Friday, May 5, 2017

The Henry Vilas Zoo's Mission

Madison, Wisconsin has a reputation as a progressive city; it sort of is, in some ways. Madison was the birthplace of the Progressive Movement. Madison is home to The Progressive magazine and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Madison is gay-friendly. Many of its restaurants point out their vegan options. There is a local political party called Progressive Dane (Madison is in Dane County). The library and the services it provides are awesome. Madison/Dane County has significant green space and some nice largish parks that include some wild areas. Madison/Dane County has some very nice dog parks. Dane County has also banned the exhibition of elephants, though whether the future ban is enforced remains to be seen. There is a lot for nominally liberal-leaning people to like about Madison. But everything is relative.

To my mind, any measure of enlightened thinking, of progressive policies, must include a community’s treatment of its animals. By this metric many nominally progressive/liberal communities fail miserably.

In the case of Madison, it is easy to point to examples of terrible abuse supported by the city and county. Madison is home to Covance, one of, perhaps the the largest single consumer of animals in the country, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of top recipients in the country of tax dollars for experiments on animals. Additionally, the city pays the USDA to round up adult Canada geese and their goslings and kill them. The city has paid trappers to drown beavers. The county permits trapping in some parks.

And there is the Henry Vilas Zoo, located in Madison, but paid for by county taxpayers at-large. The zoo says, “Our mission at the Henry Vilas Zoo is to conserve and protect the wonders of the living natural world and to help build understanding between people and animals by promoting conservation and providing a high quality recreational and educational experience to our visitors.”

Mission statements are rarely dashed off; writing and agreeing to one commonly motivate significant discussion by the members of a board of directors. Mission statements are commonly pointed to in board meetings, retreats, and in decision-making. At least they should be and have been in my experience. It appears to me that either the Henry Vilas Zoo isn’t fulfilling its mission or maybe not even trying to.

Let’s vivisect the zoo’s claims:

1. “Our mission ... is to conserve... the wonders of the living natural world...”. According to Google, conserve, in this sense, means: “to protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.”

Setting aside the plain simple fact that the zoo’s activities and practices involve (in any way whatsoever) only an infinitesimally small sliver of the wonders of the living natural world, the second part of the meaning of conserve is “to protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.”

I think it is important in any debate or criticism like this one, to state fairly what one believes to be the belief and sense of those who hold the other position. I believe that the zoo would argue that its involvement with species survival plans is evidence that it is working to conserve some things -- some species, thus trying to meet to some degree its mission.

2. “... to help build understanding between people and animals by promoting conservation...”. This is the passage that led me to write earlier that mission statements are not typically dashed off.

Presumably, the meaning was not intended to be obscure; it seems reasonable to take it as written. Were I to say that there was an understanding between you and me, it would mean that I believed that both of us understood what the other intended and were agreeable to it. But in this context, the notion is altogether silly. A few animals coming to the understanding that humans are the reason for their captivity can hardly be what the authors intended.

I suspect that they intended to say, or meant that, zoo visitors would gain a better understanding of animals.

But visitors don’t get a particularly better understanding of animals. To a very large extent, they are misled and come away with ideas about the animals they see that are far afield from the truth. They walk away with a misunderstanding of animals.

There are badgers, prairie dogs, and bison at the zoo. But seeing them is little different that seeing a stuffed specimen. The animals at the zoo are unable to do what badgers, prairie dogs, and bison normally do. If the zoo’s mission is to increase an understanding of animals, it would do an exponentially better job by having small theaters throughout the property where people could learn much more authentic things about animals. For instance:


There are gibbons at the zoo. But what can one really learn about gibbons by seeing them in the tiny cage they are kept in? Nothing like this:


or this:


And this is the case with all the live-animal displays; visitors aren’t learning too much more than they could by seeing a stuffed specimen. An animal removed from their natural environment, unable to engage in the full range of their normal behaviors isn’t really an example of the species anymore that someone in a prison cell is an informative authentic example of Homo sapiens.

The zoo’s claim that it is conserving the natural wonders of the world only makes sense in the context of natural wonders that are at risk of being lost. We don’t need to conserve granite for instance, since it is so common and not at risk of being lost. Likewise, there is no conservation value in caging and displaying prairie dogs; they aren’t at risk of being lost.

The notion of breeding endangered or threatened species simply to have some on display begs the question of whether it is a good thing to save a few members of a species. In some cases, protecting threatened and endangered species leads to protections for many other species and wild areas. In the Pacific northwest, protection for marbled murrelets and spotted owls resulted in large tracts of old growth forest being protected from logging. All the species that comprise those areas were protected. That seems like a good thing to me; we have only a handful of these areas left. If we don’t protect them, we will lose them.

Putting owls and murrelets in zoos would not have benefited them. People seeing them in cages would have learned almost nothing about them. It seems that the way to preserve threatened and endangered species is to preserve and protect their natural environment; that’s real conservation.

Collecting, breeding and trading in wild animals is a fairly common fetish of sorts; it can get dressed up and gentrified at times by being associated with government or business in some way that provides financial support, but for every “legitimate” zoo there are many others that provide insight into the sort of people who are drawn to this profession and hobby. See for instance, National Geographic’s article, "Exotic Pets".

Not everyone associated with a zoo is necessarily a bad person. In the case of “legitimate” zoos, an aura of respectability and public support by authorities leads many people to believe that they are good things, wholesome for the entire family. We tend to be easily influenced by authority and rarely engage in critical thinking about the status quo. Most zoo-goers spend only a moment in front of a display; the brutal boredom endured by the animals doesn’t cross their minds. A visit to the zoo is for most just a brief diversion at the animals’ incalculable expense.

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