Jessie Totten

“Zoos are cruel; they are only for entertainment and do nothing for conservation”

The statement (left) is one I hear frequently, both inside of the conservation community and outside of it. I have found that discussing zoos and conservation in the same sentence is a sure way to divide a room. One year ago, I graduated in Zoology and Conservation. Upon graduating I can honestly say that I saw zoos as a less than desirable entity. They are something that has caused internal debate for me, for many years. Without the ability to go and see animals in the zoo my passion for animals may not have grown in the way that it did. Yet, as one studies animal behaviour and intelligence you begin to question if the zoo is the correct environment for them to express all of the behaviours they should. So I chose to err on the side of insitu work with a cautionary approach to the use of zoos in conservation. Fast forward one year and I will soon have completed a masters in Zoo Conservation Biology, a course which in its very title promotes the use of zoos in conservation. Even as someone who called themselves a zoologist my eyes have been opened. Now the important part, WHY?

Seeing a researcher’s badge often encourages visitors to tell horror stories about the Meerkatimage of zoos in years gone past. Tales of metal bars, concrete floors and demented animals often ensue. Thankfully in most cases this is no longer the reality faced by captive animals (in BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) collections). The era of a wild caught tiger, polar bear, or gorilla being placed in a tiny metal cage with no escape from the public eye, is also largely erased by the fact that the majority of animals in zoos are now captive born. However, the negative perception of zoos has not been completely erased, as reflected by these stories. Despite this, there is a positive outcome; zoos quite clearly have an impact. Visits are remembered and recalled for years to come. This connection is one that I believe can be maximised. Zoos could be one of (if not the) most effective way of bringing the conservation message to the masses.

Without generalising, I think it is safe to say that with shopping and school runs, working and worrying, the fate of the Hawksbill turtle or Javan rhino is not something that tops the list of the average Britons daily priorities. Even less so the fate of the Chinese giant salamander or Prairie sphinx moth. Sometimes for conservationists it seems we are fighting a losing battle, it can feel like we have too much to save and not enough time to do it in. That’s where zoos can be so ground-breaking in the fight against species loss. Having spent a large proportion of the last 12 months immersed in the zoo environment I have witnessed the effect that making conservation relevant can have. Duchess, the elephant at Paignton Zoo is an animal that has sparked controversy far and wide. Visitors will often comment on her aged appearance and perceived loneliness. Yet, she is regarded with fondness as excited children and parents alike exclaim her name. I too have got up close and personal with her and her charm is undeniable. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by her presence (as she is huge) but also her individual personality (also a subject for debate).

Jesse with 'Duchess' the Elephant at Paignton Zoo

Jesse with ‘Duchess’ the Elephant at Paignton Zoo

Some conservationists would argue that anthropomorphism and personification of animals is not helpful in mitigating species loss. It over -romanticises the possibility that we could be facing the biggest and fastest extinction crisis in history. I would beg to differ. I think that by being open and honest with the public about an animal’s situation they have a more personalised visit and may be more likely to take something from it. This could lead to changes in their own home. I firmly believe that at present zoos and aquariums are one of the best vessels with which to educate. I know that animals do not emote or communicate in the same ways that we do and they certainly do not behave in the same way. I am not trying to distract from the alarming rate at which this planet and its species are being wiped out. That, although devastatingly true, does not erase the fact that we all share planet earth and we and animals alike, call this place home. People should feel connected with these animals because we are!