Life and thoughts

Zoos: the last roar for the wild

The zoo has so many associations for people. Childhood memories. Conservation. Perhaps, your connections are more animal specific. Gentle elephants. Proud tigers. Long-lashed wallabies. Ambling bears. In today’s rapidly changing world, the zoo has become more important than ever.

I spent the day at a zoo with my animal-obsessed young son. I’ve always loved animals – I even fulfilled a lifelong dream a few years back to visit the Serengeti – and so, I’m more than happy to indulge his passion too. I hope it will offer him as much joy and hope as it has always offered me. A respite from the often cynical, frequently political, human world.

The wonders of the zoo

At its simplest, the zoo is a remarkable opportunity for the average person to see up close the extraordinary. And there’s no denying it, nature truly is extraordinary. What else could have dreamt up the vivid and unique prints of giraffes or the blending capabilities of the chameleon? Very few will ever see the majority of these animals in the wild. That’s not even factoring the issue of endangered and extinct species.

Should we cage the wild?

Detractors of the zoo argue about the cruelty of caging wild beasts. It’s an argument I do understand but am pleased to see organisations like Sydney’s Taronga Zoo are constantly working hard to offer enriching environments for the animals they care for. Leftover relics of the original zoo are a reminder of what we have put animals through in the past, and it’s a sobering one. The truth is, we have reached a point where the zoo is the last bastion of hope for many species.

Last animals standing

The zoo has become a sanctuary for those animals fast disappearing from the wild (let alone the world). Those running the zoo have taken on this new and important responsibility carefully. Breeding programs. Education programs. Enrichment programs. In the period it has run, the Australian program for breeding elephants is viewed as one of the most successful in the world. We are rapidly approaching a point where the last places on earth to view many of the amazing animals of the world is in the zoo – there’s limited wilderness for them to inhabit as it is and disappearing fast.

Connections that bind us

In its role as both sanctuary and spectacle, the zoo has another job though. It offers a perfect reminder of what binds us together, man and beast. It is this, perhaps, that may offer the last chance trigger for us to act to save the gifts of the natural world.

Is it possible to watch the close-knit gorilla family led by its silver-backed patriarch and not recognise our own family patterns and relationships? To watch the seals frolicking and not feel the same sense of joy that is playing in the water? I looked in the eyes of the elephant and her calf and the tiger with her cubs and felt the kinship of motherhood, a privilege and hope for the future that belongs to all species of life.

As with all things in life, there are positives and negatives to zoos. However, at their heart, zoos are a great gift to humans and animals alike. Perhaps by reminding us what makes us animals too, we regain the best of our humanity. Let us hope that will continue to spur us enough to save our extraordinary natural world.