Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why zoos are important for the environment

This week we're talking about all the things I wish people understood about zoos and the role they play in our world.

One of the things that's driving me crazy about BLACKFISH's influence are the folks whose response to the film is to "set the whales free" or even pass legislation to keep them (or any other animal) from being kept in a zoo.

Well, that is about the single worst thing you could do for any animal on this planet.

I won't get into the politics here. Climate change is happening, and we are at fault. Regardless of how you feel about that subject, you should at least accept that humans are extremely damaging to our planet. We litter. We sprawl. We poach. We fight wars. We build. We mow down habitats. Wild animals simply aren't safe. They are, in fact, safer in zoos, in the case of many species.

I've had the opportunity to work with some animals that are extirpated, or, extinct in the wild. They wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for zoos.

While not extirpated (yet), it recently came to light that there are currently more tigers in private ownership in the United States than there are in the wild.

And there are creatures like the Pere David's deer. The Arabian oryx. The northern white rhino. All extinct in the wild. Their only hope of survival is zoos.

Finally, if you need some proof of what climate change will do to the rest of the planet, there's the plight of the polar bear.

The single biggest followup I hear zoo detractors make to this point is:

Why should I care if a few species go extinct?

Well, this is one of those questions that is almost impossible to answer. I can't tell you why you should care from an emotional standpoint (though you should), because we still live in a world where most people see animals as fourth-class citizens.

If the emotional side of things doesn't appeal to you, the biological imperative behind them might.

Every habitat on the planet has an ecosystem. This ecosystem is like a well-oiled machine: all the parts are there, it works flawlessly, you never have to think about it. But if you take out a single piece, or weaken it, suddenly the machine doesn't work so well anymore. And by the time you notice it's not functioning properly, it might be too late to fix it.

I'm beating you over the head with this analogy. I'm sure you've worked it out for yourself. (Hint: the animals [and plants, and insects, etc.] are the parts of the machine). So what happens when you take out one of these pieces? What's happening to the ecosystems that have lost so many tigers, or oryx, or deer?

Let me tell you a story that hits a little close to home (literally) for most of us here in the US.

The black-tailed prairie dog, a small rodent from the plains of middle America, is seen as a pest by most farmers. Like many rodents, they can be a bit destructive. Farmers dislike them because they pick on their crops. But when efforts to eradicate prairie dogs succeeded, something unintended started happening, too. Other animals began to die off, like the black-footed ferret, who used old prairie dog tunnels for their own homes. Animals that were responsible for killing other small pests like mice and rats. Which in turn made the crops suffer more. It turns out that the black-tailed prairie dog is what's known as a keystone species: it holds up the ecosystem.

In areas where we've driven away wolves and shoot coyotes and other predators on sight to protect livestock, there tends to be an overabundance of deer and other herbivores, who overeat plants and therefore destroy food and habitat for other species. When their native food source is gone, they spill over into human territory, causing car accidents and ruining-- you guessed it, more crops, and people's gardens.

This holds true in every ecosystem. No matter where you are in the world, removing a piece of the puzzle ruins the whole image. One species lost damages everything else, including us.

Obviously the world has lost species before and continues right on. But we are damaging things at a greater scale than we were even fifty years ago. And it's only going to get worse. Where will it stop?

We don't know. We can't predict how far it will go, how long it will take before we can all agree to do something about it and actually get it done. What we can do, though, is start preparing for the worst, and doing our best to ensure if that does happen, these animals won't be gone forever. We will have them around, thanks to zoos.

Tomorrow: Why education and conservation matter