Zoos: Ego or Eco?

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Being a zoo educator, and having heard arguments from both sides, I constantly struggle about the justification of existence of zoos. ‘Pathways to connectedness’ and ‘Footprints of delight’ have added some view points and inspired me to look into 3 aspects of conservation education as below.

The first aspect is the education focus. We used to conduct conservation education by arousing environmental awareness; then we realised that the awareness itself is not sufficient to cause a behavioural change when people don’t feel that the change is beneficial to themselves or their next generation. Therefore, we have started to put the focus on people and ask them to adopt eco-friendly actions so that their children can have better future. Now, Schultz’s research has shown we have to let people feel that they are part of nature in order to engage them to conservation. So it’s not just about how nature is in danger, or why human should save themselves; the focus should be the connection between human and nature. This is utterly important when nature is seemingly irrelevant to our urban life.

Schultz has mentioned that zoos feed immediate human need for nature and spending time at a zoo increases connectedness. I question his conclusions because the validity highly depends on the design of zoo (whether it is naturalistic), husbandry quality and the corporate vision of the zoo owner. ‘Diversity of lives’ sounds positive; but housing animals from around the globe in an artificial environment which simulates their natural habitat by technology may give an impress to zoo-goers that human is actually intellectual and superior to other animals. 

It is very convincing that egoistically appealing activities will likely undermine the positive impact on connectedness. However, these activities attract many visitors to the parks and may increase their chance to experience the conservation education. Therefore, zoological parks with both animal facilities and thrill rides should be well designed and balanced so that visitors will spend sufficient time at the exhibits and develop their connectedness to nature. Hopefully, zoos can be a sustainable pathway to visitors’ happiness without causing negative impacts to animals or resources on the planet.

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