But on one or two occasions, I have gotten a different response. I have had people tell me (with conviction) that they are not big fans of zoos, and that they feel wild animals are not made to be kept in zoos, and have every right to live on their own in the forests, or the deserts, or wherever it is that they live out their natural lives.
I couldn’t agree more. Wild animals - whether herds of elephants in Africa or flocks of flamingos in South America - by definition exist to live in the wild. Their beauty, their amazing physical prowess, and their mystery are something that has its own intrinsic value. That is, the animals possess wondrous natural characteristics whose value has absolutely no relation to what they can do for people.
Their fur is only for their own warmth, their ivory only for the usefulness, and their colors or speed or grace exist to strictly make them better able to survive. In thick forests, icy ponds, or faraway savannas wild animals live out a daily drama of life and death: hunting for food, finding mates, raising families and avoiding predators or fighting for their own survival - all far away from the prying eyes of humans.
And wild animals often accomplish these things in marvelous and amazing ways. Andean bears use branches and leaves to build nests in trees as sleeping areas each night.
Pronghorn antelope avoid predators by reaching speeds of 45 miles an hour in a few seconds, and then flash a white patch of fur on their rump to notify other pronghorn of the need to flee. Scarlet macaws can crush a walnut with their beaks as easily as we crush a peanut shell.
But many people are not aware of these things. It is one thing to read about the speed of a pronghorn antelope, it is quite another to come to the zoo and see it for yourself. It is one thing to see an elephant on television, but it is quite another to see one in the flesh.
I remember the first time I saw an elephant in the zoo. I must have been five or six, and it was the biggest living thing I had ever seen. It was so big, that when it flapped its ears, I jumped a little. When it moved its head and started to walk, my heart was in my mouth, and I didn’t know if I wanted to run or laugh or tell everyone I knew about it.
The point is, to appreciate the size of an elephant, I mean, really appreciate the size of an elephant, you have to see it in real life. And to care about what happens to elephants in Africa, or pronghorn in Yellowstone National Park, or even the song birds in the park, people have to appreciate them. Because whether we like it or not, the future of all wildlife, anywhere in the world, depends upon people having an appreciation for them. Not because they can provide us with food, or clothes or even entertainment, but because they enrich our lives by showing us the wonderful diversity that exists in this world, and helps us to understand that there are other creatures, other lives that are found in our world, and these creatures have a right to exist as well.
More than 200 million people a year visit zoos and aquariums throughout the United States alone. The number of zoo visitors worldwide is much higher than that. That’s more people than attend all the major sporting events in the country combined.
If all of those people come away from their zoo visit with a little more appreciation of the wonders of wildlife, if they care just a little more about the existence of the animals they have seen during their visit than they had before they came to the zoo, then the chances for the future of wildlife and wild places is that much better. And even if it improves the odds of those animals surviving by just a fraction, 200 million fractions can make the difference between survival and extinction of wildlife.
So I agree the best place for wildlife is in the wild. Nothing can replace the tropical forests, or the national parks, or the wilds of the arctic for animals that call those places home.
But in order to ensure that there are wildlife and wild places in the future, people need to appreciate the value of these animals and these places - and the best place to gain that appreciation is to come see these animals for yourself. If you don’t have the time or money to travel to South America or Yellowstone National Park, I know a great little zoo in Queens where you can still see a bunch of them.
Scott Silver is the Facility Director/Animal Curator of the Queens Zoo.