Connect with us

Culture & Media

Zoo Story




Zoos are complex places — literally. Each time I enter one, I’m filled with a nagging ambivalence between competing views and emotions. On one hand, I think about the animals forced to live in enclosed compounds far from their natural setting. But on the other hand, I’m filled with childlike awe and wonder as I watch gorillas, elephants, hippos and the many bird, amphibian, reptilian and mammalian specials that I’d never even heard of.

Zoos have made real progress in how they treat their captives. It’s no longer standard practice – as it was in the zoo of my youth – to keep the animals in small oppressive cages. Today, zoo enclosures mimic natural animal habitats. They’re bigger and have corners and caves where animals can hide from the crowds

So, I’ve come to the intellectual and emotional conclusion that zoos are good institutions that serve critically important public purposes.  Seventy nine percent of all Americans live in urban areas, disconnected from nature, strangers to and unfamiliar with the flora and fauna with which we share the planet.  In our increasingly gadget-immersed lives we have a greater understanding of the internet as a “place” with a nearly infinite number of sites to virtually visit and explore than we do of the nook and crannies of forests, savannah, oceans and deserts around the world. 

A connection to nature has a huge impact on our lives and the future. Author Richard Louv writes about increased stress and greater incidence of ADHD from what he refers to as “nature deficit disorder.”  In zoos children can see biodiversity with their own eyes and come to profoundly understand the impacts of environmental destruction on our rain forests, our oceans and our lives. Zoos are one of the few urban experiences that help us all – adults and children alike – increase our respect for the natural world around us, understand that we aren’t the Earth’s only inhabitants and fully realize that it’s worth saving. 

An appreciation for the natural world around us is so important that we can’t leave its future up to “the market.”  Some in L.A. City Hall, as well as reflexively anti-government activists elsewhere, are arguing that operating zoos is not an appropriate role of government. They are wrong.  They are vital educational institutions that have underappreciated benefits for health, environmental sustainability and the good society.

Zoos are among the institutions that make us — well, us.  They ensure that everyone – from low-income families to the wealthiest – at least occasionally share the same space and the same project of understanding and appreciating the world around us.

Public zoos open that space and experience for us all – not just those that can afford entrance fees or a vacation in the mountains – to become better stewards of the planet.

Privatization advocates argue that Los Angeles will save money if someone else – non-profit or for-profit – runs the zoo. Wrong again. We have few choices in how to pay for our zoos. We can raise admission and membership prices but the higher you raise the fees, the more damage you do to the public mission of making the zoo an accessible experience for low and moderate income Angelenos.  You can increase the amount of philanthropic and corporate sponsorships but that is already happening in zoos across the country.

In fact, despite recessionary budget shortfalls in cities across the country, 40 percent of all zoo operating funds still come from local governments. L.A.’s Chief Operating Officer Miguel Santana has already said that the city’s general fund will continue to need to support our zoo.

Money doesn’t grow on trees and privatization doesn’t change that.   What it does do is jeopardize the very public role of one of our most valuable and important educational institutions.

Continue Reading




Top Stories