“If you took even a fraction of zoo incomes and applied it to real conservation, the results would be orders of magnitude better,” Mr. Laidlaw says. “I used to think zoos had a grander purpose, but for the most part, they’re entertainment centres.”
But while film and TV have brought us closer to animal realities, they have also amplified a tendency to anthropomorphism that began with Rudyard Kipling’s jungle books. Hardly any kind of film is more bankable than an animated blockbuster about cute talking critters. For all their talk about education, zoos haven’t fought that distortion – they’ve seized on it with gusto.
“It’s our CUTEST year ever!” says the “Cute Alert” page on the Toronto Zoo website, which also asks: “Is this much cuteness safe?”
This is a safe bet for increased attendance. The zoo’s current stars two pandas from China, a polar-bear cub and some young white lions – all very high on the cuteness index.
Attendance was ebbing until the pandas began their five-year sojourn last March, but ticket and merchandise sales and memberships have jumped since then. The zoo expects 1.5 million visitors to file in for their dose of cuteness, according to estimates filed with the City of Toronto, which last year paid $11.1-million to keep the place running. The zoo built a panda interpretive centre for its Chinese guests, for the loan of which Beijing is charging $1-million a year. (The pandas will spend five years at Calgary Zoo after leaving Toronto in 2018.)
“The ability of zoos to continue to hold the support of the community is always an issue,” says CAZA’s Greg Tarry. Most depend heavily on visitors and donors just to keep the doors open.
In practice, that means that, if we want soothing talk about conservation and education, zoos will oblige; if it’s cuteness that catches our attention, they’ll spend millions to provide it.
Mr. Tarry thinks we wouldn’t get a better outcome if there were no zoos. “We believe that seeing live animals has a powerful effect on people that you don’t get from seeing a Disney movie,” he says.
A violent TV show, he adds, doesn’t connect with you the way that coming upon a violent traffic accident would. Without close contact, people may just forget about animals “in the wild,” and what zoos now spend on endangered species may not be made up by other means.
Maybe. But when I think about my weekend with the kids at the zoo and the ROM, I have a hard time believing there’s real life on display at either. I can’t do anything for the ROM’s stuffed animals, but I doubt I could ever again give money to a place that packages captivity and misery as entertainment and cuteness. Zoos are just too easy, too ready to help us pretend we don’t have to concern ourselves with the de-naturing of our planet.
Is that what we want to teach our children?