January 31

A couple of weekends ago, I stood in line for two hours to see Bao Bao, the panda cub whose aura has transformed the National Zoo into a can’t-miss destination for tourists, locals and breathless, mitten-clad 6-year-olds. People thronged. No piece of panda paraphernalia was too obscure — panda plushies, panda shirts, stationery made from processed panda scat. Yet the main attraction herself evidently prefers subtlety. After finally reaching the front of the queue, other zoo-goers and I learned from a nonchalant employee that Bao Bao “wasn’t seeing anyone.” Apparently, she sleeps for 20 hours a day. Celebrities.

There’s no denying the financial benefits that charismatic animals — babies especially — bring to zoos. An elaborate elephant display or orangutan enclosure reels in visitors. In the next year alone, the National Zoo expects to have 300,000 more visitors thanks to Bao Bao.

Mere gravitational pull makes such showstoppers seem like a godsend for conservation efforts. Most major zoos include some reference to conservation in their mission statements, and part of their approach emphasizes breeding and research initiatives — success stories include the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx and black-footed ferret to the wild. But what separates zoos from other research facilities is their role in public education. Get a child to care about an elephant, and as an adult, he’ll want to protect that elephant. In the process, he’ll learn to care about other animals, too: If he values a panda, he’ll also want to protect the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Or so the thinking goes.

But conservation based on aesthetics frames protection in the wrong way, directly relating the necessity of a species’ continuity to its charm. The celebration of certain animals over others reinforces prejudices to which we’re already prone: Informational zoo signs inform us that a lion is special because of its mane and a cheetah because of its speed. As a result, we learn to appreciate animals because of traits we find appealing, not because of their roles in an ecosystem. Adorable panda: one; Orlov’s viper: zero.

Reframing conservation need not mean the end of headliner animals for zoos. In fact, many charismatic megafauna play critical roles in their ecosystems. Such “keystone” species serve an especially important role in maintaining a biological community’s balance. If there are too few wolves, for example, overabundant elk decimate willow populations, leaving beavers no material with which to build dams. Because keystone species are often large and demand wide ranges, they are highly vulnerable to habitat destruction and are perhaps especially in need of supplementation from zoo breeding efforts. But if zoos truly aim to further conservation through visitor education, it is not enough to exhibit these animals; they must also present the animals in the context of an ecosystem. In short, zoos must transition their emphasis from conservation for the sake of human enjoyment to preservation for the sake of a species community.

The options zoos face range from minor tweaks to large-scale redesign. Zoos could simply alter signs to highlight the co-dependence of various animals on display. Or they could follow the route of many museums and include more interactive tools: Let visitors observe the effects of ecological change through population simulators (such tools exist for free online). Finally, they could arrange exhibits by ecosystem. Currently, a zoo’s “Asia Trail” or “Northwest Passage” might feature a few heavy hitters that represent only the surface of a region’s species web. Why not aim to include a representative from every level of the food chain? If an exhibit houses an anteater, why not include an adjacent ant colony exhibit? Some of these species might be less charismatic to the human eye, but if they’re critical to another species’ survival in the wild, they belong with that species in an educational setting, and their connection needs to be explained.

Any of these changes would promote a greater understanding of biodiversity. The responsibility to act upon that understanding would then fall to us, the visitors. The Friday after my failed attempt to see Bao Bao, I returned to the zoo, this time at 8 a.m. and in 7-degree weather. As I gathered with a few other raw-faced visitors, we watched Bao Bao waddle curiously after a pink tennis ball placed at the end of a stick, which one zookeeper waved in front of her like a wand. She was fuzzy, clumsy and absolutely enchanting. A few dozen yards away was the exhibit for the giant Japanese salamander. The world’s largest amphibian at three feet long, the giant salamander is grotesque, otherworldly and critically endangered.

No one stopped to look at it.

The writer lives in Washington.

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