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San Diego Zoo turns 100 amid a global debate over the treatment of animals in captivity

A century ago, a San Diego physician named Harry Wegeforth held a meeting with his brother and three other men. The topic: starting a zoo.

There were already some animals — buffalo, bears, monkeys, lions, wolves — left over from the 1915 to 1916 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, but not much else. Nobody knew where they would get more animals, where they would put them, or how they would pay for it all. The men went ahead anyway, forming the San Diego Zoological Society.

“The whole zoo was a gamble from the start,” Wegeforth later wrote, “but fortune usually favored us.”

By many measures, it favors them still. What was derided in the early days as “Wegeforth’s Folly” has become one of the most famous and respected zoos in the world — a major tourist attraction, a leader in efforts to conserve endangered plants and animals, and a thriving nonprofit that last year took in almost $30 million more than it spent. 

But the zoo begins its second century on Sunday amid a swirling public debate about the treatment of animals in captivity that has already roiled other facilities. 

In March, bowing to pressure ignited by the documentary “Blackfish,” SeaWorld announced major changes in its signature Shamu orca operation. The captive breeding of killer whales would end. And the Cirque du Soleil-like theatrics at its marine parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando would be phased out, replaced by more educational orca encounters.

A few months later, the National Aquarium in Baltimore went even further, announcing plans to move its eight bottlenose dolphins from tanks to a large seaside sanctuary, the first of its kind, off Florida or in the Caribbean.

There was more: Ringling Bros. stopped using elephants in its circus performances, ending a 145-year tradition. The government of Costa Rica, citing a shift in the public’s “environmental conscience,” said it would shutter two public zoos, sending the 400 animals to rescue centers or back to the wild.

The debate reached its emotional peak in late May, after a 4-year-old boy crawled past a barricade and fell into a moat surrounding a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla, grabbed the boy and for 10 minutes held him and dragged him around the moat by one leg. Worried about the boy’s safety, zoo officials shot and killed Harambe.

“Do gorillas even belong in zoos?” one newspaper headline asked, and another pondered a more fundamental question: “Do we even need zoos?”

Despite the controversies, zoos remain popular. According to the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit advocacy and accreditation organization, attendance continues to rise at its 215-member facilities, reaching 186 million last year — more than the number who attended pro baseball, football, basketball and hockey games combined. (The 100-acre San Diego Zoo and its 1,800-acre sister facility, the Safari Park near Escondido, drew about 5 million people.)

Amid the shifting public attitudes about how animals are treated, zoos and aquariums everywhere are putting their focus on conservation. San Diego has been moving in this direction for a long time; in 1966, then-director Charles Schroeder organized the first international conference on the roles of zoos in conservation.

There’s a reason Dwight Scott, the current director, describes his workplace not as a zoo but as “a conservation organization that manages two zoological facilities.” There’s a reason SeaWorld has put a spotlight on how it rescues stranded sea lions and other animals and, when possible, returns them to the wild.

And it’s why the zoo has boilerplate language at the end of every news release that begins, “Bringing animals back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global.”

Scott said the plan is to have “an even larger presence in the conservation world.” The zoo has 140 research projects in almost 80 countries, working with threatened or endangered species large (African elephants) and small (Pacific pocket mice). It runs the Institute for Conservation Research, with specialists in behavioral ecology, reproductive physiology and other disciplines. It has a Frozen Zoo, where genetic material from 10,000 animals is stored. It’s active in the Species Survival Plan, a program that moves animals among facilities to improve their genetic diversity and long-term sustainability.

One way zoos measure their efforts is whether the animals in their care are reproducing. Last month, the San Diego Zoo announced a couple of firsts in births for the zoo: two North Sulawesi babirusa piglets, a swine species endemic to Indonesia and considered “vulnerable” because of habitat destruction; and four black tree monitor babies, reptiles native to the Aru Islands of Papua New Guinea under pressure from logging and the pet trade.

But animal welfare groups, activists and some academics believe zoos should move away from captive breeding. Acknowledging the success of programs that have reintroduced endangered species to the wild, they argue: Why continue breeding animals if most of them are going to be consigned to a lifetime of captivity?

“For some zoos, and certainly the San Diego Zoo, the habitats for many of the animals are getting better, but the issue from an ethical point of view is: We have to rethink what our relationship is to those animals we hold captive,” said Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy who teaches courses on the ethics of captivity at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. “I’ve been arguing that developing a sanctuary ethos is the future of zoos going forward.”

She said if the San Diego Zoo were more like a sanctuary, “animals would have more choices about whether they want to be viewed or not viewed by the public, social groups would not be disrupted for breeding purposes, and they wouldn’t be sent off to other facilities for breeding.”

Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer for the zoo and the Safari Park, said breeding is important for several reasons.

“Obviously, for those species we are reintroducing into the wild, we have to breed them to have animals we can put back,” he said. With some endangered species — he mentioned the California condor and the black-footed ferret — lessons learned in breeding similar animals (the Andean condor and the domestic ferret) proved invaluable.

“One of the our main efforts is to inspire all our guests to care about wildlife,” Wiese said. “Getting up close to an elephant or feeling a bird swoop over us or seeing a bizarre-looking insect — those are opportunities to transform someone so when they go home and hear about wildlife issues they can be ready to act. To have those transformative moments, we have to have the animals. It’s easier to breed them than capture them in the wild.”

Wilkens and Weisberg write for the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

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