Zoos. I have worked at many wildlife facilities, as well as a city run zoo. I have researched and fund-raised for some of the best. I have visited some of the worst. There are a few things people may not be aware of about zoos, and a few trends I regularly see.
First It is important to realize why zoos exist. Although zoos appear to have existed long before recorded history the first one on record appeared in 1752 in Vienna. Zoos started as a collection of wild animals. These collections were gathered to show wealth of individuals or cities, some places simply liked to collect things uncommon in their area. Even back then, there were good and bad facilities. In the early 1970's conservation started to become the message of all zoos. Today the majority of zoos exist to educate and conserve.
What most zoo visitors do not see is all the activity behind the scenes. Many animals on display in a "small" enclosure may actually have a larger one for after hours use. Zoos frequently trade animals to keep genetic diversity among all possible species. Many zoos have a large variety of animals not on display, that are a part of the conservation program. There is a world wide DNA data base for most zoo animals. Zoos do not breed animals they have no room for, so many zoo animals are on birthcontrol. Breeding is saved for critically endangered species. Some zoos are even able to successfully breed and return animals to the wild.
A good example of this is what the Aspinall Foundation in Britain is doing with Lowland Gorillas. Not only is Howletts: The Aspinall Wild Animal Park, in Britain an amazing zoological facility, but their work returning Gorillas to the wild is providing a blueprint for saving future species. Learn more at http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/howletts
Of course that sounds great but as with everything, not all zoos are good. A sad trend is with city owned zoos in the United States. City zoos pay their zoo keepers well but do not usually treat all animals equally. For cities, there is never enough money. City zoos put focus on "popular" animals, whose exibits are bigger and better, while less popular animals have smaller enclosures. City Zoos also want the cheapest food to keep the bills down. The result of cheaper food is that it does not always match the animals natural diet, resulting in a higher rate of diseases such as diabetes. At these zoos the keeper takes care of the animals but other people make all the decisions. One decides what food they eat, one decides what enrichment (play) they get, one decides on vet treatments, one decides on breeding, etc. While this can work for some species, others need a smaller team that knows them well in order to thrive.
Private Zoos tend to pay their keepers and staff less but all of the animals are treated as equally important. Enclosures are bigger, food quality is higher, and conservation is considered more important. As a west coaster, I have not been to any east coast zoos, yet, but I have a few favorites here on the west coast. The San Diego Zoo & San Diego Safari Park is an amazing set of private zoos doing great things for wildlife. Find them at http://www.sandiegozoo.org/ Their motto is "San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy: Bringing Species Back From The Brink". A hidden gem just outside Pheonix, Arizona is The Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium: http://www.wildlifeworld.com/ They have more rare and endangered species in one small facility then I have ever seen. They are all well cared for and their conservation programs are phenomenal.
There is one amazing zoo that I think all zoos should model themselves after: Australia Zoo, Beerwah, AU. This Zoo, owned and run by Terri Irwin focuses on "Delivering conservation through exciting education". Steve Irwin once said that if people could touch wildlife, they in turn would be touched and want to save them, because "people want to save things that they love". Australia Zoo also has the worlds largest wildlife hospital and an amazing research team. http://www.australiazoo.com.au/ Check them out!
An important thing to know is if the zoo you frequent is a member of the Association Of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). The AZA and WAZA have minimum standards and requirements for zoos and their animals. They also have some amazing conservation programs. Find out more at http://www.aza.org/ and http://www.waza.org/en/site/home Please note that even if a zoo is accredited by AZA it may only be meeting the minimum standards, ask them to require only the best.
SEA WORLD and other theme parks are often a harder sell to conservationists. I am not trying to sell it now. Instead lets look objectively at the good, the evils and the maybe's of theme parks.
Themes parks usually consists of wildlife exibits, shows, and even rides. There are pros and cons to all of these.
Exibits: Many exibits, such as the dolphin, manatee, and turtle reef exibits, found at Sea World San Diego, house a variety of rescued wildlife. Animals that have been hit by boats, tangled in fishing nets, or harrassed by humans that can no longer survive in the wild will now spend the rest of their days in captivity. One strain of thought is that we are messing with nature by saving them. I would agree if it was nature harming them, but usually it's man and our man made objects. If we do the damage, I believe we should do our best to repair it. Take a good look at the animals and ask questions. Every person working at these parks think they are doing whats best for the species. Don't attack them for doing their jobs, ask them to share their opinions with you so you can form your own.
Some exibits are hard for me to look at. The Orca's and Dolphins at Sea World are in very small tanks, especially compared to the open ocean. The trainers keep them moving, active, and well fed. It is important to note that Sea World has not purchased any Dolphins or Whales captured in the wild in decades. The current wildlife housed at the parks have either been born in captivity or rescued.
Please also note their are several kinds of orcas. In the 1970s research identified three types, although it is believed there are up to six. 'Resident' are the most common, fish eaters, and the species found at Sea World and other theme parks, also depicted in the "Free Willy" movies. Resident Orcas live close to the coastlines and have the most human interaction. There are also 'Transient' Orcas who eat marine mammals, not fish, and do the most extensive ocean traveling of all the Orca species. Transient orcas do not survive in captivity. 'Offshore' are similar to Resident Orcas. They are fish eaters but they live farther out in the deeper sections of oceans. Less is known about Offshore Orcas. Size, shape, color patterns, diets, and locations help researchers determine the difference in species.
Shows: There are a variety of shows at both zoos and theme parks. There are shows that mimic natural behaviors. These keep the captive animals happy and stimulated, while educating the public on the importance of the species: Bird in flight shows, Crocodile feedings, and Camel walks.
Then there are shows meant only to entertain. Trainers ride whales & dolphins, sea lions and other animals are used in comedy routines, getting an ooh, an ahhh, or a laugh is the main goal. I sat through one of these recently. The animals "looked" healthy and happy, but it was so unnatural it made me sick to my stomach. The audience loved it. There was not one conservation or wildlife message present.
Rides: This is my maybe. Until last week I thought rides at wildlife parks were really, really, really wrong. I was walking with a new friend who had been listening to my animal facts, and looking at the animal exibits as the group of us walked through the park. She mentioned to me how she was not interested in the animal stuff she liked the rides. As horrible as I thought those rides were, I realized that she had gotten a wildlife education just by being there with us.
Sea World has two main parts: The high profit theme parks and the non-profit SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. Thousands of animals are rescued, rehabilitated, and released back into the oceans every year because of the Conservation Fund. Researchers and foundations are given the help they need to save our oceans.
Every zoo, aquarium, rescue facility, wildlife refuge, and theme park has the ability to be good or evil. Most fall somewhere in between. Some people never get a chance to see or interact with wildlife outside of these places. I agree with the Irwin family philosophy 'people who can touch wildlife are then touched by wildlife and want to save them', I have seen it happen over and over.
You Can Make A Positive Difference For Wildlife! Do your research, ask questions, and speak up! If you see a situation that's bad, don't just say "that's sad" go find someone and say something! Our voices are free. Wildlife can not ask us for help, it's up to us. Equally if you see something great say "thank you. I'd love to see more like this". If you have $2 to spare, donate to a great cause. Speaking up is free: say something, sign a petition, educate yourself/friends/family/& strangers. Don't frequent a place that you believe harms wildlife in any way. Figure out who you are, what you believe in, and what you can live with. The balance of good vs. evil always exists. It is up to you to figure out what ratio you can live with. If you don't like it, change it!
A request was made that I list all my favorites & most hated of these facilities. I have listed my top favorites. I am not listing the bad ones for a few reasons: They have the ability to change for the better, I like to focus on the positive, and sadly they are easy to spot on your own. Again I stress: Ask Questions & Do Research.
If you want to ask me further questions, or need help researching a particular subject, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One Person Can Make A Positive Difference!