

The advent of scuba diving in the 1950s has provided people with greatly improved access to lakes, rivers, and oceans and the creatures that abide there. The unintended consequences of having millions of divers exploring previously inaccessible parts of the planet, coupled with growing popularity of home aquariums, is that people are beginning to have enhanced respect for the character and individual personalities of our scaled, finned cousins, as well as for the thousands of invertebrates and intriguing aquatic plants that occur only in the ocean. The flip side of this exposure is that large aquariums as well as home aquarists have sometimes been responsible for selectively depleting certain desirable species, such as clownfish and colorful little gobies. Ingenious aquarists have responded to demand by figuring out how to convince certain clownfish to breed in captivity. Cultivation of corals, jellyfish, and other invertebrates is not only yielding new insight into the biology of these creatures but also providing a healthy alternative to extracting animals from wild reefs.

Small animals that are natural “homebodies” with limited range are far more adaptable for life in a tank and also for cultivation. Many kinds of seahorses have been successfully reared in laboratories for aquarium display and in commercial facilities where large numbers of the tiny animals are snapped up for use as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines. Not so easy to grow from scratch are large animals with complicated life histories. Whale sharks come to mind —the biggest fish in the sea!

Japanese aquarists were the first to successfully capture and exhibit these gracefully elephantine creatures, and I was invited to swim with one in the Osaka Aquarium in 1991. I had experience diving with whales in Hawaii and Mexico, and I encountered many sharks in many places many times. But a whale shark was another matter. I felt privileged to be in the presence of a creature I had only read about and seen in photographs taken by lucky divers. Fast forward to 2010 to a place in the Gulf of Mexico, about one hundred miles offshore from Louisiana’s port city, Fouchon, in mid-June, when a small tuna, Bonita, filled the sea with masses of spawn. There to enjoy the Bonita caviar were hundreds of whale sharks! Photographs that I snapped of spots just in front of the big dorsal fin were entered into a computer program and later matched to files of photos taken by scientists in the four countries normally visited by these wide-ranging animals.

I first became impressed with the distinctive diversity that exists among animals while visiting with the naturalist-artist Sir Peter Scott and his wife Philippa at their home in Slimbridge, England. On an unfinished canvas, Sir Peter had painted a gallery of swan portraits, each face distinctively different from the other, and each one named. To me, the swans crowding around a marshy area just outside the house all looked pretty much alike. But Sir Peter’s pointed out the differences in size and shape of the leathery skin just behind the bill. Each was as distinctive as a fingerprint. Already, I had learned to recognize the unique patterns on the flukes of individual humpback whales and observed certain behavioral differences as well. During weeks of living in underwater laboratories I could identify by behavior alone the identity of several large barracuda.

Now it seems obvious that two of the greatest miracles of life are the infinite capacity for diversity coupled with a common chemistry that wondrously connects us all. The naturalist Henry Beston suggests in The Outermost House, “We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. . . . In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

The application of this concept to fish is nicely articulated by Jonathan Balcombe in his book, What a Fish Knows: “If there is one overarching conclusion we can draw from the current science on fish it is this: Fishes are not merely alive—they have lives. They are not just things, but beings. A fish is an individual with personality and relationships. He or she can plan and learn, perceive and innovate, soothe and scheme, experience moments of pleasure, fear, playfulness, pain, and—I suspect joy. A fish feels and knows.”

The popular film Finding Nemo has helped inspire new attitudes about fish thanks to toothy cartoon sharks delivering catchy one-liners such as “Fish are friends, not food!” It is likely that fish will always be regarded by some people as delicious as well as delightful, but knowledge gained about the nature of the many kinds of fish may inspire greater discrimination about the who, what, why, and where of aquatic creatures chosen for consumption.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium helped pioneer printed guides for those who want to make informed decisions about their culinary choices. The lists of those to avoid owing to low numbers, high bycatch, and use of fishing gear that destroys habitat are featured in a red column. Yellow indicates caution, and green means go for it.

No indication is given about the relative age of the animals, but unlike chickens, which eat plants and go to market in less than a year, or cows, sheep, goats, and pigs, which also primarily eat plants and rarely reach full maturity before becoming various cuts of beef, bacon, or chops, most wild-caught fish are high-on-the-food-chain carnivores that may be decades old when captured.

A century ago, wild birds, their eggs, and their feathers were being commercially marketed for food, products, and decorations, but as people became more aware of their other values, protective policies came into effect including international treaties that take long distance migratory routes into account.

Half a century ago, marine mammals were regarded primarily as commodities, described dispassionately in terms of barrels of oil and tons of meat. By 1986, all but three nations agreed to abandon commercial whaling and focus on other vital values, from tourism to art, music, and the role of whales as important elements in planetary biogeochemical cycling.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, zoos and aquariums can help lead the transition from a past marked by a long and destructive war with nature into a peaceful, productive, and enduring future.

  • Sylvia Earle

    Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEA) / Mission Blue, Founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. (DOER), Chair of the Advisory Council for the Harte Research Institute and former Chief Scientist of NOAA. She is the author of more than two hundred publications and leader of more than one hundred expeditions with over seven thousand hours underwater.

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