Southern California witnessed wildlife evolution this week. Not genetic changes to animals, but, rather, an evolution in the thinking of zoos and that giant aquarium company, SeaWorld.
Two important decisions were made at nearly the same time: SeaWorld announced on Thursday that it would end its captive breeding program for orcas in all of its water parks and phase out its trained killer whale shows as well. The whales — which are actually large dolphins — will live out their lives at SeaWorld, on exhibit but not performing in shows. The day before, the Los Angeles Zoo said that it would not ask for P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion, to be killed or relocated after it apparently got into the koala exhibit and killed one of the marsupials on display.
Both developments are encouraging signs that animal-display parks are beginning to mature.
What is the purpose of a zoo, when you think about it? When I was a kid, the main idea was clearly a mildly edified form of entertainment. Elephants were chained and ate the peanuts that we held out. Big cats paced balefully behind the glass of their small enclosures. Of course, "endangered species" wasn't a common phrase in those days, and few bothered thinking of whether a tiger felt miserable in its little room. We were certain the pacing was merely the cat trying to figure out how to eat us.
The San Diego Zoo helped lead the way to a more educational and humane sort of zoo — one that featured large enclosures rather than small cages, though the cats were still cramped behind bars. It added informational signs to help us appreciate the wonders of what we saw. Other zoos followed suit.
And then came the new era, which is far from being universal: zoos and aquariums acting as active partners of preservationists in preserving wildlife, and sometimes placing responsibility to animal life over their mission of drawing in customers. Think of the San Francisco Zoo closing its elephant exhibit and sending its elephants to a sanctuary after officials realized that a half-acre enclosure was not a humane way to keep the animals.
A captive breeding program in zoos restored Przewalski's wild horse, which was down to a population of about a dozen, back to the wild.
Now, the L.A. Zoo's decision this week marks another important shift in the way we think about zoos' relationship with animals. There isn't much point to an educational exhibit of wild animals if those animals are then used as an excuse to kill or relocate the truly wild animals that are native to the area. Zoo officials took the responsibility on themselves: They'll have to build puma-proof exhibits rather than kill the pumas to protect existing exhibits. Mountain lions were here before the zoos, and though it's nice to think that they'd all remain wild enough to stay away from a human-built development, we can't put food in their way and blame them when they eat it.
The more disturbing part of the story is that if the zoo had asked for a depredation permit to have P-22 killed, California's Department of Fish and Wildlife would have granted it. We need more protective laws if they would allow the killing of a wild animal for engaging in one-time natural behavior that didn't threaten people.
The change at SeaWorld was, of course, propelled by finances. Now that the public knows more about orcas — their close-knit family ties in nature, their intelligence, longevity and the fact that they swim up to 100 miles a day — it has been turning against the splashy shows. SeaWorld is patting itself on the back for this: If there had been no Shamu leaping from its pool, officials say, the public wouldn't appreciate orcas enough to demand that they not be kept in captivity. The orca displays do impress people and have helped make the animals iconic, but in truth, nature shows are doing more for the public's understanding of wildlife than displays in sterile-looking pools.
Wild animals have their own reasons for existing that have nothing to do with whether they feed or entertain us, or even make us feel good about ourselves. It's not about us. Maybe we're beginning to understand that.
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