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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A zoo blog, for a change

I've been blogging each week for authors using MS Word, and now I'm also writing a column for Third Degree, the newsletter of Mystery Writers of America, on the same subject. So I've decided to cut back and blog on that particular subject only once or twice a month. Time to get back to other topics!

At readings in Portland and Seattle, a few people have asked me about justifying zoos--keeping animals in cages. I have a couple of thoughts on that to share, then a recommendation or two. First, I see my zoo mysteries more as describing zoos than as defending them. Zoo keeping is a strange and wonderful way to relate to wild animals, and I love writing about it. As for defending zoos, Yann Martel did that better than I ever could in Life of Pi. If you haven't tried it yet, it's a great read.

I also would remind people that The Wild is hardly Eden. At a lecture I attended on hyenas, the scientist was asked if any of the animals had died a natural death. She had studied dozens if not hundreds of hyenas in the wild for decades. She thought for a long moment, then said, yes, one had died in her den of kidney disease. The rest had all succumbed to violence of various sorts. Out there in the natural world, animals die young from predation, fights with con-specifics, parasites, drought, starvation, etc. Let's also not forget shooting, poisoning, and trapping.

The wild is getting worse, and zoos, at least in developed countries, are getting better. But saying that is not a justification for zoos. We ought to be protecting natural habitats from the excesses of our species, and plenty of zoos need to be improved or closed. Read about Chinese zoos and shudder. But also read about the best zoos, full of animals born in zoos, and the remarkable efforts of zoo staff to keep them healthy, active, and mentally stimulated.

Most books written by zoo insiders are full of fun stories and successes. They don't much address the realities of funding, politics, antiquated facilities and techniques, sourcing animals and finding homes for superfluous ones. That brings me to my second book recommendation: Zoo Story--Life in the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French. He's not a zoo professional, he's a journalist and therefore free to tackle the tough topics. His tale of Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, and its animal staff and management is very well done. This is the first book I've seen that describes, among other challenging topics, the inevitable conflicts between the animal people and the money people. It's got lots of good animal bits as well--elephants and chimpanzees and tigers--so it's fun. An insightful book that shows what a good journalist can do when he invests years in a project.

Hyena, Sacramento Zoo


nosleepingdogs said...

You know, for a minute I saw that hyena as a remarkable little figurine marching across the windowsill above a kitchen sink, and thought "Where did she get that super hyena!"

Well, your post reminded me of this book which I've been meaning to read, and I see my library does not have it so I recommended they add it, and quoted your description of it in support. Thank you!

I still look back on my time as a zoo keeper with such a troubling mixture of feelings: gratitude and wonder (that's the animal part, having the incredible good fortune of spending so much time around them), mixed with less positive feelings (that's the working-in-an-institution part). It makes it hard to answer questions such as you began with, when people want justification for zoos.

Your answer is the one there is: zoos aren't perfect, many aren't even good, but most of the animals in zoos would last about 2 weeks if returned to the wild, before becoming dinner, sport, or perishing for lack of what they used to eat. "The perfect is the enemy of the good." By which I mean that the illusion of "the wild" is used to criticise zoos.

Our only option is to work on both ends as much as we can, and keep as many animals as we can alive and breeding in good conditions.

Your wordy friend,


Marian Allen said...

My mother and I *love* LIFE OF PI! I was telling her about your post and she said, "She should have said something about LIFE OF PI." When I told her you did, she was a very happy lady. She buys copies whenever she can find them, so she'll have some to give away and still have two to keep--one on tape and one in paper!

Marian Allen

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