For those who work for habitat preservation and animal welfare, zoos don’t have the best reputation. Although many zoos go to great lengths to recreate natural habitats, they’re still just big cages that put wild animals on display for human entertainment.
However, as climate change and human development chips away at the natural habitat of many animals, zoos have become havens of preservation for species on the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, as the number of animals on the endangered species list continues to grow, zoos are being forced to make hard decisions about which animals to save.
The New York Times reports that since the 1980s, zoos have developed coordinated breeding programs that have brought dozens of animals, like the golden lion tamarin of Brazil, back from the brink. But now, with both funding and space at a premium, some species are falling by the wayside so zoos can provide better breeding environments for the most threatened animals.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the species crying out for protection aren’t those likely to attract zoo visitors. “We are always balancing the public experiencing [sic] with conservation needs,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo. “If you ask me why I have camels, I would say that we need something interesting for people to see at the back of the zoo in winter, and they are always outside.”
Dr. Steven L. Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, disagrees. “Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur.” But this would require a radical reorganization of the way zoos operate, and many are resistant to that kind of change. Many members of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums are content to focus their efforts on conserving only a few species, and continuing to operate mainly as an entertainment attraction.
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