For many years my wife and I were enthusiastic supporters of Wildlife Preservation Trust International (WPTI). We had learned about the organization on the final page of Gerald Durrell's book, The Stationary Ark, described on its dust-jacket as "A warm, wise and funny account of his struggles to create the perfect zoo." I had enjoyed Durrell's writing since I first encountered it in My Family and Other Animals, so I was drawn to this particular volume as a narrative account of the author's efforts to turn an ideal vision into a reality. As a result of becoming WPTI members, we got to see that reality on the Channel Island of Jersey (while also indulging in some tourism that we had not previously anticipated, the most interesting being the neighboring island of Sark). Obviously, the "Durrell zoo" was presented to us in the most favorable possible light, as was its underlying ideology: The primary function of a zoo should be the captive breeding of endangered species; any other services (such as exposing the general public to the extensive diversity of wildlife) are secondary. It probably helped that, as strong supporters of the Los Angeles Zoo (where, during our stay in Los Angeles, we "adopted" two animals and one tile in a new exhibition space), we had carried a certain "prestige by association," because the Los Angeles Zoo had strong ties, both ideological and personal, to the Jersey zoo. When we eventually let our WPTI membership lapse, it was not out of any disagreement with or opposition to their activities, but as result of economizing by reviewing the priorities of our tax-deductible donations.
Over the years, however, I have become more and more skeptical of any ideology and more and more likely to tease out arguments to challenge such ideologies (my most recent example on this blog being my interest in Michael Pollan taking on the ideology of "nutritionism"). So it is that, for all the joy I derived from reading Durrell and subsequently visiting his "perfect zoo," I now find myself questioning his ideology in light of recent "zoo news." Most important is probably what I would like to call the "consequences of Knut" (since another of my favorite themes on this blog has been the need to recognize that all actions have consequences). Just to be honest about my own position, I was as caught up in the story of "cute Knut" at the Berlin Zoo as anyone, sharing each new batch of photographs with my wife and animal-loving colleagues; but last July I also made it a point to write a post that Knut was not going to stay cute forever. Now we have the provisionally-named Snowflake (actually "Flocke") at the Nuremberg Zoo and the same media players recognizing that there is good business in photographs of baby animals.
This time around, however, things began on controversial notes that just seem to be getting more dissonant. The Nuremberg curators had two pregnant polar bears in their enclosure; and they decided that it was important not to interfere with the natural processes of birth and early child-rearing. Here is how deputy director Helmut Mägdefrau put it to SPIEGEL ONLINE:
Berlin Zoo did a terrific job hand-rearing Knut from day one. But we want to avoid Knutomania at all costs. If people spend hours queuing up to see a polar bear cub, there's something wrong.
Mägdefrau elaborated on his position as follows:
If something goes wrong, it goes wrong. If you don't let the mothers practice, they'll never learn how to bring up their cubs. We have two young mothers here and if something goes wrong they'll always have other opportunities.
Well, true to Murphy's Law, things did go wrong; and Frank Thadeusz now has an extended analysis of the "state of play" at SPIEGEL ONLINE. Here is how he set up that analysis with what actually happened in Nuremberg:
In early January, two pregnant polar bears at Nuremberg Zoo in Bavaria showed the public just how merciless nature really is -- and delivered a dose of bad PR to the polar bear cause.
One of the females, Vera, staggered through the enclosure with her cub, still blind after birth, in her mouth, dropping it on the stone surface several times. Zoo personnel removed the cub after concluding that the bear was incapable of raising her own young. A short time later another female, Vilma, attacked her twin cubs and promptly ate them.
However, this turned out to be more than a simple tale of Tennyson's "nature, red in tooth and claw," as Thadeusz discovered by going to a nature expert:
But for biologists the events in Nuremberg are not surprising. "Attempts to breed polar bears in zoos fail in 70 to 80 percent of cases," says Frank Albrecht, an animal conservation expert.
These failures are documented by the international polar bear breeding records -- a sort of Arctic stud book -- maintained by the zoo in the northern German city of Rostock. The damning records are kept tightly under wraps -- and for good reason, Albrecht believes. If the records were more accessible, "people would think that there was something a bit fishy about the whole business," he says.
In other words Albrecht was holding up to question that ideological position on the merit of captive breeding, at least where polar bears are involved. This, of course, has its own consequences for public relations, since the threat to the natural habitat of the polar bear has become a measure issue for those concerned about the climate crisis. Here is some more of the "expert opinions" that Thadeusz turned up in his research:
But despite public perception, polar bears in zoos endure a wretched existence. "Keeping polar bears in enclosures is as unnatural for the species as locking a child in a tiny room for the rest of his life," says Rüdiger Schmiedel, director of the German Bear Foundation.
Given the conditions of captivity, Vilma's gruesome attack on her own offspring is not surprising. In their natural environment, polar bears, which are typically loners, rarely encounter other adult members of their species.
In a zoo, on the other hand, the animals are intensively exposed to the smells of their fellow bears in neighboring enclosures. This orgy of scent is extremely stressful for the bears, especially the females, and usually has devastating consequences for their upcoming motherhood. "Any minor disturbance can lead to failure," says Albrecht.
After a series of incidents that were frustrating for staff and horrifying for visitors, zoos in the German cities of Leipzig, Erfurt, Halle, Schwerin, Duisburg and Frankfurt abandoned any plans to increase their polar bear inventories through internal breeding programs.
Even worse was an observation by zoo biologist Peter Arras, who described Knut's current behavior, now at the age of a young adult, as psychopathic.
This analysis had a particularly strong impact on me, not just because of my previous endorsement of captive breeding but also because it offered another light for viewing the recent tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo. Fortunately, the San Francisco Bay Guardian was able to recruit a reporter with even more direct experience than Thadeusz had. The result was an extended analysis with the rather rare feature of a first-person subhead, reflecting the position of author Craig McLaughlin from the get-go:
I grew up with tigers. I built tiger pens. And the tiger grotto at the privatized San Francisco Zoo was a disaster waiting to happen
The "disaster" in this case involved Tatiana, a Siberian tiger, attacking three young men visiting the zoo, killing one of them and then being killed, as McLaughlin put it, "for being a tiger." McLaughlin's article never takes a stand on captive breeding. Rather it is written as an analysis of what happens when the people in charge do not know what they are doing, which generalizes beyond captive breeding to the entire question of how a zoo should be operated.
Taken together, polar bears and tigers have a lot to teach us about what I have come to regard as the most dangerous barbarism in the English language: edutainment. Yes, there is much to be learned from the behavior of all animals, regardless of how near or far they may be from us in current taxonomic classifications. However, as long as zoos have to labor under obligations to be run as successful businesses, it is unreasonable to assume that they will provide us with educational value where animal behavior is concerned; and, even worse, it is unreasonable to assume that their operational interest in entertainment will be anything but harmful to the animals they keep. To be fair Durrell never wanted to be interested in entertainment (except when it came to making his prose entertaining); but we have no idea if his position is or will be shared by the once and future management of the Jersey zoo. (By the same count, Durrell was never interested in educating the general public but only the small sector of the community of biologists concerned about endangered species.) Thus the more general lesson that concerns me involves a broader question: If the interests of edutainment lead to such disastrous consequences where animal behavior is concerned, what kinds of consequences are likely to ensue from other bodies of subject matter? Think about that the next time you get a pitch from an "edutainment evangelist!"