when zoos make news

Zoos are in the news, so our blog has been getting more attention than usual. We’ve been critical of the Toronto Zoo for choosing entertainment over conservation, education, and stewardship.

We provided a long-term vision and strategy for the Zoo more than a decade ago and have watched the organization implement our recommendations, tentatively at first, sporadically for a while, and not at all lately. Maybe it was asking too much of a government owned and operated attraction.

They needed to gamble everything on the fact that the public’s fascination with caged animals was waning. We warned that the relationship between the Zoo and its community wouldn’t recover until it adjusted to this change and repurposed itself accordingly.

Even back then evidence of this change was everywhere. Zoo administrators accepted the premise of our plan but couldn’t take the radical measures required to prepare for what was then the future, and what is today the present.

The present, as we foresaw it then, is perfectly captured in Robert Everett Green’s article in the Globe and Mail, “Why I’m never going to the zoo again.”  The more people learn about our zoos, the more disenchanted they become.

If Everett Green had gone back farther in his article, he might have written about imperial bestiaries that were maintained as symbols of greatness, which is to some extent the way cities like Toronto understand their zoos. Zoos, like opera houses and museums, are symbols of a city’s stature. The Toronto Zoo is also seen as a tourist attraction, drawing about a million visits per year.

That’s why, even during times of austerity, the Zoo’s $12 million annual subsidy is never seriously challenged. Great cities have zoos, and Toronto is a great city. Twelve million dollars is just a cost of doing business when you’re a great city.

In 2012, the City toyed with the idea of selling or leasing its zoo to save money. As with many other subsidized assets, disposing of the Zoo was seen by the current Mayor as a chance to reduce the City’s budget. However, there were concerns that publicity about a possible sale would jeopardize plans to borrow giant pandas, so the idea was scrapped. Even during this constrained budget cycle, there are no further rumblings from City Hall about the cost of owning a zoo.

Animal lovers have piled on our blog before. We’ve made disparaging remarks about the desperate reliance on the cuteness of pandas to revive interest in an anachronistic zoo. Controversy a year ago about the fate of Toronto’s elephants simply proved our point. The issues of the day may be reproduction and euthanasia, arising from news out of Copenhagen, but there are more fundamental questions underlying that story.

Why do zoos exist? What could we do with their lands, facilities, collections, community relationships, scientific expertise, and advocacy power to make them more relevant to the people who fund them? When will we stop treating them like amusement parks and resolve the moral implications of exploiting wild creatures for commerce?

At NetGain, we still believe there is intelligent, humane, and ethical value in zoos. But apart from a few world leading institutions, they simply cannot continue in their present form. Perhaps they will become research campuses, wilderness preserves, experiential learning centres, or environmental advocacy organizations, but they have to change. Anyone who is shocked by the Copenhagen story should check to see whether or not they’re implicated in similarly disturbing practices at a zoo nearer to home.

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