Noah’s Choice

I am not a bible scholar by any means, most of my understanding of the Ark comes from Bill Cosby’s Noah routine, but I am pretty sure that when Noah was collecting animals he did not have the choice to leave some behind. However, in modern times the decision to save animals from extinction has become bureaucratic with an eye on the bottom line.

A recent New York Times article (To Save Some Species, Zoos Must Let Others Die, 5/27/2012) describes the dilemma facing zoo administrators that puts the human race squarely on top of the food chain (in case there were any holdouts). As resources at zoos around the country either dwindle or are aligned with revenue generating endeavors, more animals are being fitted for nooses. Zoos are staking out real estate for marquee animals including pandas and rhinos – the real attention grabbers that draw the crowds.

The plight of the lion-tailed macaque takes center stage for journalist Leslie Kaufman as she explores why it will no longer be bred at the St. Louis Zoo:

Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list. The lemurs at this zoo are being saved in part because of a well-financed program to rescue rare fauna of the island nation of Madagascar. By contrast, although St. Louis has kept lion-tailed macaques since 1958, other zoos started getting rid of them in the 1990s because they can carry a form of herpes deadly to people. With only an aging population left in captivity in the United States, a species advisory group to North American zoos is expected to put the animals on a phaseout list soon.

Full disclosure, I have never been a fan of zoos. I can appreciate conservation and I know many staff members of zoos are animal lovers to the core, but a little something inside me breaks every time I see an animal somewhere other than its natural environment. 

My own perceptions made reading this article all the more intriguing as zoos were depicted as narrowing their focus further to what can be accomplished within their resources. Again, in full disclosure, I am never a fan of people working within their resources, especially when it comes to aiding others in need. However, I digress…

The voice of reason here comes from Dr. Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute as he discusses the need to change the zoo model from attraction to an inspirational champion of animals:

“We as a society have to decide if it is going to be ethically and morally appropriate to simply display animals for entertainment purposes. In my opinion, that model is broken. There needs to be an explicit role for zoos to champion species.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Monfort’s words are not loud enough to be heard over the cash registers:

St. Louis…has committed $20 million — or the equivalent of 40 percent of its annual operating budget — to building an enormous exhibit for polar bears — complete with a fake ice floe — even though its last polar bear died in 2009 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to remove or rescue the bears from the wild. The zoo hopes that in the five years needed to open the exhibit, it can argue for an exemption, import orphaned bears from Canada or perhaps secure the cubs of captive bears.

Polar bears are the poster animals of many preservation and conservation efforts, but to push aside other animals and try to force your way onto a bandwagon is irresponsible. After all, I don’t remember Noah taking reservations and holding stall space for future no-shows.

However, at least one organization is taking on an underdog given the grave prediction for its future:

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that nearly one-fourth of all mammals are at risk of becoming extinct, roughly in the course of the next three generations. The situation is even more dire for amphibians and seabirds. The organization, for example, has declared the disappearance of the Australian gastric brooding frog, which ingested its eggs, gestating them in its stomach and eventually spitting out tadpoles.

Admittedly, making your central figure for animal preservation a brooding frog that vomits tadpoles may not the best choice when competing against the bears and their cubs that sell us soft drinks. Regardless, these institutions of preservation also educate the public about issues facing animals around he world. Maybe, just maybe, if the zoos became the champions of species then more of us, the paying public, would do the same and not continue to take their lead as spectators.


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