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Do Zoos Really Help Animals In The Wild?

Bamboo, one of two elephants at Woodland Park Zoo, will be leaving with Chai.
Flickr Photo/Cara_VSAngel (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Bamboo, one of two elephants at Woodland Park Zoo, left the zoo with Chai. The zoo has closed its elephant program.

Do we need zoos to promote conservation?

Kathryn Gillespie, a lecturer and member of the University of Washington’s critical animal studies working group, believes zoos should be phased out.

“There are plenty of conservation organizations that do amazing work around the world to conserve and build animal populations of endangered species,” Gillespie told KUOW’s Ross Reynolds. “What does actually keeping animals in captivity to build the conservation projects do?”

The purpose of zoos has come into sharp focus here in Seattle, and elephants Chai and Bamboo have been at the heart of the debate. The pair were sent off last week to a zoo in Oklahoma City last week; their caravan is currently stopped at the San Diego Zoo.

Hundreds of people protested over the weekend at the gates of the Woodland Park Zoo. Many, including Mayor Ed Murray, pushed for the elderly Chai and Bamboo to be sent to an elephant sanctuary instead of another zoo.

But Mike Keele, the retired director of elephants habitat at the Oregon Zoo, said that zoos are a place to study animals and figure out how to enhance their lives.

“These zoos as really sanctuaries in a way, by providing great animal welfare,” Keele told Ross Reynolds on The Record.

[asset-audio[{"description": "Mike Keele, the retired head of elephants habitat at the Oregon Zoo, makes a case for zoos.", "fid": "117044", "uri": "public://201504/zoo_pro_audio.mp3"}]]Keele said research on zoo animals has helped wild animals. He said the Oregon silverspot butterfly in the Northwest rebounded because of help from zoos. The California condor was down to fewer than 30 birds but now has more than 300. “That’s largely through the effort of zoos,” he said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Oregon silverspot butterfly is rebounding thanks to efforts by zoos, says Mike Keele, retired director of the Oregon Zoo. The Woodland Park Zoo was part of the effort to restore the butterfly population. ", "fid": "117041", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201504/photo5620.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Woodland Park Zoo"}]]“The moral dilemma for me is people who don’t want zoos,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Thinking they should all be back in the wild – well there is no wild anymore. We have to manage what we’ve got to learn more about them so we don’t lose more of them.

“And we will end up losing more,” he said. “But hopefully it won’t be because we don’t care about them, and we’re not going to study them anymore.”

But Gillespie is skeptical of zoo research. Are breeding programs geared toward releasing animals back into the wild, she wonders. Or are they just to make sure that a species doesn’t go extinct?

[asset-images[{"caption": "The California condor was down to fewer than 30 birds. Zoo efforts helped it grow to 300, said Mike Keele, retired director of the Oregon Zoo. Zoo critics say that zoos focus on those in captivity -- which may not help their cousins in the wild.", "fid": "117042", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201504/california_condor_san_diego_zoo.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Wikimedia Commons"}]]“If it can't be released back into the wild, how is that improving the sort of biodiversity and ecosystems that we're sort of trying to maintain and save with conservation projects?” she said.

Gillespie believes that zoos should be phased out, beginning with the larger animals. That sounds unlikely for now given how enormously popular they are. The Woodland Park Zoo is packed on just about every weekend day. And last year, 180 million people visited a zoo in the U.S., according to Keele.

“That’s 180 million opportunities to turn people coming to a zoo for recreation into more conservation-minded people who want to take action about their environment,” he said.

Gillespie agrees – to a point.

“There is something to be said for sort of coming face to face with another animal that there can be a moment of sort of recognition and of being moved,” she said. But she said that zoos also teach children “that human dominance over animals is acceptable.”

Keele, who has spent 40 years working in zoos, predicts they will keep improving. He bets that in 10 years, they will become more regional.

“Zoos will focus on species that they've got some experience with, that they can really make a difference with,” he said.

For example, as the Woodland Park Zoo parts with its elephants, it is putting energy into its bald eagle recovery program.

“I think we’re going to see more of that, and it will be difficult for a zoo, in my opinion, to exist without that kind of a contribution,” he said.

Produced for the Web byIsolde Raftery.

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