When you’re a biologist, like me, many people — even strangers — bring up their opinions of zoos in casual conversation. They are generally enthusiastic, often nostalgic, but sometimes outright critical.
And loudly so: “How would you like to be held in a concrete box your whole life instead of in the wild where your species belongs?” That’s an argument I’ve heard more than once.
How would I like to be in a concrete box? That’s often the first error in logic: We can’t imagine what it’s like to be an animal. Does the gazelle have a stress-free life with no lions in its cage? Or will it develop stereotypical and damaging behaviors over time? Why so critical of concrete? Would it be any better with wood walls, or drywall or glass?
I find accredited zoos remarkably easy to defend — especially if you’ve spent some time with the people working there. Their passion and heart for conservation are contagious and admirable.
It’s important to take a step back and look at the guts of a zoo operation. If you think you care about animals, you should meet the people who spend hours picking up animals’ excrement, delivering young and devoting decades of their lives to preserving and studying them in captivity — so they can save them in the wild.
On an episode of "TechKnow," I visited the Frozen Zoo, an innovative project housed inside the San Diego Zoo. The researchers there are working to preserve living cell samples from animals in hopes that one day they’ll have the technology to turn those cells into full animals, which could allow scientists to restore endangered species. The cells from more than 9,000 species that have been frozen could also one day help enhance genetic diversity among rare animals, which strengthens their chance of survival.
Oliver Ryder, whom I met in San Diego, is an incredible example of the backbone of science that goes into modern-day zoos. He’s worked for decades to keep the northern white rhino from going into extinction, and the Frozen Zoo’s techniques may be its only hope.
When I asked Ryder about his outlook for the rhino using his lab’s techniques, he paused. Fought back some tears. And told us, with determination, “It's not about probability. It's the only thing that we know will work, and we have to try it — and we have to do it quickly.”
After the cameras stopped rolling on an interview with another researcher, she came up and said, “For all the proper answers we give, the real reason we do this is because we all just love animals. It’s all passion for saving these guys.”
With this kind of passion at the core of these zoos, the amount of conservation, education and animal enrichment they’re able to accomplish comes as no surprise. They have big-picture goals we get only a glimpse of when we see an animal in an exhibit.
“Zoos have greatly expanded their mission from menageries,” Ryder explains. “They are now conservation organizations. Zoos of the future will have activities like preserving these kinds of samples as a core part of their mission.”
Yes, zoos are always working to improve what they do — and some make some major mistakes. But before you make up your mind about how terrible life is for captive wild animals, dig a little deeper.
To learn more about the Frozen Zoo and other conservation efforts, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7:30ET/4:30PT.