Biodiversity Behind Bars: Are Zoos Justified?

There is something about a child that doesn’t like bars. When I was seven, I knew with a searing certainty that no person, no animal should have to live caged, peering out behind bars at a free world it cannot reach. And I acted on that certainty. I lived at 60 Hopkins Street, Hilton Village, a worker’s suburb of the shipbuilding town of Newport News, Virginia. Across the street from me resided a public health nurse who maintained in her back yard a large colony of guinea pigs used in medical testing and research. Nowadays such an informal arrangement would surely violate some rule or regulation, but 1949 was a simpler time. I used to visit her guinea pigs in their outdoor cage, seeing in their liquid eyes all the despair that only a seven year old can feel. And one day I picked up a rock, broke the lock, and set the guinea pigs free. Out into the neighborhood they shot, 97 furry little lightening bolts, and I was proud to have struck this blow for freedom. I am amazed, looking back, that my parents kept me.

What they did was buy me a dog. That, and explain to me that some bars have a purpose. These guinea pigs were part of an effort to help sick people, they patiently explained, their freedom the price of a much greater good. It was only as I grew to adulthood that I came to understand that bitter truth. And now I find I must explain it to my children. My 13 year old daughter Caitlin came to me last week, incadescent with anger, demanding to know why the apes at the St. Louis Zoo aren’t transported back to Africa and released to freedom. I look into her eyes and see myself 50 years ago (can it be so long?) and know her question demands an answer. So here it is.

Ape captivity, Caitlin, is no more justifiable than human captivity, for apes are our very close cousins, with loving families and complex cultures. But bars sometimes have a necessary purpose. The apes in the St. Louis Zoo are captive for two reasons: to preserve them as a species, and to educate people about them.

Zoos as conservators of a disappearing world. There are only four kinds of living apes: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. All are rare and highly endangered, living in relatively small areas, and their natural habitat is rapidly disappearing as human activities destroy the mountain forests of Central Africa and Asia. In your lifetime, Caitlin, most of these wild ape populations will be gone, extinct. No amount of regret can change that sad fact. All that will be left of humanity’s last link to its evolutionary past will be the captive ape populations living in zoos like ours. That is the primary role of zoos today, not entertainment to distract children on hot summer days but preservation of an invaluable biological heritage that otherwise would be lost. Zoos are the conservators of a rapidly disappearing natural world, a living library in which we store biodiversity. Zoos take this role seriously. The breeding of endangered species is overseen collectively by the nation’s zoos. Species preservation programs move animals from one zoo to another in carefully managed breeding programs that prevent unnecessary inbreeding.

Sometimes a captive species can be introduced back to the wild. Serious efforts are being made to establish large preserves where some natural habitat will be saved for the animals. For most endangered animals, however, there are no such rosy hopes, no wild habitat reserved for their return. Captivity, for better or worse, is their only future, surely a better choice than extinction.

Zoos as educators of you and I. The second role of zoos today, more subtle but equally important, is to make biodiversity immediate and real for the general public, for you and I. It was once very wisely said that we will not preserve what we do not understand. Seeing with your own eyes a chimpanzee return your gesture, or watching with your own eyes a baby giraffe take its first awkward steps — no words or film have that impact, that immediate concrete contact with our animal relations. Like many zoos around the country, the St. Louis Zoo has a very active education department, letting busloads of school children experience animals first hand. But the bigger educational effort is simply our seeing the animals, ourselves. Every zoo is a teaching institution, we the public are the students, and the animals are the lessons we are being taught. The test we must pass, as the citizens upon whose support the St. Louis Zoo depends, will be graded severely. It is no less than the survival of this rich animal biodiversity for our children’s children to see and share in turn. That is why I take Caitlin to the zoo, and why you should take your children, and yourselves.

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