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Visitors at the Toronto Zoo get a glance at Da Mao, one of two giant pandas on loan from China, May 30, 2013. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Visitors at the Toronto Zoo get a glance at Da Mao, one of two giant pandas on loan from China, May 30, 2013. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Massimo Bergamini

We need zoos – they’re our last link to a rapidly vanishing natural world Add to ...

Noted American economist Paul Romer once remarked that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste.

By that he meant that every once in a while an event comes along that shakes up the existing order and brings situations into enough focus for fresh consideration.

The recent decision by the Copenhagen Zoo to euthanized a healthy young giraffe and conduct a public necropsy of the animal before feeding its remains to their lions might not have constituted a crisis in the classic sense of the word for the global zoo community, but it certainly served to bring the role and practices of modern zoos into focus.

That event – and the subsequent culling of four healthy lions by the same zoo – caused a media firestorm in parts of Europe and in North America where accredited zoos have a different philosophical and scientific perspective on captive breeding and collection management.

Predictably, this was also grist for the mill of those ideologically opposed to the very existence of zoos.

But although isolated events such as these can foster extreme views on zoos and aquariums, they also create an important teachable moment for the accredited zoo community.

Seizing an opportunity to engage in a conversation on the role and place of the modern zoo in society may never be more important than it is now – because the role of zoos may never be more important.

When the Toronto zoo opened in 1974, the planet was losing one or two species a year. Today, the world loses two to three species each day.

And what is most frightening is that this dramatic and accelerating loss of biodiversity hardly seems to make a ripple in the public consciousness.

What does it say about our society and our values as consumers of information that when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced last November that the Western Black Rhino – last seen in 2006 – was officially extinct, other than for a few online and specialized media outlets the story got no play?

Perhaps this is a result of growing urbanization and the loss of familial connections to nature. Perhaps it is a reflection of a society more and more attuned to digital connections and interactions as proxies for personal relations. Perhaps that is what explains the growing belief among many in the anti-zoo community that zoos and aquariums are outdated artifacts and that today animals should tell their stories through digital technologies.

As if digital interactions can ever replace being able to see, smell, hear and touch an animal. What a frightening, alienating and dangerous vision of the natural world.

It is a dangerous vision of the world because while ostensibly grounded in conservationist and environmental principles, it is also disconnected from reality.

The proponents of a world without zoos protest well and often but offer little in terms of concrete strategies and on the ground action to counter the reality of the growing human encroachment on natural habitat and accelerating loss of biodiversity.

Today, accredited zoos and aquariums on the other hand, are institutions devoted to applied conservation.

Canadian zoos and aquariums are part of a global community behind some of the most remarkable conservation success stories, bringing species such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Vancouver Island Marmot back from the brink of extinction.

Accredited zoos are also a community of deeply committed professionals who work on the ground supporting in-situ projects on everything from species reintroduction to local community economic development to habitat remediation.

But perhaps most importantly, zoos are portals to nature; unique bridges between a rapidly urbanizing society and natural habitats degraded by unsustainable human activities.

In the 19th century and even the early part of the 20th century, zoos were reflections of a now vanished world where wild animals were still common and ecologically robust.

Many thought of zoos as museums, their animals as parts of dioramas, with little consideration that they could one day become extinct. Zoos were seen as animal owners, not stewards of biodiversity.

That was then.

Now, zoos are reinventing themselves as new kinds zoological institutions, not just better versions of the old ones. And their mission is no longer just to represent the natural world, but to help heal it and change it.

Worldwide zoos and aquariums attract more than 700 million visitors a year. That is 10 per cent of the world’s total population. That percentage is even higher in Canada, where our accredited institutions attract close to nine million visitors each year.

It is that remarkable reach that zoos and aquariums are leveraging every day, fashioning emotional connections between their visitors and the wondrous animals in their care, recruiting a new generation of conservationists and helping fashion a future more sustainable than the present.

Massimo Bergamini is Executive Director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).

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