Editorial: Zoo issue isn’t individual vs. species

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

A unique attempt to cut through mutual mistrust will occur in late April as 10 top
officials of major zoos, aquariums, and species survival plans, five delegates from animal
protection groups, and 14 academics, veterinarians, and journalists––including the Editor
of ANIMAL PEOPLE––gather at the White Oaks Conservation Center, near Jacksonville,
Florida, for a summit organized by the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, with
the support of the Gilman Foundation.
Zoos and humane advocates have major interests in common, and should be work-
ing together to protect endangered species; improve public knowledge of animals; close
abusive roadside zoos; and perhaps most urgent, deal with the growing problem of wildlife
being bought, bred, and sold as pets by generally unqualified individuals whose ani-
mals––after outgrowing backyard quarters––are frequently either anonymously tossed over
a zoo fence at midnight or left tethered to the front door of an animal shelter.

Yet instances of cooperation among zoos and humane groups are thus far few.
Humane advocates mistrust zoos because of a long legacy of past abuses, mostly pertaining
to the function of zoos as public entertainment, which have only over the past 15 years or
so been gradually curbed by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
Relying upon voluntary cooperation by members to enforce standards, AAZPA has won
adherance to an admirable code of ethics in bits and pieces. Some leading members still
flout AAZPA policies with apparent impunity. This sometimes leads impatient humane
advocates to unwittingly bash their own allies within AAZPA. Zoos meanwhile mistrust
humane advocates because the immense progress AAZPA has made goes largely unrecog-
nized; because some zoos and aquariums are still hit with misdirected protest over such
practices as training animals to work as an antidote to boredom; and because a vocal wing
of the animal rights movement continues to clamor for the absolute abolition of all zoos,
while generally supporting “sanctuaries” that don’t even come close to meeting AAZPA care
and housing standards.
Among the most important topics on the White Oak agenda will be a discussion of
Preserving Individuals versus Conserving Populations: How Severe is the Conflict? The
session will include opening remarks by the one zoo abolitionist among the invitees. We
hope the exchange will swiftly move from his stance (to date) of ideological opposition to
keeping any animals in captivity, ever, toward the pragmatic center shared by the rest,
who accept the role of zoos as last refuge of many species whose native habitat is severely
diminished and perhaps unviable. The time may come when all such animals can be
returned to their habitat, with none kept captive, but until adequate habitat is preserved or
restored and effectively protected from poaching, that discussion is purely hypothetical.
Maybe when we put an end to war, poverty, and human overpopulation in critical ecosys-
tems we can get back around to it––and meanwhile, someone needs to feed and shelter the
animals, unless we are to take the opposite view, also heard from some theorists, that
species whose habitat no longer exists should be permitted to go extinct. Occasional suc-
cessful restorations of species, along with the ecological consequences of losing species,
tend to suggest that humans are far from having the wisdom to render such judgements.
Rallying behind the role of guardian-of-species, the zoo community has long cho-
sen to describe friction with humane advocates as the product of an inescapable conflict
between what they describe as the humane emphasis on individual animals and their own
broader concerns. However, from the perspective of ANIMAL PEOPLE, which includes
more than a decade of covering conflicts between zoos and humane advocates, individual
vs. species has never been the crux of any conflict. The crux, rather, has been the tenden-
cy of zoo people to insist every conflict is a matter of individual-vs.-species, instead of lis-
tening to what the various protesters are actually saying. Along with this insistence has
come the charge that everyone who questions or objects to zoo practices is “anti-zoo,”
when in fact most of the people raising the questions and objections have been ardent zoo-
goers, proponents of wildlife conservation, and often current or former zoo staffers.
Usually the anti-zoo animal rights groups are nowhere to be seen until after a cavalierly dis-
missed question or objection has erupted into public controversy.
The Editor first met the individual-versus-species song and dance in 1983 when
the long departed former management of then unaccredited Granby Zoo in Quebec imported
a baby gorilla from the Camaroun, purportedly for captive breeding, in contravention of the
intent if not the exact letter of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The zoo claimed it needed the baby gorilla to increase the diversity of the captive gene pool
and thereby help secure species survival. The International Primate Protection League
asked how killing a whole gorilla tribe to capture one tiny female could possibly enhance
species survival, especially when the infant was kept in solitary confinement, with no
chance to socialize with anyone but the hordes of human visitors who responded to intensive
TV advertising. The zoo community never answered that question. Instead, zoos across
the U.S. and Canada clamored that Granby should give the baby gorilla to them.
A decade later, the episode remains embarrassing to current Granby Zoo director
Pierre Cartier, who arrived five years after the baby gorilla was sent to another zoo where
she has––luckily––been integrated into a gorilla family, and has borne young. Cartier has
taken dramatic measures to resolve humane concerns, as is detailed elsewhere in this issue.
“Our concern,” he recently explained to us, “is for both the well-being of the individual and
the welfare of the species, because you cannot maintain a healthy species if you do not
respect the individual members––so we place the emphasis on both, and do not accept that
one must be sacrificed to enhance the other.”
The uproar over the baby gorilla foreshadowed the battle royal over “panda
rentals” that erupted within AAZPA during the early 1990s. Such deals enriched China and
those zoos which were able to obtain pandas for temporary exhibit at a million dollars plus
apiece, but in the view of leading panda conservationist George Schaller and others, were
not good for either the animals or the health of pandas in the wild. Last year AAZPA finally
adopted an anti-panda rental policy, with a prod from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, over
the figurative dead bodies of the San Diego Zoological Society––left holding the multi-mil-
lion-dollar bag for a contracted panda rental that didn’t happen––and former Columbus Zoo
director Jack Hanna, who was drummed out of AAZPA for arranging an earlier panda
rental in defiance of AAZPA policies. Hanna was and is also host of a popular TV program
about animals. Though it’s hard to see how animal rights activism had much if anything to
do with Hanna’s fall from grace, he continues to blame activists whom he asserts are unduly
concerned with individuals rather than species.
Breeding for display versus for conservation
The individual-vs.-species refrain also echoed in 1987, when the Editor investigat-
ed the deliberate breeding of surplus animals by many zoos, to keep babies on display. Zoo
fans and humane advocates alike objected to the euthanasia of popular individuals at the end
of each exhibition season––and to the leading alternatives, the sale of animals to canned
hunts, roadside zoos, and laboratories. Most zoo spokespersons ingenuously claimed the
constant breeding was necessary to diversify the gene pool. None ever satisfactorily
explained how one diversifies a gene pool by breeding the same stock over and over again,
or why it was necessary to thus diversify the gene pools of species already plentiful and not
endangered in captivity. It was conspicuously obvious that the species being euthanized or
sold in quantity were not genuinely rare species, but rather lions, tigers, spider monkeys
and macaques, endangered in the wild but a glut on the domestic market. By using the
claim of species preservation to rationalize a form of showmanship that is in fact contrary to
AAZPA policy, even if it is good box office, zoo officials seriously harmed their credibili-
ty––and public confidence in the validity of captive breeding and selective culling as legiti-
mate measures to protect a population genuinely at risk. Seven years later, breeding for dis-
play is diminished, but remains a problem, defended by much the same rhetoric.
Most recently, in high-profile cases, zoo people used the individual-vs.-species
argument to defend the late 1992 transfer of Timmy the gorilla from the Cleveland
Metroparks Zoo to the Bronx Zoo, away from his evidently much beloved but sterile mate,
who was then maimed by his successor. There was in fact a strong argument for moving
Timmy, who has thrived at the Bronx Zoo after an initially difficult adjustment, and has
sired offspring. There was also an argument for separating Timmy from his Cleveland mate,
if, as zoo officials claimed, her presence might have kept him from mating successfully
with other females, had they been transferred together or another female been brought to
Cleveland. But this matter was never put to any kind of test. Meanwhile, instead of
acknowledging that Timmy and his Cleveland mate might grieve for one another, zoo
spokespersons denigrated their capacity to feel emotions, and denigrated the concern and
perspective of activists who were already quite aware of the risk to the species if Timmy
failed to breed. Critics of the situation with extensive wildlife conservation background and
in some cases significant zoo experience were accused of sentimentalism and equated with
radical abolitionists––who sure enough came running at that point, with legal action and a
media blitz. A little intelligent respect for people outside the zoo community who know
very well how many genes and chromosomes we share with gorillas could have accom-
plished a great deal toward preventing a public fracas.
Just a few weeks ago another situation with similar potential for public outrage
came close to eruption, after a newspaper reported that a former roadside zoo owner was
trying to open a “conservation center” for endangered species, before completing the facili-
ties, without all the requisite permits, and on a budget of effectively zero. Despite all this,
he had already received custody of several animals from AAZPA-accredited zoos. The
director of the leading humane society in that state immediately asked AAZPA and other
representatives of the zoo community if this enterprise was known to them, if it was legiti-
mate, and if they were aware of the director’s background––and was chewed out by the
director of one of the zoos that had supplied the animals, for so much as questioning a pro-
ject he deemed essential to the well-being of the species as a whole. What the humane soci-
ety director deserved, no matter how well-policed and useful the project may be, was warm
thanks for taking a serious interest, and an invitation to visit the site with the director, the
next time he’s in town. This was a chance for zoo people to build a bridge, not to respond
with condescension to someone who wonders if the animals are going to get adequate food,
shelter, clean water, and protection from sometimes obnoxious crowds whose experience at
local roadside zoos is that animals exist to chase peanuts and candy.
Once again, preserving individuals versus conserving populations had nothing to
do with the fundamental point of conflict. The real issue was and is preserving credibility
by addressing questions and criticisms with respect and consideration––even if, at times,
some of the questions and criticisms may be voiced in unduly accusatory tones. Legitimate
conflicts between the needs of individuals and the needs of species will be understood by the
majority of animal protection activists and ordinary zoo fans, and necessary but sometimes
unfortunate decisions will be accepted, when legitimate complaints are appropriately, open-
ly, and honestly dealt with.
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