I had the privilege to meet Dr. G. Stafford several times. We had some great talks over time what gave me more inspiration to make sure our community goes forward in what we are good at. Dr. Stafford is one of the advocates that fights for the animals we care for. I can honestly say that he would be one of the guys who I’m looking up to. The first time I came in contact with him was actually not in person nor by email. Dr. G.Stafford wrote a book called Zoomility. The Book is a great asset in my assortment and I keep on telling others to read it as well. The book is simple to read and gives you flashbacks to your own animal training experiences, definitely one to suggest for the trainers out there. The book gave me the first contact with Grey.
If you are interested in his book you can order it right here:
Observations From an Ageing Zoo Guy
Recently, I gave an interview to a researcher who was examining career paths across a broad range of disciplines. It was an opportunity to reflect on how fortunate I have been with so many wonderful experiences working with animals. This rather personal trip down professional memory lane was punctuated by a self-assessment I had not considered before, much less made public.
Nearing the end of the conversation, to my surprise and that of the researcher, I offered that “…in many ways my career has been a failure.”
That’s not easy to ponder at any age or stage of one’s career. Armed with science and a sense of awe and humor, like so many of my colleagues I’ve spent the past few decades trying to improve the welfare of animals by inspiring people to focus on and reinforce their animal’s successes, rather than fixating on their faults. I’ve happily shared my own miscues with hundreds of wild and domestic animals in front of the camera lens and live audiences if it meant one more species heralded, one more worthy conservation cause supported, or one more human heart opened up to the idea of improving the lives of animals. Like many a zoo guy and gal, I’ve often repeated conservation success stories like the-once-thought-extinct black footed ferret; the zoo-led recovery of the California condor from less than 2 dozen to over 400 hundred; the fledgling repopulation of wild Arabian and scimitar-horned oryx; the industry, landowner, government, and zoo-led comeback of the American alligator; and about a dozen other hopeful, yet forever transient outcomes. Transient because like the stock market, past population gains are no guarantee of future ones. Already, some key endangered hoof-stock species number less in zoos today than they did from their peak values barely a decade ago due to things like space limitations and changing priorities.
And I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with peers to defend the zoological community from false and undeserved attacks designed, not to improve animal welfare on the ground or in the sea, but to line the pockets of industrial-sized animal rights organizations. And yet, it’s tough to realize that the work you’ve done for so long has failed to move the needle significantly.
Consider the most damning evidence:
The ZSL and WWF recently reported that of the 3700 species for which there is data, global populations have declined an average of 60% in the last 50 years.
While that conclusion has its skeptics because several regions in the study are underrepresented with comparatively scant research, it is also unlikely those underreported regions are faring much better than the average of those regions and species that are well studied. The little bit of good news we may infer from the report is that we still have most of those species around, albeit in much lower numbers from which we might one day rebuild populations. Still, other scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate.
Faceless numbers like these are hard to ignore, but they don’t tell the whole story. Several years ago, on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, I got a glimpse of “lonesome George,” the last living specimen of the Pinta Island tortoise. I can’t put into words the impact that news of George’s passing a few years later–the last of his kind—has had on me to this day. Sure, as an animal manager I’ve said goodbye to many individuals but never to an entire species that once existed during my lifetime. The closest experience I can compare it to would be visiting the natural history museum and seeing preserved specimens of the dodo, the passenger pigeon and other notable species that have disappeared recently within the last 50 to 100 years. It’s a solemn thing. Does all this mean I’ve lost faith in the value of good zoos? Hardly. Modern zoos matter more today than ever to ensuring the survival of the planet. Still, present day population and habitat realities require me to consider the possibility that my career has largely been a failure, and as a result, the future stands to pay a hefty price.
Normally opposed to such personal drama, this self-realization probably deserves a little closer inspection. So here, my zoo friends, are some hard truths through 2016 combined with some early results for 2017. Increasingly, dedicated animal professionals that routinely think nothing of working any hour of the day or night to ensure their animals are well cared for are publicly accused of lining their pockets at the expense of animal welfare. Some are threatened through social media with physical harm or have had their family’s private info posted online. World-class reproductive science and breeding programs are tossed aside in favor of a new vision of parks mostly or entirely devoid of animals–not unlike our forests, skies, and oceans- only to be replaced by generic roller coasters or fancy video games. Some trade associations seem more concerned about cementing a dwindling power base and market share than supporting the members by and for which they were created. Meanwhile, charlatans have entrenched themselves inside political, legal, travel industry, media, and even zoological spheres of influence as “ethical” or by co-opting the word “humane” from the local pet shelters that actually do great work for animals in need. These pretenders grow richer and more powerful by misleading (i.e., alt facts) well-intentioned people, the media, state after state legislatures, and even Congress about where to focus their anger, frustration, votes, and money in order to help animals. As a result, good zoos are viewed with suspicion, while stamping the word “sanctuary” on a facility with the very same needs as zoos to generate adequate operating income is seen as a guarantee of great animal welfare. It’s not.
As for the planet, sea ice has diminished to levels never observed by modern Man, global temperatures set another record high breaking the previous year’s record highs, and human-made plastic debris has become so widespread it is likely irrevocably embedded in the food chain that includes those of us at the top. And then there are the policy unknowns of a new Administration…
Ironically, we all know the true sources of Earth’s environmental problems: pollution, overpopulation, over-fishing, habitat loss, greed, ocean acidification, deforestation for lumber and agriculture, desertification, loss of animal and plant biodiversity, organized crime, poaching, invasive species, poverty, lack of education and opportunity, climate change, and of course, overpopulation. Even the critics of public display know deep down that modern, ethical zoos and zoo professionals aren’t driving these problems, but that truth doesn’t fill the activists’ coffers. So, the anti-zoo narratives multiply and become “reality.” Reason, science, conservation, education, inspiration, and rescue be damned.
The truth about our planet is this, we are all dying. And we either don’t seem to know it, choose to turn a blind eye to it, or worse, we are fully aware of our collective fate and we just don’t give a damn as long as we get ours today. That the Earth will ultimately survive human beings, there is no doubt. The planet will achieve some new equilibrium, eventually. The question is whether we humans will be around in any great number or condition once it has.
Well…..that just sucks, doesn’t it? Admittedly, this dark assessment leaves me way outside of my comfort zone of highlighting good and happier wildlife news like I have for so long. If things are so grim, what is a committed and passionate zoo professional, fan, visitor, or otherwise interested Earth inhabitant to think or do?
Without adopting the callous and deceptive methods of personal destruction used by our critics, the short answer is we have to starting calling BS whenever and wherever it occurs, even if it hits close to home within our own community. Maintaining our credibility is everything.
And while we’re at it,
We have to do a better and more frequent job of sharing our experiences caring for, studying, managing, preserving, training and enriching, and presenting animals to people, especially those that rarely visit zoos and aquariums. Yes, we need to share the science, but it’s OK to let the public see how much animals mean to us on a personal level, too. My friend Jungle Jack describes it this way, “touch the heart to teach the mind.” Too many zoos have taken all references to having fun from their messaging, as if cracking a smile in front of an animal is a crime—what a huge mistake!
We should describe Nature accurately, with all its fragmented and degraded parts; not romantically as it once may have been, but realistically, as it exists today with more than 7B, soon to be 9B consumers. Each gobbling up ground water, sources of protein, fossil fuels, forests, and other finite resources as if there’s a limitless supply waiting to be discovered just beyond the horizon. There isn’t.
Whether our audience is a few or few million, we have to stop perpetuating the very lies we are trying to dispel. Using peer-reviewed data to educate and inform people about the truth is vital in an “alt fact” era, but it may not always be the place to start the conversation. Studies show people tend to tune out when presented a lot of facts, remembering just the lies that we want to refute. And, for those holding strong opinions, the more data we push, the more they’re likely to ignore the facts and stay entrenched with those false opinions. So, there’s an important lesson we can learn from this aspect of human nature and learning: stop wasting precious time and opportunities to hold the public’s attention by tacitly or purposefully restating the false premises of our critics before we even begin to share compelling science-based stories about the individuals in our care. Our focus should always be on the vast majority of people that still appreciate the work of zoos.
Rather than defense then, we ought to be on offense by heralding the many positive contributions of zoos, while at the same time holding critics accountable with inquiries like:
“Why aren’t you defending the few remaining places like modern zoos, private collections, and managed parks where species and individuals can and do thrive?”
“Where else are humans going to learn and develop the knowledge necessary to preserve what’s left of the planet’s fragmented and degraded ecosystems?”
“Who else has the advanced skill sets needed to maintain, much less improve, these shrinking wildlife islands, or what you romantically call the ‘wild’?”
“How can you justify costly lawsuits and media campaigns demanding to put animals born and thriving in human care into degraded and polluted wild habitats that are unable to support many of the wild born animals already found there?”
Conversely, we must be doing the things, large and small, on camera or off that we publicly say we are doing to ensure the animals in our care are receiving the best possible welfare. At this critical juncture in human history, I can think of no bigger professional tragedy than conducting ourselves in a manner that suggests the critics are right about us.
We have to vote. We have to lobby. To do that, we first have to know the science, current events, the issues, the laws, the players, and our profession’s history and learning curve. We have to call and inform our elected representatives often. It isn’t enough to “like” this or that on social media, or to show up to a rally. Officials at the local and national levels must know that policy decisions have consequences at the ballot box. Our complacency means extinction.
And speaking of politics, regardless of party, we ought to strengthen alliances and build new ones across the zoological, farm, and domestic animal communities, within state legislatures and Congress, the business community, the public, and the media. Similarly, if some sectors unfairly and unscientifically align against the public display community, we should call them on it and vocally support their competitors. Looking at you Trip Advisor and Virgin.
It’s important to realise we aren’t going to persuade everyone. Make peace with the fact some people and more than a few powerful interests are and will continue to be OK with a warmer planet, the end to zoos and aquariums, less sea ice, producing more palm oil at the expense of rainforests and primates, and far fewer species, etc. Don’t get lost in the incessant debates staged by those whose interests are served by delaying and distracting the public from making meaningful changes towards greater sustainability. Instead, focus on building entrepreneurial, economically competitive solutions with private and public partners. A long-term conservation effort has to be economically viable if it is to succeed. For example, no one cares about saving elephants for future generations, if their kids are starving or denied safe access to an education today. So, let’s not make “the perfect be the enemy of the good” when it comes to those solutions.
We have to do more than simply show up at work and care for our animals. All important as that is, it’s no longer enough. We can’t simply lose ourselves training and caring for animals each day and ignore the forces actively working to take your careers away. Zookeepers, trainers, aquarists, veterinarians, educators, staff scientists, administrators, board members, donors, docents, PR professionals, and zoo-goers, we all have to stop waiting for someone else to speak up, stand up, or show up to support good zoos and indirectly, to save species and the planet.
As difficult as things may seem at this moment in history, we must not lose our senses of humor or take ourselves too seriously all of the time. Every zoo guy or gal has moments of weakness when an overwhelming sense of despair can set in about the current trajectory of life on earth. It certainly has for me at times. Try to keep the joy in sight; save your money and visit Africa—it will fundamentally change who you are for the better. For Nature is still awesome and she has a wicked sense of humor, if we just pay attention long enough. Celebrate and share that.
Most of all, stop apologizing for doing the great work you do. Period. Millions of domestic, wild, and farm animals experience far greater welfare today because of the work originated by marine mammal trainers. Period. And, if humans are going to save species in a crowded and depleted world, modern positive reinforcement-based trainers will have to play a major role.
There’s just too much at stake to rollover and give up. And further failure is not an option.