Monday, December 10, 2007

Zoos, not Zeus: The Modern Ark by Vicki Croke

I carried this book around with me for the past couple of weeks, and would bring it to the break room to read during lunch. Invariably, though, someone would walk in and sit down at the table with me and ask what my book was about. And they always thought I said "Zeus", but it's really about zoos, and much more interesting than a book about Zeus would probably be.

Erstwhile readers may recognize the author's name from The Lady and the Panda, the incredible true tale of how a dress designer and socialite succeeded in getting a live panda out of a remote region of China where seasoned adventurers had failed. The Modern Ark is an entirely different sort of book, but is guaranteed to raise issues you've probably never even thought about unless you work in a zoo.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that this planet is poised to lose a great deal of its biodiversity in as short a time as the next 20 years. It's enough to scare the hell out of anyone other than Bush and Cheney, but the zoo community is on the front lines of trying to do something about it.

What, though? Is it better to save animals in the wild or in the zoo? Well, the wild, of course, but habitat destruction and human encroachment make it impossible for some species to survive. So, how do you choose what goes in your zoo? The animals Croke calls "charismatic megafauna" (you know, pandas and white tigers and whatnot) are guaranteed draws. When the baby panda was born at the National Zoo, it caused a national uproar. Their server kept crashing because so many people were logging on to watch the Panda Cam. Tickets to see the panda sold out faster than Hannah Montana. It brought in a lot of money, which the zoo needs to keep going. But these megafauna aren't representative of the wild. There are more lizards, fish, invertebrates, rodents and bugs out there, but will the public wait in line for three hours to see a rare Amazonian slug? Is it better to interbreed subspecies and combine the Siberian, Bengal and Sumatran tigers into a "tiger soup" or should you keep them separate, in the hope that the habitat will come back?

And when you've chosen who will go in your zoo, then what? You need the right kind of enclosure, with the right kind of stimulation, or the animal won't breed, and it'll go nuts. Speaking of breeding, what are the right conditions to make an animal breed? Why won't cheetahs breed in captivity? How do you keep the male clouded leopards from killing the female ones during courtship? Do female clouded leopards have the right to say no to unwanted advances, and how can you build zoo exhibits to facilitate that right, especially on a limited budget? In the wild, elephants develop their own social groups. They're highly social animals and their behavior will be off if they're isolated or kept in the wrong kind of social grouping (imagine if you were forced to live with your parents, your husband's parents, all of your ex-boyfriends and all of your husband's ex-girlfriends. How much breeding would YOU want to do?)

Croke doesn't have many answers, but asks all of these tough questions and more. She's talked to dozens of zoo directors, keepers, biologists, and curators. She examines the fates of many different species and shares enough success stories that you end the book feeling energized and optimistic, not depressed and hopeless. The book came out in 1997, just before Disney's Animal Kingdom opened, and she talked to the man who designed it. I have visited it many times, and it sounds close to the ideal that Croke described. It emphasizes conservation heavily. The attraction that I still consider the focal point is the Safari Ride. If you hit it wrong, you'll be in line for a couple of hours, but it's pretty worth it. The best thing about it is that you can ride it a hundred times and have a hundred different experiences. I saw a baby giraffe one time. Another time, a herd of bongos ran out in front of the Jeep. Our guide was totally shocked: she said they were like the ghosts of the safari ride, very rarely seen. If you look carefully, you'll see how the animals are kept in the proper areas simply through the design of the landscape. You wonder if they even know they're in captivity.

Of course, that's Disney, and they have considerably more money and land than the local zoo. I've always viewed Animal Kingdom as a positive step, though. They do an excellent job of educating the public and making connections between the public and the animal. They hammer the conservation point home pretty hard. I hope Vicki Croke writes a sequel to this book. I'd like to see what, if anything, has changed in the last ten years and if the zoo community has arrived at any answers to these impossible questions that, in a way, will determine the fate of us all.

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