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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The idea of a zoo can be a fairly ironic one. Visitors flock to them to observe wildlife, yet the animals are held captive in foreign habitats. Zoo-goers are generally animal lovers looking to be enlightened or enchanted by encounters with apes, elephants and tigers, but often leave zoos feeling depressed after seeing the animals pacing neurotically or lying about listlessly. Author Vicki Croke (croak) tells Steve Curwood that she shares those feelings. In her new book, The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future she says many of the animals in zoos are suffering from mental illness.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When you think about it, the idea of a zoo is an ironic one. We flock to them to observe wildlife, yet the animals are held captive in foreign habitats. We zoo-goers are generally animal lovers, looking to be enlightened or enchanted by our encounters with the apes, the elephants, and the tigers. But we often leave zoos feeling depressed after seeing the animals pacing neurotically or lying about listlessly. Author Vicki Croke shares those feelings. In her new book The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future, she says many of the animals in our zoos are suffering from mental illness.

CROKE: They exhibit the kinds of behaviors we see in human beings who are locked up or are in solitary confinement. I was able to interview Dr. Nicholas Dodman from Tufts Vet School. He's a brain chemistry expert and it's his estimate that a third to half of all the animals in the best zoos in the country are suffering from neurotic behaviors that we've all seen. We may not know that it involves dopamine and serotonin and that it's called stereotypic behavior, but we do know that it's sad to see a tiger grimly pacing back and forth.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the really smart animals? Is it ethical to keep them at the zoo? The primates, the elephants, the dolphins, the ones that probably talk as well as we do?

CROKE: That is an important question facing zoos today, particularly because -- I mean, let's look at elephants. We know how smart they are. They can be altruistic in the wild. They live in large, complex societies. They help one another through mating; there's something called mating pandemonium. They all join in the act when an elephant mother gives birth. Usually a sister or niece will help her in the birthing process, help her raise her baby. Phenomenal animals. And then what do we do? Well, we take them here to the United States and we keep them either singly or in pairs. They have nothing to do in their dusty enclosure. That's a travesty, and lots of people wonder should we keep them at all? And part of the reason we wonder that now is that elephants kill more handlers every year than every other animal.

CURWOOD: They're mad.

CROKE: That's right. And it's surprising they don't kill more people. The director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence doesn't think we ought to keep elephants in captivity and he's got 3 elephants at his zoo.

CURWOOD: Here in Boston we have Franklin Park Zoo. There the gorillas are housed indoors behind a glass panel. I've seen them throw their feces. Sometimes they eat it. This is not normal for gorillas.


CURWOOD: This is indicative of really serious distress?

CROKE: Right. Most of these, what we call stereotypic behaviors are things that you would never see in the wild. I don't like indoor rainforest pavilions. They're very expensive to build and horribly expensive to maintain. And they just don't get the job done.

CURWOOD: But what's a zoo like Boston supposed to do if they want to have tropical animals? They can't very well have one that's open to the outdoors.

CROKE: Maybe in the colder climates we ought not have tropical animals. Maybe we shouldn't have so many. If we can't bring them indoors in a good way in the winter, maybe we just shouldn't have them.

CURWOOD: Well, wait a second. The whole idea behind zoos is to see animals that don't live in our neighborhoods.

CROKE: I think that in general we ought to have fewer animals at the zoo. That's what Zoo Atlanta did. They halved the number of species and they went from being one of the worst zoos in the country to one of the best.

CURWOOD: In your travels all around the country, when you've looked at the new wave of renovations that take place in zoos, what innovations seem to work?

CROKE: The ones that do work are those in which the animals are given enough space. Psychological space as well as physical space. And that means giving them plenty to do. You know, what's interesting is that the zoo in Portland, Oregon, it's a really nasty looking old zoo. However, inside those exhibits they have a fulltime enrichment expert, and he fills them with branches and hides food and makes their space inside that cage much more interesting for them. And once an animal has to hunt for its food rather than just be given a lump of carne fare or monkey chow, transforms their environment for them. They look at their space in a different way even when there's no food out.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Now, I'm wondering if zoos are necessary, even. I mean, after all, I can go down to the corner video store and rent a film about animals doing all sorts of amazing things out in the wild. I can see lions racing and mating and sunning. Protecting their young. So why not just replace zoos with, say, large screen movie theaters?

CROKE: I think that zoos of the future will combine both aspects. And the other night I did a reading with my book, and in fact the Franklin Park Zoo brought some education animals over and the audience just went crazy to be able to touch a snake or talk to a parrot. And it made my point for me. When you can make eye contact with an animal, even smell it, and watch what it does, have it look at you, that's the ultimate zoo goer experience. I was in Tacoma and it was a rainy, cold day. There was no other zoo goer. I was writing notes in my notebook, and I looked up into this underwater tank and there was another set of eyes on the other side looking at me. And I thought, is this fur seal really looking at me? So I moved to the right and it moved to the right. And I moved to the left and she moved to the left. And so I started running back and forth and she followed every one of my movements. And I moved my pen in a circle on the glass and she swam in a circle. That's the ultimate. I mean, there's no way that a film is every going to do for me what that half hour with Duffy did.

CURWOOD: We need these animals.

CROKE: I think we do, and people have written about this. E.O. Wilson here at Harvard has talked about biophilia. That there's this evolutionary genetic need to be close to nature. And then others who are in the spiritual realm, Harold Kushner has talked about zoos being a cathedral to nature. And I think that there is something even spiritual about touching and being close to nature, and that the more urban our society gets, the more we need places like zoos.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Vicki Croke is author of The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future.

CROKE: Thank you, Steve.



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