Zoos Dream of Becoming Conservation NGOs


Zoos in the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation ? Zimmerman, A., M.Hatchwell, L.Dickie, and C.West , editors . 2007 . Cambridge University Press , New York . 373 pp. $65.00 (paperback) . ISBN 978-0-521-61858-8 .

The relevance of zoos, not just to conservation but to society, is an issue that looms large on the horizon. Are zoos asleep at the wheel, about to crash into the oblivion of obsolescence, as society leaves them behind in the junk heap of time? Or are they engineers of their own bright new future, at the helm of a new and improved conservation movement?

Part of the Cambridge University Press series on conservation biology, Zoos in the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation tackles the diverse issues facing zoos attempting to reinvent themselves as conservation organizations. Where are zoos, collectively, on this path toward conversion? Once menageries managed for the entertainment business, are zoos now born-again conservationists? Undoubtedly, institutions vary in their progress along this trajectory, but this volume attests to the earnestness with which zoos are tackling these issues.

This edited volume stems from a symposium, Catalysts for Conservation, held in London in 2004. The symposium drew an esteemed and experienced group—no shortage in intellectual heavy lifting here. As typical of the conference proceedings genre, however, there is variability in quality and gaps in coverage that might be closed with a more strategic and comprehensive volume, not limited by the ability or interest in attending a conference held in a particular place at a particular time. But there is much here to digest and think about. It is a timely volume. Not since 1994s Creative Conservation (Olney et al. 1994) has a book attempted to take the pulse of the conservation movement in zoos, although in 2008, the journal Zoo Biology devoted an issue to similar soul searching. Much has changed since 1994, when zoos were first beginning to make serious efforts to deal with conservation more comprehensively. Whereas the volume edited by Olney and colleagues devoted a great deal of space to the nuts and bolts of how to conduct conservation science in zoo settings, Catalysts takes a broader, more sweeping view of the larger role zoos can play in conservation and measuring the success of conservation ventures.

Readers from inside the zoo community will find little that is particularly new, but no doubt the messages delivered will resonate with their own experiences and they may, as did I, come away feeling more motivated to become an agent of change. And they may have acquired a few more handy tools for their toolbox for effecting change. Outsiders to the zoo community may be a bit daunted by the level of abstraction prevalent in many of the chapters and may wonder, justifiably, where is the beef? The beef—the concrete and innovative examples of exactly how zoos are practicing conservation science—was better addressed in Creative Conservation and in more recent taxonomic-specific volumes such as Wild Mammals in Captivity (Kleiman et al. 2009).

Several themes are addressed in Catalysts, but none so often as the notion that zoos are reinventing themselves. If one were to use the “search inside” function of online bookstores, the word “reinvent” would occur significantly more frequently than expected by chance. Tied to this theme is the concept of “USP” or unique selling point, a term coined by Dickie et al. in chapter 15. Zoos, unlike other conservation organizations, have the distinct advantage of having a physical site that people can visit—and connect with wildlife. Much is made by several authors on the need for zoos to leverage this USP to connect people to nature and use this connection to raise awareness, inspiration, and funding for conservation.

For the uninitiated in the role of zoos in conservation, Conway's pithy and passionate appeal in Chapter 2, both hopeful and critical, makes a good starting point. He throws down the gauntlet for zoos to pick up and run with it. Many of the issues raised here get longer play in other chapters and, in particular, the introductory and concluding chapters will round out the need-to-know issues for many readers. In chapter 10, Baker perhaps articulates best and most comprehensively the multipronged and unique role of zoos in conservation, including genetic reservoirs as hedges against extinction, reintroduction, basic research, technology development for in situ conservation, conservation education, animals as fundraising ambassadors, conservation training and capacity-building, and in situ research and conservation. Mining a similar line of thought, Dickie et al. (chapter 15) lead the reader through many of the same concepts, including some critical analysis of when captive breeding does and does not make a meaningful contribution to conservation (yes for arresting the amphibian extinction crisis, no for breeding elephants…unless it presents an opportunity to catalyze support for field conservation).

From all of this one thing seems clear: there has been a sea change in how zoos view themselves and their roles in conservation. Several authors rightly question the commitment of zoos to conservation and claims of success, which may be premature, but they are also justified in pointing out the potential—and growing reality—of zoos’ meaningful contributions. A measure of this movement—the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy—now calls upon all zoos to develop an in situ component to their conservation mission.

But what I find most interesting in this volume is the possibility of completely redefining the role of (some) zoos in conservation. Can we envision a day when the zoo becomes a conservation NGO that just happens to hold some animals in captivity as part of its mission to connect people to nature? A handful of zoos are almost there (Zimmerman and Wilkinson, chapter 20).

Nearly a quarter of the world's zoos employ at least one staff member devoted to in situ conservation activities, according to survey data reported by Zimmerman and Wilkinson. Clearly, zoos cannot yet classify themselves as conservation NGOs, but let's be fair—most of the world's zoos have not attempted this transformation as of yet. Zoos in developed countries are much further down this path, though these data are not shown. My organization, the San Diego Zoo, fields a staff of nearly 150 people devoted to conservation research, with a growing proportion of conservation effort applied in situ.

Of course, reality has not yet caught up with our imaginations, and zoos often hand-wave about their conservation portfolio without substantiating the impacts of their activities. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of this book is the due diligence given to the need for better assessment tools to measure the efficacy of zoo-based conservation activities. To assess zoos’ conservation education mission, Balmford et al. (chapter 9) conducted before and after surveys with zoo visitors to determine the zoo's impact on conservation knowledge and attitudes. The findings were discouraging, but can we really expect a single zoo visit to have an impact? Imagine a similar survey on the front steps of a church. Would people espouse a stronger belief in God after the service? Would the lack of effect indicate religious beliefs were not important to society? These surveys and attempts at quantification are an admirable first step, but it is unclear how much we can read into them.

Mace et al. (chapter 21) attempt a more comprehensive evaluation of zoos’ conservation impact, ranging from education to research. They address, for example, the question of how zoos should best allocate limited resources among conservation education, a local recovery project, or donating funds toward a larger project in a biodiversity hotspot. Although I admire such attempts at quantification, I wonder whether such a question can ever be answered satisfactorily, for a zoo or any organization. Nonetheless, they successfully developed a methodology and metrics for measuring conservation impact. Unsurprisingly, they encountered many difficulties in implementing the system in a pilot study, but we are better off from their having tried.

The end goal of these attempts at quantifying conservation impact is to implement an adaptive-management paradigm in which data are used to alter practices away from those that do not work or are not cost-effective. This effort (it is hoped) will help put zoos on more solid footing for their claims to conservation relevance.

Having embarked on this new mission, zoos have much work to do to reduce the gap between aspirations and reality. One necessary step, which found many advocates in Catalysts, is that zoos need to move beyond the captive breeding–reintroduction paradigm (Stanley-Price and Fa, chapter 11; Dickie et al., chapter 15). Although it is true that such species as the California Condor and the golden lion tamarin have zoos to thank for their existence, zoos place too much reliance on these roles when, in fact, reintroductions of captive-bred animals have made only rather limited contributions to larger conservation efforts. It is usually cheaper and easier to prevent the decline of a species in the wild than it is to reintroduce it. An over-reliance on single-species conservation programs can also divert attention away from ecosystem conservation.

Zoos will remain the champions of individual, often charismatic, species, but they need to become more involved in confronting the threats to habitat that often precipitate species decline. As several authors point out, perhaps the most relevant role zoos can play is in the development of the nascent field of translocation biology, which plays to the zoos’ strengths of working with individual animals, but also pulls zoos into new directions, such as habitat restoration and management (see review in Swaisgood 2009). Zoos should continue to specialize in what they do best—organismal biology, management of small populations, lab-field synergy—and expand their domain to include larger spatial scales and higher levels of biological organization. Much of this will be accomplished through multiorganizational collaborations, something zoos can help catalyze (Field and Dickie, chapter 19).

Because of the role animal exhibits play in zoos, captive breeding will always remain a bread-and-butter activity, but this too is something zoos need to do better. As Conway (chapter 2) points out, zoos know how to breed animals; that's not the problem. Even giant pandas, once believed to be hopelessly inept at doing what is supposed to come naturally, now breed routinely in captivity and numbers are soaring. The problem lies in the critical need for zoos to act collectively to reallocate space and resources to develop regional collection plans aimed at sustainability and maintenance of genetic diversity. Collection plans need to be made more strategically to ensure enough spaces on the ark for those species that will benefit most from a stint in captivity, but this is playing out against a backdrop of a shrinking number of spaces on the ark. Why? Because zoos are justifiably increasing the size of their animal spaces to accommodate welfare concerns and provide better visitor experiences (Baker, chapter 10).

This brings us to yet another important point made repeatedly in Catalysts: zoos need to walk the talk or risk condemnation for hypocrisy. How can a zoo leverage a conservation message while keeping animals in substandard conditions (e.g., Hutchins, chapter 7; Hatchwell et al., chapter 22)? Showcasing animals in less naturalistic environments inadvertently disconnects people from nature. Similarly, zoos need to implement best practices for resource consumption, that is, become green zoos. A zoo cannot cultivate a conservation ethic in its visitors while wastefully using water in a desert landscape.

Returning to the concept of USP, if zoos are indeed to become catalysts for conservation, they must find a way to maximally leverage their USP. Animal welfare organizations are better fundraisers than conservation organizations because they tap into the appeal of individual animals (Hatchwell et al., chapter 22). Zoos can capitalize on this immediacy, this opportunity to connect to another form of life that few will ever be able to experience in the wild, particularly those located in urban center where most zoos are found.

About 1 in 10 of the world's population will visit a zoo this year. What other conservation organization has this kind of opportunity? Our society has been drifting away from nature, but many long to stop the tide before it is too late, a phenomenon best represented in the movement to reconnect children to nature, spurred on by Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods (2005). Can zoos help avert this crisis? For zoos to exceed in the endeavor, they must inspire people to get out into nature, not just return to the zoo. Zoos, if they do it right, can connect people to the nature beyond their fences. Where will the next generation of conservationists come from if kids stay inside and wired (or wireless)? Zoos can and have made a formative difference in the lives of many conservation professionals. As someone who had my come-to-nature experience in the neighborhood creek, not a zoo, I have been surprised at the number of conservationists who can trace their love affair with nature back to childhood visits to the zoo. I have no supporting data, but I imagine this role will be more important in the rapidly urbanizing world in which we live.

Zoos are relatively free of political alignments that malign some conservation organizations in the public's eye and are among the most trusted source of information about nature (Reading and Miller, chapter 6). Zoos need to build on this trust they have cultivated in the public. They need to move beyond the feel-good approach too often espoused, but also cannot afford to fall into the gloom-and-doom niche (which has its followers but is not capable of motivating change in the masses). Zoos will need to deal straightforwardly and honestly with real conservation problems, but they must also conclude with a message of hope (Gwynne, chapter 5). Zoos can become conservation NGOs, and good ones. Zoos are not asleep. They are awake…and dreaming.