Nature, in Captivity

by | Jun 4, 2020 | Wildlife Conservation | 0 comments

Zoos are a paradoxical entity in that our desire for the continued freedom of wild animals has strangely come to justify their captivity, legitimizing domestication, in that, the zoo animal enters the stage as a monument to the wild animal’s disappearance in nature.

Zoos can be small or large, public or private, for profit or non-profit, sanctioned or unsanctioned; they range vastly in size, quality and goals or mission statements of their organization. There are 136 sanctioned zoos in the US, which are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA Commission evaluates every candidate facility to make sure that it meets AZA’s standards for animal management and care, including living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition. The Commission also evaluates the veterinary program, involvement in conservation and research, education programs, safety policies and procedures, physical facilities, guest services, and the quality of the institution’s staff.  However, most zoo visitors do not know that AZA accredited facilities make up less than 10% of facilities that exhibit animals in the US.

I will be writing a series of blogs about the pros and cons of zoos- they are undoubtedly a complex issue for me. The zoo’s capacity to institutionalize captivity by normalizing, classifying, registering and regulating- thus ‘commodifying’ wild animals- all in an attempt to produce and create ‘nature’ in an organized coherent way, is a rater unique and polarizing concept.  My purpose here is to highlight that regardless of their mission statements or intentions, zoos are without doubt, a powerful social and cultural institution that have successfully commodified the natural world.

According to AZA, zoos attract more than 183 million annual visitors- this figure exceeds the combined attendance to all major U.S. sporting events. Given such a colossal scale of influence, how zoos frame themselves and articulate their message to the visiting public, matters. The discursive frames associated with zoos and zoo animals is highly structured and specific; a tremendous amount of thought has been put into the messages and visuals seen at the zoo that reach millions of people per year. Zoos, from how we walk through the exhibits, to what we read on the signage, to what is available for purchase in the gift shops, subliminally, tell us how to conceptualize and interpret nature.

Several studies have concluded that zoo goers perceive the function of zoos as primarily centered around conservation. And why wouldn’t people believe that? Zoos across the country boast about their pivotal role in increasing biodiversity and saving species from extinction. This is what I call ‘conservation rhetoric’. However, the reality is that almost all zoos are businesses, and exhibiting charismatic animals (think the lions, tigers and gorillas that take up the prime real estate at a zoo)- especially the birth of those animals-increase ticket sales substantially. The reality is that zoos spend less than 5% of their income on in-situ (in the wild) conservation projects. Traditionally, zoos have filled a societal role of satiating our curiosity about wild animals and desire for entertainment; they are, generally, for-profit businesses. The Noah’s Ark paradigm (the idea of zoo animals are ‘biobanks’- genetic representations of their wild counterparts and thus insurance against extinction in the wild) as the main role for zoos to play, only gained popularity in the at the end of the 20th century and zoos have subsequently latched onto this motif and sell themselves as the saviors of biodiversity.

The idea of zoos as ‘biobanks’ or ‘arks’ and the last stand for endangered species is a modern phenomenon where discourse structured around nature’s increasing scarcity has become commonplace and used advantageously. Zoos have so impeccably adopted the language of and their role in ‘species survival’ that the public does not question it.  The rhetoric and framing used by zoos to rationalize and legitimize their captive breeding operations has become very powerful, and yet, very few captive-bred animals (especially felines and/or predators) have ever been reintroduced into the wild.  Also, conservation directed at a single species, (which is almost always centered around charismatic megafauna) is certainly glamorous, exciting, and easy to rally behind, however, its applicability to ‘saving biodiversity’ is limited. Conservation science has largely turned away from single species conservation, as it does little to address the problem of declining biodiversity- by the time a zoo has a viable reintroduction program, that species’ natural habitat may be destroyed. Habitat restoration and preservation, with a focus on ecosystem-level conservation, is a much more effective approach, but this message is often missing from zoo rhetoric. If zoos were truly as intent on in-situ conservation as they lead their visitors to believe, they would have transitioned to a message and role that supported the reigning scientific consensus for conservation and would appropriate more of their income.

The conservation language used by zoos also packages the public lament for lost natures, turning ‘nature’ more transparently than ever into a cultural product. At the zoo, nostalgic desires on the part of humans for nature’s ‘recovery’ have been tapped and commodified. Zoos employ numerous strategies for domesticating, mythologizing and aestheticizing animals, and all of this is at little obvious gain to some of the endangered themselves; verifiable in the fact that many endangered animal populations in the wild have declined in number as their numbers in captivity have risen. How strange that freedom for animals has come to justify their captivity – ‘wildness’ now legitimizes domestication.

I fear that not only do zoos, in general, not support in-situ conservation, but they dangerously distract from the real threats facing wild animals. Zoo animals are not domesticated, but they are not wild, they are, in fact, some odd hybrid. However, irrespective of that, they are cognitively associated by the public as surrogates of wild animals; zoo animals are  imagined as intimately related to their wild brethren. The cheetah at the zoo is not just a cheetah anymore but represents all wild cheetahs and their endangered plight. However, if you took that cheetah and placed it on the savanna in Africa, it could not survive. And therein lies the problem: because zoo animals are imagined by the public as intimately related to their wild counterparts, a disassociation with the wild animal’s plight occurs. Endangered species in zoos thus detract from meaningful conservation in two ways: money spent on reintroduction from zoo populations detracts from the real threats of most megafauna- human/wildlife conflict, poaching and habitat loss; secondly a commodification of zoo animals through exhibition has created a dissonance with the wild animals plight, in that many perceive these zoo animals to not actually be endangered. As a result of this zoos are not microcosms of the natural world but the very antithesis to it.


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