Woodland Park Zoo should evolve into a sanctuary for wildlife that cannot return to the wild.
WITH the recent birth of a giraffe at Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ), it has never been more evident that it is time for the zoo to move out of its 19th-century vision of exhibiting a menagerie of wild animals in cages and tanks. It needs to embrace a new vision fueled by innovation and community ethics. We call on WPZ to become an accredited 21st-century sanctuary zoo dedicated to caring for needy, mostly local wildlife and inspiring zoo visitors to conserve the wildlife and wilderness that remains.
Why is a radical re-imagining of the Seattle zoo necessary?
Our baby giraffe will spend a lifetime on display in a tiny and tedious exhibit. She will never have a home range (up to 250 square miles), a dynamic natural social life (including membership in a herd of dozens), nor the experience of living in an environment teeming with diversity. It goes without saying she will never run 35 miles per hour, anywhere, for any reason.
Life in the zoo’s giraffe exhibit will frustrate every natural instinct born in her. We know this because “Wild animals, even if they’re born in captivity, retain all their natural instincts … ,” says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
Will exhibiting our baby giraffe educate WPZ’s guests? It is hard to see how given the gross disparity between a giraffe’s natural life and the shrunken, impoverished faux-giraffe life on view. Nevertheless, no credible scientific study demonstrates “significant” learning takes place during zoo visits.
Will exhibiting the giraffe aid in her conservation? WPZ has been exhibiting giraffes since 1954. It claims it must exhibit animals like this baby giraffe in order to save them. But if “seeing” is “saving” as zoo officials like to claim, it is a hopelessly ineffective conservation tool: an estimated 40 percent of giraffes have vanished from Africa in just the last 15 years.
In light of this sad history, it seems WPZ’s business model, one shared by most American zoos, just doesn’t work. Despite billions invested for decades by zoos in themselves and millions of zoo visits, endangered wildlife populations continue to hurtle toward oblivion. Surely, it is time to embrace a new approach.
A 21st-century sanctuary zoo would stop captive breeding, allow current animals to age in place, and abandon the traditional business model of crowding as many animals as possible into small spaces. Over time, our new zoo would be made up of fewer and larger live exhibits. They would be populated with wildlife rescued from inhumane living conditions such as tigers kept as backyard pets or indigenous wildlife who cannot return to the wild due to serious injury or danger to the public. Lifetime care for needy wildlife would model compassion and respect, necessary cornerstones to inspiring active caring and conservation by zoo guests.
Just as integral, a 21st-century sanctuary zoo would deploy innovative and entertaining non-live exhibits, projects and virtual-reality experiences to communicate the rich world in which wild creatures like giraffes live. These experiences would fire up our hearts and minds to the mystery and treasure of wildlife and wild places, inspiring us to save them without first doing harm. The power of technologies to champion education and conservation of wildlife is limitless. It can open worlds utterly beyond the potential of any traditional zoo today.
Seattle’s reputation as a laboratory of innovative rigor and ethical courage makes it the perfect setting for a 21st-century sanctuary zoo. It is time for WPZ to grasp the new tools and methods at its very fingertips and save wildlife by joining the future.