For the Conservation Curious

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Captivity a Cause for Concern? December 30, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:10 PM
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I watched the documentary Black Fish over the weekend. It covers the story of Tillicum, an orca at Sea World, who has killed and maimed several of his trainers over the years. There are numerous former trainers interviewed in the film, showcasing the ignorance their supervisors/Sea World management kept them in by lying and hiding evidence, as well as putting the blame on the trainers, not the whale.

I went to Sea World Ohio once as a child. I remember enjoying the experience. After all, I love animals and majored in zoology in college. I volunteered at a zoo and wanted to be a zoo veterinarian. But after watching this movie I want Sea World and other water parks like it to go out of business. When you see how they capture orcas like Tillicum, separating them from their mother and family group at a very young age, you may feel sick to your stomach or cry. I certainly did. You may feel outrage particularly when you learn from an orca expert how closely bonded these family groups are and how the mothers will call out with long-range sonar to try and find these stolen calves.

It is upsetting to know that Tillicum is not an isolated case. Orcas are placed in small tanks with non-family members, who then may attack and harass them. They are traumatized and scarred; no wonder they may lash out at their trainers from frustration or boredom. It is a shame that people have lost limbs and lives from these majestic creatures all for the sake of entertainment. When will enough be enough?

I urge you to watch this film and think about the pros and cons of putting such intelligent and social creatures into captivity. While having orcas at these parks may increase public awareness and appreciation for the whales, as Sea World and others have argued, is it worth the trauma inflicted on the animals and the possible injuries and fatalities that can ensue? Can’t we instill that appreciation for orcas and other marine mammals by showing people films and tv programs that feature them in the wild where they belong? I think that can be as effective or even more so, as they show the animals how they should be (dorsal fins standing strongly upright, living harmoniously in large pods), rather than how they appear in captivity (floppy dorsal fins, scars from teeth rakes). It isn’t always a pleasant film to watch, but without a little discomfort, how can we be motivated to act?


Collaboration Works, but How to get it Started? December 19, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:15 PM

Yesterday I attended the Pennsylvania Urban and Community Forestry Council meeting in order to make them aware of the sustainability-related projects I work on and administer through the Sustainable Lands Program (SLP) ( Rarely do I leave a meeting so excited and energized, but yesterday that is exactly how I felt. So many passionate people are coming up with a wealth of worthwhile projects that promote sustainable landscapes and buildings. For instance, the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society is working with municipal park managers and maintenance staff to ensure that parks are maintained in environmentally-beneficial ways. The Department of Environmental Protection is working with Penn State Extension to educate municipalities about the importance of green storm water management. And the statewide partners I work with through the SLP have many irons in the fire, including a workshop to “green” corporate campuses, an outreach campaign for school campus managers in the greater Pittsburgh region, and a bus tour of green infrastructure sites in Lackawanna County, and much more. This is all very exciting stuff, but after the meeting I started to wonder how we all can collaborate better so we can maximize our reach and not duplicate services.

That is a difficult question to answer. For one thing, Pennsylvania is a large state. Communication between organizations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia isn’t always easy. Organizations have their coverage areas and may not want to (or aren’t allowed to) step beyond those bounds. They may want to be the lead organization of a project and not willing to have equal billing with someone else. A history of bad blood between two organizations can keep them from working together, even if no one remembers how the animosity arose in the first place. Or they may not know that another organization is working on a similar topic and willing to collaborate.

All those answers weigh in to why there isn’t better collaboration between the various organizations in Pennsylvania (and beyond) that work on sustainability, although from my perspective I think more than fifty percent of the blame lies with a simple lack of knowledge. We work in a bubble, sealed off from the rest of our potential collaborators. That needs to end!

I’m talking about sustainability here, but the same holds true for other conservation work, educational topics, and probably just about any subject matter. I think we’d all like to be known as the __________ guru (fill in the blank with whatever topic you are most involved with), featured in publications and interviewed on the radio, but to be successful and effective, we must collaborate. If you have ideas and suggestions, or even real world examples, of ways to (1) let people know what you are working on and how they can contribute and (2) collaborate without turf battles, grandstanding and other bad group dynamics, please share them here. Anyone in any industry could benefit from that input. Thanks!


Zoos: Good, Bad or In Between? December 12, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:10 PM
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On CBS News this morning I watched a brief story about the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C. Multiple staffers had voiced complaints that animals were being overcrowded, leading to fights and health problems among the cheetahs, antelope and other species of special concern.

I have to been to this zoo numerous times over my lifetime and generally thought it was pretty nice (aside from all the invasive bamboo everywhere). As someone who volunteered at the Pittsburgh Zoo as a teen, and a frequent visitor to zoos and aquaria across the country, generally I am very supportive of zoos. The AZA accredited ones are helping to keep species in existence through breeding programs and releases into the wild. They educate the public about these magnificent creatures and build appreciation that will last a lifetime, hopefully.

However, as the CBS News story brings to light, there can be dark sides to zoos, at times. I can recall the days when animals were in cement-bottomed cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo. That was only 30 years ago. And there are non-accredited zoos out there that still use such horrible, unrealistic “habitats” for their animals (the bear and lion cages at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park come to mind). When animals are not given enough room to thrive, I do have an issue with that.
Many people question the motive of putting animals on display for our entertainment. They think that any zoo runs on exploitation. While I look at most zoos as educational, not everyone does. Is it better to let a species go extinct, rather than try to keep the species alive, even if only in captivity? Where do we draw the line?

I think part of the problem with the National Zoo’s situation is that it is free to go there. They rely solely on donations (and probably an endowment) to operate. That has to be difficult when you consider how many animals they have to feed and care for. Zoo staff are not paid all that well, but it still adds up. The senior staff is not made up of zoologists, I am guessing, so they are disconnected from what is best for the animals. They are tasked with making sure the zoo makes ends meet and continues to attract visitors day after day. So bringing in a few more cheetahs, and adding in a handful of new species without expanding the size of the zoo, seemed to make sense to their bottom-line view. But we’re talking about living creatures here, so that’s no way to run such a business.

CBS News said the zoo recognizes that they have issues, and have hired a new biologist to deal with some of the health issues and other problems. That’s one small step on what will hopefully be a wholesale review of their day to day operations. I will continue to go to zoos because I may never get to see a lion on the savannahs of Africa. But I will pay closer attention to the conditions of the animals and their habitats and won’t hesitate to complain if I see something untoward. You should do the same!