What I remember most about my first visit to a zoo as a child, is how the cougars were stalking my younger brother through their caged enclosures. Natural predators, they had set their sights on him, the smallest in our group, as an easy target just like they likely would have in the wild. Except we weren’t in the wild. Knowing my younger brother was in no actual danger (thanks to all the thick glass and caging) allowed me to consider the other factors at play in this scenario like the fact that these animals were unable to act upon many of their natural instincts. It was a reminder of my place on the food chain and it made clear to me that the animals were wild, and their current lodgings were not.
To foster a culture of care and conservation, zoos and aquariums have to get real. They have to get real with themselves and the general public about the negative impacts of keeping wild animals in captivity. They should aim to educate visitors that other species have an inherent right to exist in their natural habitat and that for centuries humans have been diminishing their capacity to the point of complete or near extinction for a number of species. They should create habitat displays that exemplify why these beloved animals are becoming endangered or going extinct at alarming rates. Ocean habitats full of single-use disposable plastics. Forest habitats that are pillaged and barren. If the reasoning behind the current zoo model is that we need to see to care, then let visitors see with their own eyes the true impact that our current culture of consumption and convenience has on the planet and its animal inhabitants.
Zoos and aquariums have to get real about their own environmental footprint and be an example for other commercial and educational institutions. As Jeanne Gang states in her article, the facilities should undergo radical and innovative design improvements that are carbon neutral and closed-loop systems where everything from the gift shop to the box office operates on zero-waste principles. Using their extensive knowledge of animal species, zoos and aquariums could incorporate unique features of bio-mimicry. Every opportunity to exemplify low-impact behaviour and environmental responsibility must be seized.
Features like Planet Earth and Planet Earth II do a tremendous job of showing wild animals in their natural habitats. Demonstrating the complex and magnificent beauty of various ecosystems and how species interact within them. The skilled narration and filmwork foster a sense of connection with and concern for the animals in a way that is even more tangible than witnessing the live animal alone or with a few others of its own kind in a man-made enclosure. Zoos can still educate and foster concern through immersive exhibits, but for animals that should never be in captivity, this should be done creatively through the use of film or even virtual reality.
Humans visit the zoo to see and learn about the wild creatures on display there. Seeking to make a connection with species they may never otherwise see in real life. But seeing a great lion or polar bear on display only bolsters our sense of control over the natural world and dominion over all other species. To truly foster a culture of care and conservation, zoos and aquariums must lead visitors to deeply consider the role our species has in diminishing the capacity of other species to survive and thrive.