Story+ Photo by MEGAN DAVIS
Zoos are more than just a place where kids go to gawk at animals in cages, while eating cotton candy. Historically, some zoos were that way, but now they are moving beyond mere entertainment to focus on education and conservation.
The East Bay Zoological Society managed the Oakland Zoo until August 2017, when it was named The Conservation Society of California, to better represent its goals. The Oakland Zoo is currently partnered with around 30 different conservation organizations around the world. It is also a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the largest conservation organization in the United States. The Oakland Zoo is doing its part to help animals in the wild that are on the brink of extinction. I’ve learned this and much more over the past three years, as a volunteer at the Oakland Zoo.
The Oakland Zoo educates the public about the decreasing animal populations in the wild and provides ways that they can help with conservation. For example, I volunteer at a table where the public can help conservation by purchasing Kibale Beads made out of recycled paper. People can make bracelets, necklaces or key chains out of the beads, or buy jewelry that is already made. The beads are made by a community of women, who live near Kibale National Park in Uganda. The Oakland Zoo purchases the beads from the women and then all of the proceeds from sales go to the Budongo Snare Removal Project, an organization which helps chimpanzees in the wild.
Conservation Specialist Adrienne Mrsny says, My position is a lot of managing outreach, so it’s really important to us to make sure that people coming to the zoo don’t just leave with ‘Oh cool I saw a bear today,’ but with a message of, ‘when I’m up in Tahoe, I know how to behave around animals in the area; I know what to do with my trash, so that bears don’t get into trouble for seeking out human food; I know about this whole new ecosystem I wasn’t aware of before I came to this exhibit.’
For an opposing viewpoint, I interviewed Nama Atid, who is the owner and main veterinarian at the Cheshire Cat Clinic in Oakland. I don’t think zoos are the right way to show kids animals,” she said, “It’s showing an animal in an unnatural habitat. We don’t necessarily have an inherent right to see animals unless they are in their natural habitats. We have a right to see deer because they are natural to this land.
On the other hand, maybe it’s seeing animals in cages and knowing that they are endangered in the wild that causes people to go and take action.
Mrsny has not always believed that zoos can do good, but has come to learn the benefits during her time working at the Oakland Zoo. My original thought growing up was that all zoos are horrible. I grew up seeing the elephants at the San Francisco Zoo in their tiny enclosures and my grandmother taking us to Barnum and Bailey and seeing lions in cages and tigers with chains and I just really didn’t think zoos were a good place. I didn’t see the amusement in it; it was really kind of sad. But then Mrsny reached out to some zookeepers who showed her the other side of the cage. She learned that it was an opportunity to give these animals the best lives possible. [They] didn’t ask to be in captivity, they are here now; we are not bringing more in. We are doing the best that we can with this situation that we got ourselves into.
As for the future of zoos, Mrsny hopes there won’t be any. In a perfect world, zoos are acting as a Noah’s Ark, where we can maintain these species until we fix the problems in the wild.” But this is not a perfect world. These animals could never survive in the wild because they have lost a lot of the natural behaviors that would have been needed to survive. So, she says that we should focus on using zoos as a place to give people a connection to animals to help inspire them to take action. “These animals didn’t choose to be here, but now they can be ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.”
I remember visiting the Oakland Zoo, when I was younger, and I felt a connection to one of the lions. The lion was roaring and I thought it was because he didn’t want me to leave. At the zoo, I felt a connection with animals, something I probably wouldn’t have realized about myself otherwise.
Not all zoos deserve a bad reputation. The Oakland Zoo cares about what impression the public walks away with. People won’t leave feeling sad, but instead feeling inspired to help these beautiful endangered species thrive again. Click here to learn about more ways you can help!