Reinventing the Zoo It's No Longer Enough to Put Endangered Species on Display and Call it Conservation
When Betsy Dresser stepped off the plane in Beijing and rode through the city, the passing scenes looked eerily familiar. It was her first trip to this Chinese megalopolis, but the smog that hung in clouds and obscured all views reminded her of something. So did the throngs of people moving through the streets, the hardly breathable air, the poverty of trees and the utter lack of animals in this city of 12 million people.
Then she realized she had seen it all before—not in other cities, not even in real life, but in a 1973 movie called Soylent Green. It’s a sci-fi classic that Dresser, world renowned for her own high-tech efforts to breed endangered species, rents from time to time. In it, Charlton Heston plays a riot-control cop in the New York City of 2022, a landscape turned to a horrific wasteland by rampant human overpopulation. Wildlife has been wiped out. Real food is almost a thing of the past and the rare jar of strawberry jam nets $150. Voluntary euthanasia is encouraged, and the government hands out rations—one of which is Soylent Green, a wafer that startled viewers soon learn is manufactured from recycled humans. “You should watch it sometime,” says Dresser. “It’s a movie about what happens when our species so overpopulates the planet that no one is left here but us. Who wants to live in a world like that?”
Not Dresser. And that is why she has undertaken a unique line of work: freezing sperm, embryos and tissues of endangered species; experimenting with in vitro fertilization for hard-to-breed animals; transferring embryos from one species to another; and artificially inseminating some of the world’s disappearing fauna. Working from her current post at the New Orleans-based Audubon Nature Institute, home of the Audubon Zoo, and her former post at the Cincinnati Zoo’s endangered species research center, Dresser has produced the world’s first test-tube gorilla. She was the first to transplant an endangered animal—a bongo—into a more common one—an eland—to produce a live birth. Just this year she thawed out some of her frozen African wildcat embryos and transplanted them into Cayenne, a domestic housecat. It was the first-ever frozen/thawed embryo transfer between species, and it resulted in the live birth of an African wildcat named Jazz.
Early in 2001, she and a team of scientists became the first to clone an endangered species, the oxlike Asian gaur. The feat was made possible by fusing 692 gaur cells to cow eggs. When 81 of these concoctions turned into blastocysts, the cellular clusters that are the main ingredient of animal-cloning recipes, 40 were kept for research and the rest were implanted into 32 surrogate cows. One cow, Bessie, came through. Not surprisingly, her strangely incepted offspring earned a biblical name, Noah. But, unfortunately, Noah didn’t make it onto Dresser’s ark, which includes her “frozen zoos” and a growing number of animals created in ways never before thought possible. Instead, Noah died within two days of dysentery. But his birth gave Dresser and other scientists insights that will help them refine their efforts with their next endangered species cloning targets: among them tigers, giant pandas, bongos and the rusty spotted cat of Sri Lanka.
Why, you might ask, does Dresser do what she does? Because based on the calculations of hordes of fellow scientists, she sees the planet going the way of Soylent Green. Experts generally agree that 24 percent of all mammals, 12 percent of all birds, and 14 percent of all plants already face extinction. The human numbers that caused this massive decline will swell from their current six billion to more than 9.4 billion by 2050. In just 25 years, three billion people (a number equaling the entire human population of 1960) could face severe water shortages; water for wildlife will be in even shorter supply. And unless current trends reverse, ecologists predict the last rainforest tree will fall in the next 40 years. “I’m not the one who’s going to stop population growth,” says Dresser, “but I can do something about keeping animals around for the future.” And when she says future, she means it. Eventually, speculates Dresser, “we’ll have to go somewhere else. Do we go into the oceans? Do we go to other planets? What better way to take animals there than in a frozen zoo?”
Dresser doesn’t care if other people think she’s nuts, and she doesn’t have to. Her work is heralded by the zoos who support her, by the donors who underwrite her high-profile projects, and by a public that has a nearly religious belief that yet-to-be-discovered high-tech fixes can ultimately undo human-caused problems. But work like hers has often held center stage in the controversy over how zoos should manage the endangered species in their care, how they should contribute to these species’ survival in the wild, and whether conservation funds should be most heavily applied to in situ (meaning in the zoo) programs or ex situ (meaning in the field) programs.
It is a controversy that has its roots in the zoo community’s decades-long identity crisis. Prior to the 1980s, zoos housed many endangered species from around the world, but only rare zoo operators—like New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—had thought strategically about their contribution to global conservation. Ethical concerns about keeping animals in captivity for mere entertainment were mounting. Increasingly, zoos were coming under fire for promoting themselves as educational while in reality offering the public animal exhibits that did little to educate viewers about wild behaviors or habitats.
Some communities, like Boston and Atlanta, became so enraged at the poor care of animals in their municipal menageries that they demanded their city zoos to shut down or revamp, which Zoo Atlanta did to national acclaim. Critics from inside and outside the zoo community began to say that if zoos were comfortable profiting from exotic creatures, then they had a moral responsibility to take an active role in saving them and their habitats in the wild.
Zoos had some soul-searching to do, and the leaders among them took some first steps toward reinventing themselves. By 1981, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) unveiled its member institutions’ first cooperative effort—the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). The idea was to discourage participating zoos from breeding their animals simply to satisfy the whims of baby-loving viewers and instead enter a joint breeding effort. SSP species were identified, and each was assigned its own plan aimed at keeping that species’ zoo animals genetically healthy, avoiding inbreeding and assuring viable numbers of animals born in captivity. Optimists saw a world where captive-bred animals would inspire public support for conservation and repopulate the wild. Pessimists predicted a future in which zoo-reared animals introduced diseases to wild populations, lacked the skills to survive in the wild, or simply had no place to be “put back.”
On a planet losing an estimated six species a minute in the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs exited the scene, zoo marketing staffs saw something altogether different. They saw that hope sells. Zoos had a new reason to exist, and captive-breeding programs became all the rage as various institutions vied for public and private funding and visitors. Says Michael Hutchins, current director of the AZA’s conservation and science department, “We got very good at breeding animals in captivity, which brings up a whole slew of ethical issues which we continue to deal with today.” Captive-breeding dilemmas often pitted the welfare of individual animals against the needs of their species: The last wild California condors were removed from their habitat to start a captive-reared population; black-footed ferrets were coaxed to ejaculate by having electric probes inserted in their anuses; experimental breeding in some species led to uncomfortable ailments in offspring. The funding needs of captive-breeding programs competed with the funding needs of habitat-protection programs. Projects to “save” charismatic animals that could draw public funds surged ahead while those aimed at their less glamorous but more endangered counterparts fell by the wayside. And not all efforts were successful: The last dusky seaside sparrow, for instance, died when an intruding snake cornered it in its Disney World cage.
Is Captive Breeding Enough?
“If you asked what zoos and aquariums were doing for conservation 10 years ago, everyone would have said captive breeding for reintroduction,” explains Hutchins. But zoo leaders are now realizing that captive breeding is not enough. Biologist Noel Snyder, a participant in some zoo breeding programs and a staunch critic of others, would agree. “I would say captive breeding has been oversold. It has some successes, but it has been drummed up so heavily. There are really only a few cases where you can say there’s been a benefit.” Indeed, today, there are SSPs for 95 mammals, 24 birds, 12 reptiles and amphibians, 12 fish and four invertebrates. But, looking over two decades of captive breeding, only a handful of animals owe their survival to captive breeding—red wolves, Jamaican hutias, Micronesian kingfishers, Guam rails, black-footed ferrets, Pére David’s deer, Arabian oryx, golden lion tamarins, California condors and a few others.
Yet even some of these animals, like the California condor, are successes in waiting. Once found along the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico, only 30 condors remained in the 1970s, their numbers continued to dwindle, and the last of these majestic gliders were hauled out of the wild by 1987. The birds surely would have become extinct without captive breeding, but efforts to reintroduce condors have had their setbacks. Snyder calls the condor effort “the flagship of endangered species conservation programs.” Millions of dollars have been spent on condors, and a variety of groups have worked hard to get the birds to breed in captivity and to develop techniques for introducing captive-raised birds to the wild. “Success is definitely achievable, but only if basic changes are made in the current condor release program,” warns Snyder. “If not, it may become a perpetual and very expensive black hole.”
One of the problems, he says, is that the released birds are human junkies of sorts. Despite attempts to fool young condors with parent-like puppets who brought them food and catered to their needs, the birds are smart; they formed a lingering curiosity about the human caretakers connected to those carefully crafted hand puppets, as well as a fondness for human structures like the ones they were reared in. So, these vultures with knife-sharp beaks and nine-foot wingspans have been breaking into people’s houses and hanging out on telephone poles. “They fly in and land on your car and rip the windshield wipers off,” laments Snyder. “They fly in and rip your screen door. They fly in and tear a mattress apart. This is a serious problem, because condors could do serious harm to humans.”
Reintroduction is an evolving science, and even the most skeptical understand that certain mistakes have to be chalked up to learning. But “learning” would imply that puppet-reared condors stopped being released when parent-raised birds were available. Not so. And general common sense, say Snyder and other concerned scientists, required California to outlaw lead bullets—a leading cause of the condors’ wild demise—before the million-dollar birds flew out over the state’s canyonlands in search of carrion. Once again, not so. Despite the fact that nontoxic ammunition is available, the state hasn’t outlawed leadshot, and several released birds have died from eating lead-riddled carcasses.
The jury is still out on whether condors will repopulate California skies. But for many endangered-species breeding programs, the possibility of reintroduction is nonexistent. Either the money isn’t there, the technology isn’t there, the habitat isn’t there, or the animals’ genetic integrity has steered too far off course. Most zoo officials now openly state that the vast majority of animals in SSPs will never make it back to the wild. While Betsy Dresser’s frozen bongo embryos may someday become wild antelope, and the National Zoo’s golden lion tamarins may head for Brazil, most SSP animals will be bred solely to keep zoo populations alive and healthy.
That’s a reality that has launched some in the AZA community into round two of soul searching. “Simply sustaining captive populations should not by itself be considered conservation,” says the AZA’s Hutchins. Along with William Conway of the WCS, and others rattling the cages of their zoo peers, Hutchins has devised a new code of conduct. Zoos and aquariums, he says, must provide meaningful public education, conduct scientific research, develop new technologies, hire highly skilled staffs, provide more training, launch into conservation planning, conduct nature travel programs, captive breed for reintroduction, restore ecological systems, directly support national parks and reserves and raise the funds to underwrite all of these pursuits.
They”ll also need to recover species and restore habitats both in their own backyards and continents away, make their facilities operate more greenly and create “sustainable extractive reserves” in distant lands where species can be managed by paid locals and then harvested for display. And, of course, they”ll have to take animal welfare and animal rights more seriously, giving far more than lip service to animals” physical and psychological needs and ensuring that all surplus animals get a humane “disposal.”
No more chimpanzee tea parties, say these new-zoo proponents. No more elephant rides. No more seal and dolphin shows that resemble circus acts.
It’s time, says Hutchins, for zoos to live up to the image they’ve been working so hard to create. “We have to change as much in the next 10 years as we have in the last 100,” he declares.
The Changing Face of Zoos
To understand how tall an order that is, you first have to understand a bit about U.S. zoos. First, there are nearly 2,000 licensed animal exhibitors nationwide, and only 201 of these are AZA-accredited establishments. Of these 201, only a small number are poised to meet all these standards in the near future. And most agree that it would be a miracle if the remaining 1,800 or so even tried. These establishments are a motley assortment of animal spectacles: pathetically housed animals in roadside menageries; apes stationed at the entrance of retail stores; attractions featuring alligator wrestling; petting zoos; animal dealers; pools or sea pens where people can pay by the hour to swim with dolphins; Vegas-style animal acts; and a host of zoos that fall short of even minimum professional standards but still attract a good crowd on a sunny afternoon.
Most of the visitors to these attractions are looking for a way to spend the day, not to save the world. If the occasional pang of guilt flashes through an onlooker as she watches a caged bear pull his hair out, a rare tiger languish in boredom in a fenced patch of grass or a hyacinth macaw pluck its own feathers out from stress, she can quickly appease herself by reading the two-sentence plaque that tells her how sadly rare these creatures are and how “zoos” plan to save them. The black sheep of the zoo family, these attractions are disowned by accredited zoos, but that hasn’t stopped these menageries from cashing in on the marketing and education efforts of their larger or more sincere counterparts in the AZA community.
Neither, claims Alan Green, author of Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Endangered Species, has it stopped some AZA-accredited zoos from taking the surplus endangered animals they create in their SSP programs and selling them, either directly or indirectly, to even the most abominable dealers and attractions. For his book, Green spent four years traveling from city to city following the Byzantine paper trail of the lurid trade in hundreds of endangered zoo animals that fall into private menageries, substandard animal spectacles, auctions, laboratories, canned hunting reserves, or even the illegal-parts market for animal-based medicinals. Many of these creatures, he insists, came from respected zoos, and they are victims of the vagaries of interstate commerce. “The laws are set up so that everyone can circumvent disclosure,” says Green. “Let’s say a zoo in Minnesota sends an endangered species to a place in Texas. That transaction is recorded. Then that place in Texas can send it in-state however it wants. Over and over, animals are going outside the SSP. Zoos will say, “Well, we can’t use them for breeding anymore,” so if they’re done with them, they’ll dump them.”
The AZA’s Hutchins acknowledges the problem of surplus animals, as well as the fact that animals from so-called good zoos sometimes land in bad places. “We’ve restricted AZA institutions from sending any animals to auctions, canned hunts or other unsavory places,” he explains. But animals can slip through the cracks. “Until animals can’t be owned by individuals,” he stresses, “it’s very difficult to control what happens.” An animal’s fate changes from owner to owner; it can fall victim to all manner of illegal activity; and if it is bred in captivity, it loses many of the legal protections afforded wild-caught endangered species. The AZA is working on legislation to outlaw canned hunts, he says, and it is also trying to deal squarely with the issue of surplus animals. “There will always be a surplus. It’s just necessary to keep a number of animals at a certain age for breeding,” he says. “And that’s more than zoos can absorb.” Some zoos are partnering with sanctuaries that provide lifetime care for their surplus animals, says Hutchins, and others are developing holding space for them. Hutchins, like most animal protectionists, says he’d rather see surplus animals humanely euthanized than face an uncertain fate in the nation’s growing endangered species marketplace.
Terry Maple, director of Zoo Atlanta, says he doubts AZA-accredited zoos enter into unethical transactions knowingly, but he believes it happens through third parties. “There are severe punishments for such things within AZA,” he says. But AZA punishments don’t deter the rampant wildlife trade emanating from non-accredited zoos. Maple believes that it’s time for AZA to deal with roadside zoos and other private owners. “Roadside zoos are a problem we have in our country, and we’re going to have to deal with them,” states Maple. “The animal rights groups haven’t shut them down. The feds haven’t shut them down. State agencies haven’t shut them down. I think we’re the last chance.”
Should roadside zoos ever be truly shut down, the public would indeed have a better chance to understand the difference between progressive zoos and mere menageries, and more zoos might be inspired to earn public trust by adopting Hutchins’ and Conway’s code of excellence for the 21st century. But some zoos are already evolving on their own accord. They are taking on projects that cater to species few people have even heard of, but that nonetheless play vital roles in their ecosystems. These zoos are using funds to protect landscapes as well as study the creatures within them. And they are blazing a path they hope others will follow.
Programs that Work
In a converted storage room in Rhode Island’s Roger Williams Park Zoo, nine clear, shoebox-sized plastic containers sit side by side on a shelf. Below them, 33 black plastic plant pots line two more shelves, each one capped by a worn square of plywood and held down by a rock. The room has the faint smell of decay, but that’s to be expected. Each of the black pots contains a rotting quail carcass covered in soil and swarming with the larvae of American burying beetles. The clear boxes above house carefully separated groups of adult beetles—highly endangered creatures, about as large as a woman’s thumb, whose jet-black bodies are graced with deep amber spots. As flesh-eating beetles go, they are gorgeous. Still, it’s not a room zoo goers typically visit. In fact, it’s not even open to the public. But the dead quails, live larvae and the large male and female beetles housed here are the star players in a zoo conservation program that has won national acclaim.
American burying beetles once ranged over most of the eastern and central United States and up into eastern Canada. They’re still hanging on in four Midwestern states, but in the East they’re confined to just a few islands off the coast of New England, one of which is Block Island, just a short drive away from the zoo. Since 1994, the zoo has collected Block Island beetles, quietly bred them in captivity and even more quietly released them to their former range on Massachusetts’s Nantucket Island, where some residents fear the reintroduction of an endangered species will interfere with their property rights and values. Still, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), zoo staffers have successfully reintroduced more than 20 generations on Nantucket, and the reintroduced beetles are reproducing on their own in the wild.
For a captive breeding and reintroduction program, this is a notable success. And in an era where most high-profile zoo conservation programs involve larger and far more charismatic creatures, not to mention hefty project budgets, it is remarkably humble. The zoo spends less than $2,000 a year to keep the project going; the USFWS covers the cost of the quails. And little glamour is involved: Ming Lee Prospero, one of the project’s leaders, spent much of last summer on tony Nantucket studying the beetle’s progress there. “But,” she says, “I spent all my time traipsing around in poison ivy with 10-day-old rotting chicken to attract beetles.”
Not all zoos would lend their staffers to such seemingly obscure efforts, but this small zoo, with an annual budget of just $5 million, has shown itself to be progressive on many fronts. Just recently, the zoo announced plans to create a 50,000-acre reserve in Papua New Guinea—an effort to protect the threatened Matschie’s tree kangaroo. It’s a habitat-protection project carried out in concert with local landowners, who have agreed to set aside prime forestland and not to hunt the kangaroo there for five years. According to the zoo’s director of conservation and research, Lisa Dabek, only about 80 tree kangaroos exist in captivity, and their SSP has been just as focused on field conservation as on captive breeding.
Suprisingly, while field conservation work is now increasingly common at AZA zoos, which have 2,230 conservation and research projects in 86 countries, Roger Williams is one of fewer than five zoos that have set up conservation areas to preserve species. Among the others is the WCS, the undisputed leader in zoo conservation, with a $111 million annual expense budget, environmental education programs in 50 states and 15 nations and more than 350 wildlife conservation projects in 52 nations. Clearly, says Dabek, there’s room for other zoos to join the trend. “There’s a core group of maybe 20 to 25 zoos that are at the forefront of conservation efforts,” she says. “More will follow over time.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that zoos are likely to start displaying wriggling beetle larvae instead of elephants or seals in a quest to coax widespread compassion for the underloved. The Roger Williams Zoo relies on the visitors that flock there to see its baby polar bears, Zoo Atlanta gets all the mileage it can out of its giant pandas, and the main draw in the WCS’s new, $43 million, six-and-a-half acre, 300-animal Bronx Zoo exhibit are the 25 lowland gorillas who melt onlookers with their humanlike stares and often press their hands to the glass to meet a visitor’s own. It also doesn’t mean that zoos have solved all the problems of displaying animals for the public. While the Bronx Zoo’s Congo display is a marvel of zoo design, capable of transporting visitors to the sights and sounds of distant African rainforests, it’s still not the real rainforest. Many of the trees are epoxy and urethane, and the real ones emit shocks so the gorillas don’t eat the leaves.
Most zoos, though, lack the budget of the WCS, and while even these zoos may be sprucing up their exhibits to better reflect habitat, says Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, the lives of animals are often not as improved as they could be. “The zoo says they’re putting in a naturalistic display and the public eats that up. But go there in the evening, when the elephant is chained up in the barn, and you tell me what’s changed.”
The biggest change in zoos may not be occurring for the captive animals themselves, say experts, but rather in operations behind the scenes. Many zoos, for instance, are helping the AZA and other conservation groups tackle the growing bushmeat crisis in Africa, where vast logging operations have brought people and guns into tracts of previously untouched forest—birthing an illegal but widespread traffic in meat from wild animals, many of them endangered.
The taste for bushmeat has replaced habitat loss as the most immediate threat to animals in the Congo Basin, where an estimated one million tons is traded annually. It has also caused many animals to become extinct locally in West Africa, and it has driven one species—Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey—to complete extinction. The trade also poses serious dangers to humans: hunting, butchering and eating bushmeat can expose people to virulent animal-borne diseases like AIDS and Ebola. While the crisis impacts many animals, it could virtually eliminate the African great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos.
Zoos have also used their collective clout to help pass the Great Ape Conservation Act. And zoo-based organizations like the WCS are trying to tie exhibits to in-the-wild funding. “In the Congo exhibit, you pay a $3 admission fee, then you can choose where you want your money to be spent in the actual Congo—on basic science, the creation of parks and reserves, training programs, education programs or other areas,” says WCS Senior Vice President Richard Lattis. Cutting-edge zoos are now likely to evaluate their worth by what they protect in the wild as much as in their own confines: Lattis says his institution has more field scientists on the ground than any other conservation program on Earth. And quieter programs often share the limelight with flashy brethren. Even though New Orleans” Audubon Zoo invests in the high-tech world of assisted animal reproduction, it also has low-tech programs to breed and reintroduce the pine snake and other local endemic species that could be wiped out in a single catastrophic event.
The nation’s best zoos are evolving quickly, say many observers, and the nation’s worst zoos may never change. According to Michael Soule, widely acknowledged as the father of conservation biology, “There still are some zoos that call any birth of an endangered animal at their zoo “conservation.”” But the best zoos have moved on from this mindset. Countless scientists have left behind the squabbles that pitted in situ conservation proponents against ex situ conservation proponents. “It’s a common human mistake to identify very patriotically with one way of doing things,” says Soule, whose current work involves the creation of vast wildlife corridors, “but there are many complimentary approaches to protecting nature.”
Scientists like Betsy Dresser may often be depicted as single-vision zealots, but they’re actually more likely to characterize their work as one small piece of a complex effort. When people complain that the money Dresser uses to clone gaurs or deep freeze tiger sperm might be better used to buy up habitat, she is unapologetic. Chances are, she
says, many of the donors who support her work through municipal zoos would fund the local hospital wing before they’d support fieldwork in Africa or Asia. “These are the people who want their name on a plaque where people they know can see it,” says Dresser. “That money wouldn’t be available for other projects.” Many scientists doing fieldwork understand this all too well, but they also understand that Dresser’s high-tech escapades have lent them new technologies they can take into the field. Future animal relocations of wildlife, for instance, might be better handled by moving frozen embryos than by moving 8,000-pound rhinos.
If zoos can pull off a multidisciplinary approach and inspire a new breed of funders, claim zoo advocates like Hutchins, Maple and Lattis, they stand to become the world’s leading conservation force. Certainly they have the public’s attention, with annual attendance records that far exceed the nation’s professional baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey audiences combined. But the challenges they face will be dizzying. In addition to habitat loss, endangered animals are coming under increasing threat from war, manmade disasters and relatively new but lethal phenomena like the bushmeat crisis.
It’s this reality—along with scientists” generally dire predictions for life on Earth—that led Dresser to believe the human race might eventually have to pack itself up and flee to a biosphere on Mars. “We’re putting money into the space program, so I’m not the only one who thinks we’ll be in space someday,” she cajoles. But she is not really joking. Instead, she is working on a book called Tigers to the Moon, and she is stockpiling entries in her frozen and living zoos. “Someday,” she is convinced, “someone will look back and say, “Thank God someone back in 2002 had the foresight to do this.”