Today’s submission comes from David Grazian, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “American Zoo: A Sociological Safari.“ He lives in New York City.
Having spent four years volunteering at two major zoos and visiting countless others in preparation for my book, I have had the opportunity to see the very best and worst that American zoos have to offer. Captive zoo animals often live in cramped conditions, with some suffering from psychological stress or depression. Even the most endearing animal exhibits often fail to inspire visitors to care about wildlife and habitat preservation, biodiversity loss, species extinction, global warming and other ecological issues.At the same time, American zoos remain enormously popular, attracting 181 million visitors annually. Despite their flaws, zoos are simply too important to fail. It seems to me that American zoos could cure much of what ails them by rethinking how they curate their animal collections and manage their exhibition spaces.Currently, zoos seem to rely on the Noah’s Ark theory of collecting by exhibiting at least two of every animal on Earth. Yet by shrinking their animal populations, zoos could dedicate far more space and resources to a smaller number of highly endangered animals. Exhibits would be smarter, with more focused messaging to teach and inspire visitors. For example, while New York’s Central Park Zoo sits on only six-and-a-half acres in midtown Manhattan, the Wildlife Conservation Society manages this postage stamp of a zoo by paring its collection down to a limited number of species — including penguins, grizzly bears, snow leopards and harbor seals — and all from a few select climatic zones.American zoos are best known for their charismatic megafauna — polar bears, tigers, giant pandas. But an alternative strategy would be investment in smaller, less cuddly animals, which take up less space but are no less fascinating to behold. Exotic insects like the Madagascar hissing cockroach could teach visitors how dynamic ecologies work and still let young people to encounter animal life up close. An emphasis on endangered amphibians like the Panamanian golden frog would allow for a wide-ranging set of exhibits on the vulnerability of delicate ecosystems around the world.Zoos could also display a greater variety of threatened species together in shared exhibits to get audiences to redefine species conservation as the preservation and rehabilitation of natural habitats. Again, at the Central Park Zoo, a single exhibit houses a global menagerie united by a common climate. Its indoor tropical rainforest gives sanctuary to black-and-white ruffed lemurs, fairy bluebirds, golden lion tamarins, two-toed sloths, long-tailed hornbills, red-footed tortoises, piranhas, leaf-cutter ants, and a crested wood partridge in a fake tree.Finally, zoos might reconsider whether to keep the planet’s most intelligent nonhuman animals in captivity at all. Great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales are undoubtedly among the most beloved of zoo creatures. But in recent years the Philadelphia Zoo, Detroit Zoo and others have closed their elephant exhibits out of concern that they could not create enclosures large enough for these wondrous beasts. Likewise, National Aquarium in Baltimore plans to send its dolphins to seaside sanctuaries. Indeed, these animals require resources and commitments that reach beyond what even wealthy zoos can afford. Retiring apes, marine mammals and elephants from zoo life would be compassionate — and commonsense.For all their faults, American zoos can be dramatically improved by rethinking the composition of their collections and what they communicate to 21st century visitors about the Earth’s fragile ecology and all its creatures, great and small.