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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

Zoos change philosophy

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

Zoos aren’t just for entertainment anymore, and the Philadelphia Zoo showed its understanding of this when it decided to send its elephants away. The decision to put the well-being of the animals ahead of the money to be gained from their display showed the zoo’s acceptance of the new societal role of zoos, and the zoo personnel’s responsibility as people.

As human encroachment and pollution has endangered habitats, thereby endangering species, zoos have become a vital force in conservation. And because their role has grown more important, the restrictions on them have become more stringent and their duties more numerous. Most zoos now belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and go through a process of accreditation to ensure the health and safety of zoo animals.

To be accredited is to be considered a good home for animals and allows zoos to participate in the Species Survival Program (SSP). The SSP is an excellent program in which participants make plans for the recovery of the species in their care. For example, the Minnesota Zoo hosts SSP tigers. Zoo personnel make a dossier containing the genetic information and life history of the tiger, and then present it to the rest of the SSP members. Then, a committee decides what to do with the tigers. Often, animals are shipped from zoo to zoo to mate with a variety of other tigers to improve genetic diversity. The hope is to get a healthy population of tigers that can someday be released back into the wild.

That sounds good, but there’s a massive financial cost to this. It costs money to ship an animal cross-country, and it causes a loss of revenue to take big draws off display for months at a time. Additionally, species conservation in zoos requires the animals to have a larger, more natural habitat so the animals don’t grow up accustomed to humans, should they ever be re-released into the wild. With the budget crises faced by many zoos in America, zoo keepers have to be really committed to doing the right thing for the species in order to absorb these financial hits.

And the keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo are committed to providing the best for their animals. Their decision to send the elephants to the Baltimore Zoo and to an elephant reserve in Tennessee was the right one. Zoo officials recognized that the animals needed more space. They tried to gather the funds to build a better home for the four elephants, and they couldn't.

So, if this is for the best, why the outcry? What’s with people complaining that they loved coming to see the elephants and now they can’t? It stems from the way we, as a society, view animals.

Just look at how we treat our pets. As someone who has worked in a pet store for four years, I can tell you that the way we view animals, even our own pets, is pretty twisted. For most prospective pet owners, spending 15 bucks on a turtle was fine, but 200 dollars on the setup wasn’t. Buying the designer dog was no burden, but paying vet bills and the high cost of good food for the animal was inconceivable. Long story short: people want to have animals, people want to own something cute, but to take responsibility to provide that animal with what it needs to live out its natural life in good health is preposterous.

After all, they’re only animals, they only live because we allow it.

The Philadelphia Zoo’s decision is a refutation of this irresponsible attitude. Their actions show the public that doing the right thing is hard sometimes, and sometimes it’s expensive, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to do.

Variety Editor April Wright is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She majors in English and in biology.

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