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Animals and Society Class - Discussion 4, Zoos

Q: How are zoos an example of classifying and categorizing of animals today? What role might culture have in their approach to education and entertainment of their videos? Or in the kinds of animals they have? How might zoos reinforce ideas of charismatic megafauna? Provide examples to support your answers.

A: Zoos classify and categorize animals in the literal sense of often having like animals grouped together in close proximity; e.g. a reptile house, an aviary, a section for insects, etc. However, they also categorize them by popularity to some extent. The factor of “charismatic megafauna” comes into play in choosing which animals to keep, and where to house them. But it isn’t fair to say that zoos only house those animals we love to see. Zoos do work to be educational about the intrinsic value of every animal they display – plaques and videos will try to convert you to the merits of scorpions – but most of the visitors probably didn’t come for the scorpions. And zoos know this.

In pursuit of their goal to educate and excite future generations of scientists, while contributing to science today by learning more about animal behavior; preserving endangered species; and preserving genetic material that would otherwise be lost forever - they have to straddle the divide between education and entertainment. While Keith Lovett is right in his TED talk, where he mentioned his colleague taking earthworms to a demonstration – that even worms can be made interesting when talked about by someone who knows them well, to an audience unfamiliar with them, zoos know people are not paying admission for earthworms.

So, zoos stock the impressive, cute, exotic, animals we expect to see in a zoo. They offer the lions and tigers and bears we can’t find by digging a hole in the backyard. And they try to get us emotionally invested in things like the birth of baby animals. Zoos need us to care. About a decade ago now, I guess, a cobra escaped from a zoo in New York. The Bronx Zoo Cobra still has an active twitter account of almost 150,000 followers, including me. And all because a genius at the zoo decided to engage the public in an entertaining way about an otherwise possibly disturbing situation, by anthropomorphizing the snake through tweets. If zoos have to lure in an audience with a majestic lion, a newborn giraffe, a seemingly cuddly koala, or a tweeting snake, in order to preserve endangered species and add to scientific knowledge - that’s just putting our cultural biases about charismatic megafauna to good use. I don’t think it would be fair to say they reinforce these biases, so much as they exploit them for the greater good.

I grew up in Orange County California, and when I was a child my two favorite places to go were the San Diego Zoo and the LA County Museum of Natural History, and for the same reason, the animals. Obviously, the live animals at the zoo were more fun to watch, but the museum offered animals the zoo couldn’t. When I was very young, I loved any and all zoos I could get my parents to visit, including little ones (at the time anyway) like the one in Santa Ana, and the postage stamp sized one in Big Bear that had a badger that had been in a Disney movie. Another favorite when I was young was Marineland Aquarium in LA (long closed now).

But as I got older, I started to feel bad for the animals. I felt they had been imprisoned and were leading pitiful lives I couldn’t stand to look at. With the exception of the zoo in Big Bear, where all the animals had some rehabbed malady that prevented them from returning to the wild, I stopped enjoying zoos altogether by the time I was about 10. It is only as an adult that I have begun to appreciate the role zoos play in species preservation, and that good ones care for the animals in the healthiest and most natural ways possible. And that if not for zoos, museums would be the only places left to see certain animals. Though I admit, I still can’t stand to see performing dolphins or orcas. Performing animals all fall more in the category of circuses than zoos as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t watch.




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