Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jurassic Park + Sophie's Choice = the Future of Zoos?

Photo by Wer-al Zwowe/Wikimedia
Zoos have become valuable reservoirs of genetic diversity, offering a flickering possibility of survival on the vast and swiftly darkening horizon of extinction.

But the naysayers, always poised to jump in with a good dose of gloom, are probably right in this case: zoos can't save every species on the planet. Not even close. 

Let me put it into perspective: The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that nearly one-fourth of all mammals face extinction within about three generations. The forecast is worse for amphibians and birds. 

This ecological crisis is forcing zoos into a role that is far more demanding than the old days when it was all about showcasing animals for public amusement. 

Zoos are now facing tough decisions. In order to step up to the global plate and defend declining species effectively, zookeepers are being asked to make calculated choices, prioritizing the protection and propagation of species that have the best odds of survival in the wild. Did you ever see Sophie's Choice? I didn't, but I know the gist, and it's sad.
At the same time, zoos are exploring frontiers of science that would make Captain Kirk and Michael Crichton proud. Visionaries from around the world gathered at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York for the Symposium on the Future of Zoos earlier this year, scheming up some sci-fi visions of the future that don't exactly jive with the mission of endangered species conservation:

- Cloning … probably not dinosaurs, but a variety of other extinct species are being considered (woolly mammoths are potential cloning candidates since their DNA has been preserved in permafrost)

- Zoos full of robotic animals because robots are "safer and more accessible than their living counterparts"  
Hmmm …

My 5-year-old son would dig the robots, but I'm not feeling the vibe.  

Nevertheless, Paul Waldau, Associate Professor of Anthrozoology at Canisius made a good point: "Lots of zoo work is very attuned to the best of conservation. The leading zoos have been exemplary at trying to get people to pay attention to this, because even if zoos do everything right and the people don't follow, we're in trouble."


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