BOOKS: You Belong in a Zoo!
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2003:
You Belong In A Zoo! by Peter Brazaitis
Villard Books (299 Park Ave., New York, NY 10171), 2003.
368 pages. Hardcover, $24.95.
A globally recognized reptile expert, author of many
scientific papers and often called as an expert witness in
herpetological smuggling cases, Peter Brazaitis spent his whole
working life with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He began at the
Bronx Zoo when WCS was still called the New York Zoological Society,
and retired as first curator of the Central Park Zoo, following a
six-year closure for renovation.
Brazaitis warmly relates one amusing anecdote after another,
usually at his own expense. He is not only informative about the
biology and behavior of species but is also brutally frank about the
hazards of keeping dangerous creatures who always seem able to
escape, no matter what precautions are taken.
Brazaitis’ chapter about a 1981 expedition to Cameroon in
West Africa ought to be compulsory reading for all conservationists
wedded to the fashionable notion that the way to save species is by
giving them a commercial value. Having detailed his hair-raising
experiences in traveling to Cameroon to catch some goliath frogs for
conservation purposes, Brazitis then acknowledges that the
unfortunate and unintended effect of the zoo expedition is to show
the Cameroon jungle dwellers that there is money to be made from the
giant frogs. An industry in catching the frogs for export to zoos
develops, and devastates the frog population to the extent that the
chapter concludes miserably as follows:
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the
goliath frog as a threatened species on December 8, 1994, after one
of the service’s biologists put his career at risk–with just a
little help from me–to establish its protection from unscrupulous
At the end of chapter 22 the author has some wise words on
the doctrine of sustainable use, which are worth quoting:
“Commercial trading in wildlife, live or dead, is an ugly,
often dirty, business where living creatures translate only into
dollars and cents, profit and loss. Today, wildlife conservation is
too often convoluted by the sanitizing philosophy that wild animals
have to be killed so they may be utilized, and thus inherit a value
that makes them important enough to protect. Thus, to make a
crocodile valuable to local humans, we use a certain number in
commerce. Somehow, I keep wondering what that philosophy holds for
those millions of species and their habitats that as yet have no
known commercial use, and play a role we may not yet have considered
in the make-up of the world around us.”
Looking back on his decades of work in keeping animals,
Brazaitis describes how far good zoos have come in including animal
welfare within their management decisions, but he observes
chillingly that the conservation pendulum is starting to swing back
towards the bad old days when animals were regarded as expendable.
Living as we do in South Africa, under a conservation regime
which has adopted the creed that exploitation is conservation and
ergo any form of animal welfare is ipso facto anti-conservation, it
is of interest to us to read that in offering his expertise to U.S.
Customs, to help them become more effective in cracking down on
illegal animal trafficking, Brazaitis earned the enmity of some of
his conservationist colleagues.
Brazaitis is clearly fond of the reptiles and other animals
in his care. He sees them as individuals with their own intelligence
and personality, and he treats them with consideration and respect.
–Chris Mercer and Bev Pervan
[Mercer and Pervan direct the Kalahari Raptor Centre, P.O.
Box 1386, Kathu, Northern Cape ZA 8446, South Africa; telephone
27-53-712-3576; <email@example.com>; <www.raptor.co.za>.]