Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Moral Question: How do you deal with negative comments about zoos?

Since the release of the Movie That Shall Not Be Named (MTSNBN), things have... changed, at zoos. In fact, things are almost volatile. It's more common for people to balk when they find out what I do for a living now than to think it's cool or ask me questions.

And frankly, it's heartbreaking. 

As a writer, I've tried so hard on this blog to counteract the damage that MTSNBN has done, but it seems people are choosing the popular path when it comes to how they feel about zoos. They've been emotionally manipulated into believing it's wrong instead of doing their own research or taking action against the real enemies, i.e., poaching, wildlife trafficking, sensationalist "animal welfare" organizations, and climate change. 

It's exhausting. Some days, it makes me question my sanity. It makes me question my career decisions. It makes me wonder if I'm a horrible person. 

Let me make something quite clear: I don't know a single zoo employee who doesn't love the animals in their care as if they were their children. We take better care of our animals than most people take care of their pets. We devote our lives to them. We stay awake for days at a time when they're sick. We're constantly looking for new and creative ways to enrich them. We're always trying not to think too hard about the battles their wild cousins face, because it breaks our hearts. 

And talking to someone who has already made up their mind about how evil zoos are and is looking for a reason to be proven right feels like yelling at a wall. 

Perhaps it's time to stop calling them zoos. Perhaps it's time to shift away from that word, like we shifted away from menagerie, and start calling them what they really are. Except "Environmental Conservation and Wildlife Science Facility" doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same. 

I've been pretty lucky so far that I haven't had any major encounters with anti-zoo visitors at my job. For the most part, unless they're undercover for An Organization That Shall Not Be Named Either, people who don't like zoos don't tend to go to them. But I have had some bad luck in my personal life. 

There's a person I know very well who's vocally anti-zoo, pro-MTSNBN. And it frustrates me to no end. Because she should know better. She should know that I'm not a cruel person. But I think I finally changed her mind. Or at least opened the door for her to do it. 

I told her, a few weeks ago, about what's going on in Africa. How dozens of species will be extinct in the next 20 years thanks to poaching and wildlife trafficking. How zoos may be the only place people will get to see those animals. How without zoos keeping those animals now, we wouldn't understand their social and breeding behavior and be working towards saving them. 

How ultimately, we work to release animals back into the wild. 

I told her about tigers, and how there's more tigers in backyards in the US than left in the wild. 

I told her about the California condor, and how there were only 22 left in the wild thirty years ago, and now there's more than 400, and that's ONLY thanks to zoos. 

As for marine animals? Well. The thing that's particularly frustrating to me about that whole thing is that SeaWorld is the only reason most people know what a killer whale is. Until the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, it was legal for the US Navy to use them for target practice. They were seen as scary, dispensable monsters. Now millions of people love them, all because of what SeaWorld has done. And no, their early practices weren't sound, but we knew so little about animals back then (yes, even fifty years ago), and their animal care now is top notch. 

Ocean animals are so hard to pinpoint in population, but rest assured with climate change and rising ocean temperatures, they're all not long from being endangered, too. 

And finally, I told her how what I want from her is to be getting mad at the people who ARE actually doing the harm. Get mad at the poachers. Get mad at the traffickers. Get mad at the roadside "zoos" who breed exotic animals for tourists to pose with and then send them off to be killed in canned hunting expeditions. 

Don't get mad at the (usual disclaimer: responsible, accredited) zoos. Honestly. We're the good guys. Trust me when I say, we care more about the animals in our care than ANYONE else. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why you should still care about Cecil the Lion (and all lions, and all animals, and...)

My facebook feed the past couple of weeks was, predictably, at first filled with reasons why people were upset at Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famous Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. There were witch hunts, news stories, people slamming his dental practice so hard that he closed it (though who knows for how long?), and the inevitable death threats.

And then the wind shifted, and this past week I've been seeing all these articles posted instead about why nobody should care, and the dentist didn't do anything wrong, and to the people of Zimbabwe, it was just another lion, and so on and so forth and. Well. 

I obviously have very strong feelings on the subject of animal conservation. Africa in particular is a hot spot of controversy, because we send thousands of white tourists there each year, and then some trophy hunter comes along and ruins everything for everyone. 

(For the record, I am pro-hunting for sustenance, and legitimate population control. I am NOT pro-trophy or "sport" hunting, and I am definitely NOT okay with poaching, which is what Cecil's death amounts to). 

The number one point I keep seeing people throw around is that lions aren't even endangered. While this is technically true, what a lot of folks who just hit "share" don't realize is that they're currently being assessed to be listed as threatened. The last assessment of lions was in the 90's. 

In Africa, you won't find many wild lions outside of national parks and preserves. The rest of the land has been taken over by humans, in one form or another. Just like we don't see many bears outside of national parks and preserves here in the US anymore, unless you happen to live in Alaska. 

Over the 75 years, lion populations have declined 90% from their historic range and numbers. This is huge, because what happens when you lose the apex predators in a region? Prey populations explode. And what happens when prey populations explode? The land dies. 

Now, enter the argument that the hunt for Cecil was a much-needed profit for Zimbabwe. Well, here's the problem with that. Cecil in particular was well-known in Zimbabwe and sought out by thousands of tourists each year who paid for safaris into the Hwange National Park, where Cecil lived. He was also part of a research study at Oxford. 

Walter Palmer paid about $50,000 for the privilege of killing Cecil. USA Today reports that Zimbabwe's final quarter of 2015 was projected to bring in about $5 million in tourism revenue. Even if only a fraction of that was due to Cecil, over the lifetime of the lion, he was worth far more in tourism revenue alive than the $50k paid to kill him. 

And all the other animals that big-game, sport/ trophy hunters go after are the same. 

I'm also seeing the argument that these hunts "support conservation". This is a messy can to open, philosophically, but I'm going to open it anyway. The theory goes that by these hunters paying the big money to go hunt animals in Africa, only a few animals are killed, but the money that goes to conservation efforts as a result helps those that are still alive. 

Except the guides Walter Palmer hired didn't work for any conservation organization that I'm aware of, and no reputable conservation organization that I know of sponsors these hunts. It's flimsy at best to say that it's helping conservation by bringing in revenue to Zimbabwe which can then turn around use those funds for conservation, because the chances of the money actually making it there is slim to none. 

Now, in the past I have heard of people auctioning off large game hunting permits and giving some of the proceeds to a conservation organization, but I'd be really curious to know who actually got the money and what it was used for. Until or unless trophy hunters actually follow through, with transparency and documentation of where the money is going, in my (admittedly personal) opinion, it's just an excuse to get what they want. 

Finally, there's been a lot of stories of people on the ground in Zimbabwe saying that Cecil was "just another lion" and they are glad he was killed because they feel the need to protect themselves, their livestock, and families, from lions. 

Well, yes. Any time you live in a part of the world where there's an apex predator, you are going to have to take precautions to make sure you don't become their lunch. It's very similar to the wolf issue in the US. 

I don't have much more of a response, except that I sort of doubt this response from Zimbabweans, considering the ones I've met have a lot of national pride in their beautiful country and its animals. 

Things can change so fast. To use another example, in the last eight years, we've gone from losing 13 rhinos to poachers, to this year being on track to lose over 1500. If things continue at the current rate, rhinos will be extinct in the wild by 2030

So yes, you should still be mad about Cecil's death. Instead of finding reasons not to care, or sending death threats to the man who killed him, use your anger to make positive change. 

You can support the following organizations if you want to do something good with your anger: 

Post incoming eventually about the canned hunting industry, which is a whole other mess.