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!