The sad death of Harambe the Gorilla last week at Cincinnati Zoo has provoked international outrage and debate from experts, campaign groups and concerned members of the public alike.
Whether or not in this particular case the zoo's actions in shooting Harambe were right or wrong, the incident has provided an opportunity for animal rights campaigners (and wider social media audiences) to point the finger of blame at zoos more widely. It has been labelled as yet another example of captivity taking an animal's life and I even saw it suggested that families should stay away from any facilities that display animals.
As a researcher and lecturer in animal behaviour, interested in primate behaviour, welfare and conservation and focused on zoo animals, I believe that this kind of discourse is misleading for the public and could also be detrimental for the wider natural world.
Despite this odd incident, modern zoos (for example, vast majority of members of BIAZA and EAZA networks) serve a crucial role as ambassadors of endangered animal species (such as lowland gorillas), educators of the general public and vital resources for local communities, which stimulate empathy and responsibility to the natural world. What is more, visitors are crucial to make modern zoos successful in this mission.
Zoos and aquariums depend on visitors from a financial point of view; they are largely funded by visitor tickets and the money spent by them within these institutions helps to fund crucial conservation projects, which protect threatened species and the local communities living alongside them, throughout the world. An example is the reintroduction of the European bison by Rewilding Europe, or the reintroduction of the Northern Bald Ibis by the Waldrappteam - both initiatives managed by project-tailored NGOs and in collaboration with several European zoos.
On the other hand, zoos need visitors just as much to accomplish this conservation mission in the first place, by educating them about animals and their habitats and raising awareness of environmental issues, including climate change, bush-meat and illegal trade in wildlife. Modern zoos/aquariums are an important resource for their communities and are also committed to conduct research aimed at studying the visitor learning experience, enclosure design, human-animal interaction, and visitors' effect on the welfare of captive animals.
Zoos provide people with the unique opportunity to experience the sights, sounds and smells of animals from all over the world who are ambassadors for their species in the wild. Encounters with these animals stimulate empathy for the natural world and help people to access their innate values and nurture a sense of responsibility. For me, this impact massively outweighs the negatives of captivity. Where else can you get such a great opportunity on your doorstep to learn about nature, conservation and your place within it?
Finally, while in Western societies, zoo-designed education projects help people to connect with a natural world of which they might have little or no experience, in the least developed countries, zoo-managed field conservation projects often have an educational aspect which helps local human populations to better understand the animals around them and mitigates potential human-animal conflicts. An example is the conservation project on Wild Bactrian Camels in Mongolia run by ZSL and co-funded by several institutions including other European zoos.
Cincinnati zoo must have been devastated by what happened last week - for the loss of Harambe as a much loved member of the zoo community, and also because the incident had negative repercussions for zoos everywhere, quickly reaching round the world through the instantaneous power of social media. It certainly highlights the need for zoos to make sure they properly manage interactions between the public and animals, when it comes to the education of visitors and also making sure the appropriate physical safety measures are in place.
In my opinion however, society would be a far worse off place without the existence of modern zoos. It is time to celebrate and promote the richness of these resources for the communities, environment and biodiversity - not turn people away from them.
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