Yesterday I purchased a membership in the Oregon Zoo.
When I was a child, my parents took me there to see Rosie the elephant, the zoo's first Asian elephant. I was transfixed by the sight of Babar come to life. Years later in Chicago, we visited an elephant exhibit where the elephants were kept behind glass in a cement and tile room, chained to the wall. I remember feeling horrified by their captivity.
Since then, I've had a love-hate relationship with zoos. In San Diego in the 1960's, I was again entranced by animals in a zoo. The captives lived in outdoor pens behind a moat, provided with landscaping that mimicked their natural habitats. My wonder as I gazed at the amazing diversity of life was only occasionally marred with twinges of guilt that my pleasure was purchased with their captivity.
It's been over fifty years since I first saw Rosie the elephant. I have grown up and so have many zoos. No longer merely a freak show of species to amuse the crowds, zoos have become the foremost guardian for the future of endangered animals, and the primary source of education on the meaning of environment and survival.
"The Modern Ark", by Vicki Croke, shows how zoos are becoming gene banks for panda bears, gorillas, and other threatened species. Working closely with each other, zoos are using modern DNA analysis to prevent inbreeding among small surviving groups of animals. Vicki shows that "Zoos have the potential to save more biodiversity than any other private organization." (page 243.) Instead of every zoo holding large and identical collections of animals in overcrowded and dismal surroundings, zoos are are focusing on unique collections, becoming expert in the care and breeding of animals that are housed in much larger and carefully designed enclosures.
The Oregon Zoo here in Portland opened conservation programs Great Northwest and Cascade Crest exhibits in 1998, and launched the Future for Wildlife in 2002. Mountain goats, black bears, eagles, cougars, elk, sea lions and otters leap, climb, soar and swim in their natural habitats, while scientists and students study them for ways to preserve them in their northwest environments.
While some zoos are racing to fulfill a complex destiny of education, conservation and preservation, others have not yet made the paradigm shift in their comprehension of their potential. Does your zoo have conservation programs, or programs for genetic preservation of species? Is there leadership in your city with a vision of the new zoo who support funding for DNA preservation of endangered species.
What's in your zoo?