The Ever-More-Overloaded Ark(s)

From the NYTimes, “The Animal Lifeboat: To Save Some Species, Zoos Must Let Others Die“:

… As the number of species at risk of extinction soars, zoos are increasingly being called upon to rescue and sustain animals, and not just for marquee breeds like pandas and rhinos but also for all manner of mammals, frogs, birds and insects whose populations are suddenly crashing.

To conserve animals effectively, however, zoo officials have concluded that they must winnow species in their care and devote more resources to a chosen few. The result is that zookeepers, usually animal lovers to the core, are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save. Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list.

The lemurs at this zoo are being saved in part because of a well-financed program to rescue rare fauna of the island nation of Madagascar. By contrast, although St. Louis has kept lion-tailed macaques since 1958, other zoos started getting rid of them in the 1990s because they can carry a form of herpes deadly to people. With only an aging population left in captivity in the United States, a species advisory group to North American zoos is expected to put the animals on a phaseout list soon.

If there are criticisms, they are that zoos are not transforming their mission quickly enough from entertainment to conservation.

“We as a society have to decide if it is going to be ethically and morally appropriate to simply display animals for entertainment purposes,” said Dr. Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, part of the National Zoo in Washington. “In my opinion, that model is broken. There needs to be an explicit role for zoos to champion species.”

Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur. And less emphasis should be placed on animals that are popular attractions but are doing fine in the wild, like African elephants and California sea lions, Dr. Monfort said, adding that they should be replaced with animals in desperate need of rescuing…

The “good” news, I suppose, is that the importance of zoos for conservation of endangered species is now a truism, and not the eccentric novelty argument that it was considered when I started reading Gerald Durell’s books back in the early 1960s. But I keep wondering if the epitaph for our efforts will be summed up in the title of another conservation memoir from the same era: Time is short, and the water rises.

34 replies
  1. 1
    Linda Featheringill says:

    Time is running short for too many animals.

    I do wonder how many of our efforts could be classified as too little, too late.

  2. 2
    Roger Moore says:

    The “good” news, I suppose, is that the importance of zoos for conservation of endangered species is now a truism, and not the eccentric novelty argument that it was considered when I started reading Gerald Durell’s books back in the early 1960s.

    And I’m sure that some of this has to do with the success of some of the captive breeding programs. Restoring condors to the wild here in the Southwest has been much more successful than people expected, so there’s now some belief that we ought to be able to do it for other species. Forget that condors suffered from a couple of specific problems (DDT and lead shot) that were much easier to tackle than the habitat destruction that’s facing the worst endangered species, or that their continued survival is still very much in question. I just hope people are willing to understand when other species can’t be brought back as successfully as condors have been.

  3. 3
    Yutsano says:

    @Roger Moore: There will be species that will go extinct by virtue of climate change, which it seems the best we can do with that now is mitigate the damage. Those will be the remainders who end up in zoos all over the world and we will never be able to restore wild populations. It is also true that captive breeding programs can still fail, not because of animals not being produced but because in many species behaviour is learned and humans end up not being able to teach those survival lessons. Biodiversity is a very tricky business.

  4. 4
    Roger Moore says:


    There will be species that will go extinct by virtue of climate change, which it seems the best we can do with that now is mitigate the damage.

    But climate change is just one example of the larger issue of habitat destruction. There are a lot of species that are going to go extinct because they live in forests that we cut down for timber or to clear the land for farming. There are species that will go extinct because they live on prairies that we turned into farmland or cities. Humans are demanding more and more of the world’s resources, which leaves less and less for the wild species we share the planet with. The only way around that problem is to use less, but that’s not the direction we’re headed right now.

  5. 5

    I’m sure Freddie will be along any minute to lecture you all on the obscenity of focusing on individual species while the conservatives are targeting unions.

  6. 6
    hilzoy says:

    That said, in a number of cases zoo-based conservation programs don’t work well, as I understand it. Animals that need not just the right genes, but also something like culture — things that they learn from their parents or packmates or whoever about how to be a successful animal of their kind, often don’t work, since captive animals have often unlearned all that stuff, and the line of transmission is damaged or broken.

  7. 7
    Nicole says:

    I’m a big fan of (AZA accredited) zoos, because I think they do a lot not only in breeding programs, but also in giving people who do not have the economic means to travel a chance to have an emotional reaction to an animal in a way that they just can’t via television. And, one hopes, making an emotional connection to seeing a real, live animal, will, in some people at least, lead to an interest in protecting the animal’s wild brethren.

    But I don’t think elephants should be kept at zoos. Most animals can have a decent quality of life in a good, well-run zoo, but not elephants. Too complicated a social structure to replicate in captivity. In my opinion, anyway.

  8. 8
    joel hanes says:

    Our epitaph as a species was written by Vonnegut :

    “We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap”.

  9. 9

    @J. Michael Neal:
    We could always reserve a space in the zoo for neo-liberals.

    We could call it “The Hall of Insufficient Ideological Purity.”

  10. 10
    AA+ Bonds says:

    Personally, I am worried about civilization’s handicap vs. the worms given our failure to achieve global policy

    New ecosystems will emerge but they don’t really need us, now do they, I mean, a lot less oxygen and a lot more γ rays might do wonders for biodiversity in the long run

  11. 11
    AA+ Bonds says:

    @Judas Escargot, Your Postmodern Neighbor:

    We could always reserve a space in the zoo for neo-liberals.

    An inappropriate venue; the chances of a chimpanzee becoming a responsible member of society are nil, while in the case you offer, the probability increases by some small amount

  12. 12

    @AA+ Bonds:
    (Most of) Our ancestors eventually figured out that pouring scat upstream of your water supply was a bad thing. Conditions improved, and other problems could then be dealt with.

    Ecosystem management (this includes CO2 management, fresh water management, handling of resource shortages, etc) is basically the next order-of-magnitude problem that needs solving. The next ‘lesson’ if you want a metaphor.

    I can’t say much for our chances at the moment.

  13. 13
    jheartney says:

    My view is that if you preserve a few examples of a species while eliminating its habitat, then you haven’t accomplished much. Not only have you lost most of the species’ genetic diversity, you’ve destroyed the complete system (the habitat and the species) in which the species makes sense as a piece of the overall ecosystem. The habitat and the species are a kind of yin and yang; each needs the other.

    Hilzoy talks about the need for an animal “culture” in which the species propagates the non-genetic lessons that help its descendants survive. You can’t have this if all that exists is a tiny population of isolated individuals in a captive setting.

    It’s an aspect of the much larger overall question of how humanity and human civilization can exist sustainably in a finite Earth. Simply assuming that human’s consumption of resources grows forever isn’t a workable strategy.

  14. 14
    AA+ Bonds says:

    @Judas Escargot, Your Postmodern Neighbor:

    I think we can still pull it out and I hope it doesn’t take a lot of pointless sudden preventable death for people to get over the fear of losing face in front of the collective short-term profit motive

  15. 15

    @AA+ Bonds:
    Will no no one think of the poor bonobos?

    True, the constant conflict-resolution/leg-humping does get rather tiresome… but at least bonobos don’t rip off your face with their bare hands when they’re feeling emotional.

  16. 16
    AA+ Bonds says:


  17. 17

    @AA+ Bonds:
    All joking aside, we agree on this much. Or we wouldn’t both be here.

    I think it will be worse than it needed to be, much worse than it needed to be. And, at this point in history, we really had absolutely no excuse not to know any better.

    We’ll “muddle through”, as Vonnegut says.

  18. 18
    S. cerevisiae says:

    Humans really suck. Fucking cause a mass extinction. We suck.

  19. 19
    mainmati says:

    There was a mention that African elephants are doing just fine. Not true. Organized Asian gangs are back on the rampage and thousands of elephants are being slaughtered for ivory, the highest rate in nearly a quarter century. I would like just for once to see the Chinese sponsor any kind of conservation program for any species. Not happened yet.

  20. 20
    Hill Dweller says:

    @S. cerevisiae: “People suck, and that’s my contention. I can prove it on a scratch paper and pen. Give me a fucking Etch-a-sketch, I’ll do it in three minutes. The proof, the fact, the factorum. I’ll show my work, case closed. I’m tired of this back-slapping “Aren’t humanity neat?” bullshit. We’re a virus with shoes, okay? That’s all we are.”–Bill Hicks

  21. 21
    Roger Moore says:


    I would like just for once to see the Chinese sponsor any kind of conservation program for any species.

    They do have a major conservation program for the giant panda, which is severely endangered in the wild. Or does that not count because you’re only thinking about species outside China?

  22. 22
    Steve in DC says:

    With the national zoo right by I don’t think this will work. Reptiles and birds are my favorites and I could waste a life watching them. Yet all everybody cares about are African giants and the great apes! So these things draw the people and the money in, and my beloved serpents and raptors are walked past.

    As for the Chinese, and I am not a biologist, the problem is pandas don’t fuck. Hence why we keep test tube impgrenating them here, they just don’t care. Mix this with a low birth rate and you have a problem. The national zoo is damn good at churning out all sorts of things, but pandas just don’t seem to work.

    Zoo’s bring out the stupid in people though. Best DC zoo moments. Person tries to swim with polar bears, gets eaten alive. Person tries to smuggle out the gabon (spelling wrong I’m sure) viper, and gets fanged something serious. there was also that ape escape fiasco (they have high rise walkways that are high enough they shouldn’t jump down, a female orang did it and ran rampant for a while, nobody was hurt).

  23. 23
    Jennifer says:

    We needed to institute, globally, zero-population growth programs back in the 1960s. We still could, except now what’s really needed is population-decline programs. The planet needs less people, not more. It could be achieved voluntarily if nations cooperated to provide certain things to the single offspring of each individual who agreed to have only one child – adequate food, education, basic health care. And I’m not suggesting that voluntary population reduction be limited to poor or third-world countries, either. Reducing the populations of the US, Europe, Japan, and other developed nations would probably have an even bigger impact, since people in those countries consume so much more than those in poor nations. We could do it, too, if we weren’t so stuck on the idea that it’s more important to let the Walton family have $100 billion than it is to provide incentives to people to curb family size. Also, too…the Catholic church and capitalists in general, whose entire model is built on the unworkable assumption of perpetual growth, wouldn’t be too thrilled with the idea. But it is what’s needed.

    Instead, we’ll continue overbreeding until the planet is turned into an unlivable hellhole, and then all of us, Waltons included, will be wiped out by the planet when our destruction becomes too big to mitigate. Whatever survives us will evolve over time, and there will be a whole new world of life that doesn’t include us.

    In short, the world will be a much better place, because even the most territorial animals can’t horde resources the way we do, thanks to the lack of language and opposable thumbs.

  24. 24
    Liquid says:

    Didn’t “Fierce Creatures” already touch on this?

  25. 25
    Roger Moore says:

    Many rich countries have already achieved negative population growth without needing any kind of special incentive program. They just make contraception easily available and people are more than willing to do the hard part for them. Shutting up religious crazies who are opposed to any kind of family planning would obviously be an essential part of any plan for population reduction.

  26. 26
    magurakurin says:

    @Jennifer: I’ve done my part. Married, childless, snipped and 50. I don’t totally disagree with your sentiment, but I’m hoping you have no kids. One is probably too many…

  27. 27
    magurakurin says:

    @Steve in DC: Can we count on you to murder all the cats and geese in the zoo when the time comes?

    Jim Jefferies on Panda’s not fucking

    “lock me in a cage for a week and I’ll fuck anything”

  28. 28
    Jennifer says:

    @magurakurin: That was certainly a nasty, and IMO, uncalled-for remark.

  29. 29
    Roger Moore says:

    It’s not at all uncalled for; it’s a response to something inflammatory he said in a previous thread.

    ETA: Oops. That was a response to a different nasty comment.

  30. 30
    magurakurin says:

    huh? I’m guessing then you have one kid.
    Look, I’m not the one who just called for some sort of forced birth control. Personally, I never wanted kids because I figured other folks, like yourself, would have them for me.

    And while I do feel there are too many people and I sort of don’t understand what people are thinking when they bring another soul into the circus, I also love my life, love life and respect that other folks have a different view point. And realize that the folks who are hitting the ground today will probably enjoy life in one way or another as well.

    However, if someone goes on about there are too many people(and there are) and they have a kid or kids, well Hello? Is anyone home?

    Seriously, one is just right but two is too many? If you were really considered about it you’d have none, I reckon.

    But what do I know. I’m sure someone will tell me that since I don’t have kids I can’t understand, blah, blah.

    whatever. Not sure what you think is so nasty. You think everyone should have one kid, I figure zero is better but have no desire to make anyone do anything. It’s out of my hands. I didn’t make this world, it was like this when I got here. That’s why I didn’t bring another player to the table.

  31. 31
    HobbesAI says:

    If you liked Gerald Durrell’s tales of his life on Corfu you may like to check out his brother Lawrence’s book about his time on the island: Prospero’s Cell.

  32. 32
    mclaren says:

    This is the good news. The bad news? In another few years, when officials use the phrase “in order to save some, we must let others die” they’ll be talking about people.

  33. 33
    Jennifer says:

    @magurakurin: I suggest you re-read.

    NO ONE called for “forced” birth control. Though I suppose that’s a convenient straw man to try to excuse a nasty comment. Either you have poor reading comprehension or the meaning of the word “voluntary” completely eludes you.

    If you hadn’t guessed, what’s objectionable is the assumption that someone who recognizes and isn’t afraid to state the obvious – that human population is too high already – would somehow be unfit as a parent. And that anyone voicing that sentiment would somehow be a hypocrite if they had one child. Which, I’ll remind you, would still be a below-replacement birth rate.

    I don’t, FWIW – I also elected not to inflict the horrors of what the world will be in 50 years on another human being by bringing it into the world. Because it’s not going to get fixed, at least not while there are still people around. Because there are people who profit and maintain power by making sure it isn’t fixed.

    It may come as a shock to you but there are those of us who recognize that as a group, humanity sucks ass, while we still manage to like and enjoy the company of most people we meet. Yes, it’s a paradox, I know. But taking an accurately dim view on humankind does not preclude being a kind and loving person, as you seem to suppose.

  34. 34
    Interrobang says:

    Jennifer is exactly right — you can’t _force_ people into having fewer kids, because what you get is the sort of pressure-cooker situation you currently have in China, where, particularly thanks to misogynist cultural pressure, there are now far fewer post-one-child policy women than men, so the men (feeling entitled to have wives and all), are going to extreme and ridiculous lengths at times to pair up. Not to mention the richer people bribing officials into allowing them to have more than one child, and, contrariwise, the forced abortions and other human rights abuses.

    On the other hand, if you can persuade enough people, particularly in the rich, resource-hogging countries to have fewer children (and maybe persuade them that they could downsize their consumption patterns without losing face or feeling like they’re living in a thatch hut on a mountaintop somewhere), you’re a long way toward ameliorating things. Giving people incentives not to have kids (sort of like “baby bonuses” in reverse), is certainly one way of helping to persuade.

    Me, I was persuaded long ago. No kids, don’t want any, live in a 1000 sf house that I share with a friend, don’t drive, and don’t do a lot of buying things for the sake of buying them. (My last splurge purchase was some antique dishes and a couple of horse brasses, total $45, whoopee.)

Comments are closed.