Sunday, February 20, 2005

Are Zoos An Anachronism?, Part II

Elephants on Prozac?

In response to my recent posting on the health of elephants in zoos around the country, and the bigger question of the continuing utility of zoos, I received two impassioned emails from a docent in a midwestern zoo (names withheld) taking issue with the article's suggestion that zoos are no longer needed:

There are at least four aspects of a well run zoo: education, conservation, research, and recreation. The thing most commonly seen at zoos is the recreation aspect because that is the most obvious and is easily observed. However, being a docent, I am involved in the education aspect. We give tours; we have classroom presentations, mostly for grade school kids; we recruit and train teen volunteers who then do some educating of their own, but mainly help out with the grunt work of running and maintaining a zoo (receiving more education in a hands on way).

(Our zoo) does have at least two African elephants, but I have never seen them engage in the kind of repetitive behavior you seem concerned about. Of course enrichment, i.e., offering significant mental challenges to the brainier species (and even the not so brainy species) probably explains why the elephants here don't lapse into that kind of behavior.

Are the animals better off in this setting than in the wild? If you're interested in saving threatened and endangered species I'd say yes. But that's a value judgment. You can offer arguments that zoos are an anachronism, and I'll agree with you that some of them should just go away, but facilities such as (ours) permit research and conservation that wouldn't otherwise be done.

The original article cited elephants being given anti-depressant drugs to modify their repetitive behaviors; it seems that there are facilities with committed volunteers such as the good docent writing above that do not have that problem.