Questions from young person and my answers
A friend’s son interviewed me for an assignment. Here are the Qs and As if you want em.
1) Are the animals at your zoo happy that they are being held captive?
2) How well do you know the animals at your zoo?
3) How well do you treat the animals at your zoo?
4) Are there more animals at your zoo that are there to be saved , and not just for entertainment? If so, how many more animals are there to be saved?
5) Does your zoo take care of Panamanian Golden Frogs?
Thanks for your thoughtful questions! I answered them in between tasks while I was working, so I hope the answers make sense. You chose a couple subjects that I am passionate about, so I was very excited to talk about them. If there are things in my answers that need clarification, please let me know, or feel free to ask follow up questions.
Best of luck with the assignment!
1) It’s not clear that animals can understand the idea of “captivity.” Humans feel very strongly about the concepts of freedom and captivity, to the point that we punish lawbreakers by putting them in captivity. But animals don’t seem to have much ability to think about the future, or to imagine things other than what they are experiencing. What we do at a zoo is to give the animals as many choices as possible—places to go and experiences to have—within the space that we can safely give them. We also have a hard time telling if animals are “happy” or not, since that is also human concept. We try to provide an environment that has everything the animal physically needs in order to be comfortable and healthy, with enough choices so they can demonstrate whether they are suffering stress or not.
2) Some animals I know very well, some not as much. As a quarantine keeper, I take care of almost every animal in the zoo eventually, but only for a limited time, usually 30 days. Other keepers work with a limited group of animals and may work with those animals for many years. Almost every animal at the zoo has a training program, with a keeper whose job it is to work with that animal, understand its behavior, and use positive reinforcement training techniques to get the animal to do certain things willingly. Most of the animals, for example, are trained to go to a specific place and wait there—when an animal can do this willingly, we can weigh it on a regular basis, visually examine its body for injuries or other changes that might indicate a change in its health, and so on. We even have several gorillas who are trained to offer their shoulder so that we can give them a flu vaccine. The zookeepers who train their animals know them very well.
3) We like to think that we treat the animals very well, and that as we learn more about animal husbandry and veterinary medicine, that we are treating them better now than we were just a few years ago. We have access to the latest science about animal nutrition so that the animals can get the best possible types of food available for their health. We have three veterinarians on staff and four veterinary technicians so that if any of the animals gets sick or hurt they can be taken care of right away. The animals all get regular vaccinations and physical examinations. The keepers are very protective of the animals—if they think there is something a little “off” about an animal they will let the vet staff know immediately. We provide “enrichment” for all the animals, which is our way of saying we give them toys and games, but also expose them to interesting smells (the big cats love the smell of sheep’s wool, for example) and sounds. We have an enrichment committee whose job it is to make sure that all of the animals are receiving enrichment which is safe, species-appropriate, and effective. (Enrichment is considered effective if the animal interacts with it in a way that displays normal behavior—playing outside is good enrichment for human children because it causes the children to climb and play and throw and dig and all the other normal human child behaviors).
4) When I think of animals at the zoo being there for “entertainment,” it makes me wonder if people think that the exhibits in a science museum are entertaining, or if visitors to an arboretum think the trees are entertaining. Zoos are science museums that exhibit animals and animal behavior—and it’s true, animals and animal behavior can be entertaining. Everyone finds monkeys and tigers entertaining, but what about the frogs, or songbirds, or insects? We want all of the exhibits to be interesting, we want people to want to experience the zoo in a positive way.
Back in the bad old days zoos would allow guests to throw things at the animals, or feed them unhealthy things. We do not allow any kind of “entertainment” that is detrimental to the animals. We allow guests to interact with some animals, like petting the goats or feeding the parakeets or walking among the butterflies—each of these activities is carefully monitored so that the guests can have a good time without doing anything that could harm the animals.
Many of the animals at the zoo belong to species that are endangered, some very endangered. Gorillas, pygmy hippos, and mandrills are all animals from parts of Africa where habitat is disappearing and it wouldn’t be safe to release more animals into the habitat. All of the zoos in North America work carefully with one another to exchange animals when necessary to make sure that the zoo population is stable and that no more endangered animals will be taken from the wild to replace them.
You probably know that zoos are responsible for rescuing certain species of animals from extinction, like the black-footed ferret, the California condor, the golden lion tamarin, and recently the Lord Howe stick insect. The zoo I work for has brought Siberian crane eggs (laid by our birds) to be raised in Russia, preserved vital DNA and gametes (reproductive cells) from Mexican gray wolves, we helped save Bali mynahs (a kind of bird) from disappearing completely into the pet trade, and we help out with Blanding’s turtle recovery efforts here in Massachusetts. None of the animals we keep are there just so they can be released to the wild, but it’s something that could happen in the future. Because zoos hire and train people who are experts at caring for, training, breeding, and providing health care for animals, zoos are the logical places for these recovery efforts to be located.
There are thousands of species of animals that are in need of protection and recovery. Zoos are one piece of it, along with protecting habitat, conserving resources (recycling!), and changing the way that we treat animals and their environments around the world.
5) At the moment we don’t have any Panamanian golden frogs, but we have cared for them here. I’m super glad you brought them up because they are part of one of the most amazing projects I’ve been involved with at the zoo. My boss, the head veterinarian here, was on a team of researchers who joined scientists in Panama to study the impact of the fungal disease that is killing so many species of frogs. They determined that the problem was severe, even worse than they expected, and if no one did anything the Panamanian golden frog and dozens of other frog species would be wiped out. They created a project called the Amphibian ARK, like Noah’s Ark, to rescue the frogs. They are keeping the frogs in disease-free quarantine spaces, in Panama but also in zoos all around the world. If they hadn’t acted fast these frogs would just be gone. The frogs are being bred and protected, at the same time that the disease is being studied. It’s pretty complicated stuff that I don’t fully understand, but I think some of the effort will be to breed and release many thousands of tadpoles—there will likely be some that are more resistant to the disease, and they will pass their genes on to the next generation.
A few years ago I was privileged to take care of 15 Panamanian golden frogs in the zoo hospital where I worked. It was amazing to think that I was working with an animal species that had completely disappeared from the wild, and that I was one of a handful of people who had ever seen one. Of course, once they were put on exhibit, then hundreds of people could see them, and learn the story. Someone will be inspired by the experience to figure out what we need to do to keep the frogs from going extinct, and then they will be wild, and we will have prevented extinction.