Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Wild: Mother Nature or Cold-Hearted Meaniepants?

** Disclaimer: There is one photo below of poaching that is disturbing.  I'll give fair warning in advance, but didn't want anyone to be caught off guard**

With the debate surrounding animals in human care, there's one particular point that both sides of the argument continue to use against one another.  I'm not sure why I felt that this week's blog would attempt to tackle this issue, but it's something I hear (from both sides) a lot.  I figured I'd try to give another perspective.

Perspective from all angles (even chonrichthyian) is important! 

It all comes back to WHY we debate the necessity and value of animals in human care.  We all say it's because we love the animals and want to fight for them, and I think most people genuinely care.  I know I sound like a broken record, but I think we collectively focus too much on defending our point of view in a way that at least appears as though we just want to be right.  When we focus on putting ourselves firmly onto a "side", we tend to start making statements that are defamatory, sweeping, and ultimately ineffective in sharing information and trying to find common ground to actually conserve the species we love so much.

So what's the topic I've cryptically alluded to? 

"The Wild."  

Silver Springs!

We talk about The Wild a lot in the zoo/no-zoo debate.   Depending on what side of the argument you're on, you probably have a different perspective on what The Wild is actually like. And herein lies the problem.

Let's first look at the dichotomy of The Wild as seen through two very (grossly) generalized lenses.

Anti-Zoo Wild

Tra la la la!

The Wild is a place where animals are free.  They can be with others of their kind, hunt, play, roam, migrate, and be themselves.  Mother Nature is a nurturing force who cares for her Creation.  She is separated from Evil Human Beings who take, kill, and exploit.

Animals in The Wild have nothing to worry about, other than reproducing, expressing their animalness, and providing food for themselves (and maybe their young, if they raise their offspring).  Birds can fly thousands of miles, dolphins can dive to hundreds of feet, elephants have expansive territories to stretch their huge limbs alongside their family members.  They can be the animals they naturally are and choose to do whatever they want.  They are fulfilled and happy about everything all the time.  The Wild is always better.

Pro-Zoo Wild

I wanna be....where the crude oil is.

The Wild is an evil, dark place with things such as Pollution, Hunting/Poaching, and Death.  Animals die long before their prime, because nature is a Cold-Hearted Beeyotch who kills dolphin babies before they are a year old, causes owlets to viciously toss their weaker sibling out of the nest to his/her untimely death, forces an old pelican to die slowly of starvation as his blindness takes away his ability to hunt.  Animals are hit by cars, eviscerated by boats, poisoned by toxins.  Evil Human Beings and Nature combined create an awful existence for animals that they must be saved from.  

Two very different and extreme viewpoints that are more illustrative than an attempt to rile any of you guys up.  But let's face it, each one of us falls closer to one of those perspectives than the other, right?*

But we all know that neither perspective is closer to reality than the other.  Making either claim is not only inaccurate, but totally takes away from the point we are all trying to make about getting people who don't CARE about animals, who don't CARE about the environment, to care.

Anti-Zoo people tend to align themselves with the notion that there is no way an animal can be happy and healthy if he or she is not in The Wild.  The dangers of this belief have actually put animals directly in harm's way.   I use African elephants as an example a lot, because they are in serious danger of extinction in our lifetime (don't believe me? Check out this campaign: 96 Elephants).  The Wild is NOT a place where African elephants can be elephants.  Thanks to habitat loss, agricultural development, and the insanely high rate of poaching ivory, an African elephant's Wild involves protected, human-managed areas in order to save them from poaching or death from local farmers who are sick of their land and property being trampled.  And guess what?  Elephants are still dying ( 96 African Forest elephants die EACH DAY) on these protected lands because it is impossible  to police and monitor every square inch of their habitats to prevent poaching from happening.

The Hawaiian crow is now extinct in the wild and only exists in zoos.

** Disturbing photo below**

But the terrifying thing is that some zoos have been attacked by well-meaning Anti-Zoo folk for having elephants at their facility; the push being to "release" the animals back to The Wild.  What are we releasing them back into?

We release them to this.  I'm sorry to post something so sad, but it's the reality and we can help stop it!

The other idea of releasing some kinds of animals back into The Wild, according to the general Anti-Zoo movement, is that we are freeing these guys from a prison.  That once they get back to the wild, that's the equivalent of letting a human out of prison back to his or her daily life.

This issue is way more complicated than simply saying, "It must be done" or "It can't be done."  But if we have this idea that The Wild is a Disney theme park, then no wonder it seems like the best possible thing for every animal is for him or her to be "out there" versus "in here."  But we forget sometimes, the complexity of the animal species in question.  A bottlenose dolphin who was born in human care has a very, very low probability of understanding how to survive or (more importantly) thrive out in The Wild.  


Beyond learning how to hunt, they are socially complex animals.  There is a lot more to thriving in an environment than just knowing how to feed yourself, although that task is one that even wild dolphins have failed to do well in rescue and rehabilitation situations (to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service declared them unreleasable).   Dolphins are cultural animals.  That is, how they are raised is their reality, not based solely in an instinctive drive like say, a barnacle.   

If you took me out of my house, with my store-bought food, controlled environment, and safe social network (I haven't had to stab anyone in the face for a donut in like, months) and plopped me, with my human brain and my smart phone, into the middle of Yellowstone National Forest and said, "Hey! You're in the wild, just like your ancestors.  Other humans have figured out how to survive and thrive out here, so you ought to, too!  Be free!"  I'd probably die.  I have no training in how to live to 80 years old in the middle of the woods.  Do other people?  Yes, they do.  Because they've spent years (or were raised) learning how to live that lifestyle.  I might be able to learn that, if I had enough money, time, or interest.  So I don't really even have the "choice" to learn how to live that lifestyle.  But I'm still happy with my current living situation, as "unnatural" as that is for me as a human.

But I mean, this guy clearly figured it out.

The fact is, no dolphin of any species born in human care has been successfully integrated into The Wild.  Dolphins who weren't born in a zoo or aquarium but have been there for decades have not been successfully reintroduced.   It's still difficult to do so with a dolphin who's been in human care for a few years, but that's the only circumstance (other than rescue/rehab) when a dolphin has been reintroduced to the wild.  Dolphins are cultural animals and are not simply just "happy" in The Wild, no matter what we as humans assume.

But let's look at the other side of the coin, because people on the other side of this issue are just as guilty as making outrageous claims.

The Wild is not a bad, evil, horrible place.  To paint a picture of The Wild as so awful and then to directly contrast it with why a zoological environment is the Best Place For An Animal To Be is misleading and unfair.  Of course, I support the field; I've dedicated my life to it.  But that doesn't mean that I think that all animals would just be better off in a zoo or aquarium.  

Why do some of us animal caretakers tend to contrast our facility with The Wild in such a stark way?  It comes from a good place (just as the naysayers of our profession have good-hearted intentions, too).  It's undeniable that many people DO actually think that The Wild is equivalent with a benevolent Mother Nature.   That is scientifically incorrect, so we try to simplify this idea by bringing up some of the really, really bad things about The Wild.   We talk about disease, predation, and pollution.  Of course, animals in human care do not deal with these issues to any extent comparable to some of their wild counterparts.  They have access to veterinary medicine to treat and/or cure illnesses or conditions that disable or kill animals in The Wild.  

So what's wrong with making this simplistic contrast if it's just to provide another perspective to a concerned laymen?

It's taken to an extreme, sometimes.  And that extreme often completely ignores the idea of conservation, which is the point of having zoos and aquariums in the first place.

Extremes are only okay in close-ups.

Some of us explain that the reason why dolphins live longer in human care is because they are not subjected to lethal illnesses that bottlenose dolphin populations are experiencing along the east coast of the United States.  That they get fed on a consistent basis, and have no worries about predation, nor human harassment.  They get high quality veterinary care and food, and never-ending love and attention from their trainers.  All of those things are factually true.

But then we may continue on to say something like, "And they experience no pollution here.  Out in The Wild, the oceans are polluted with agricultural run-off, diesel fuel, crude oil, and garbage.  There are antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections popping up in common bottlenose dolphins.  Their life expectancy is 12.7 years old because of these things."

And we keep going, listing the reasons why The Wild isn't a great place, and why it's actually a terrible place that no animal could possibly thrive in as compared to a zoo or aquarium.  Then, that's where the diatribe ends.  Instead of using that as a springboard for HOW we can improve the environment, our oceans, whatever, we just stop the explanation there.  That sends the wrong message.  It implies that animals are better off in zoos and aquariums, and not The Wild.  It puts us firmly on the extreme end of a continuum.  

Furthermore, some of us are a little dodgy on some facts about The Wild.  For example, some populations of bottlenose dolphins have similar average life expectancies as those in human care.  Yes, more bottlenose dolphins reach their 40s and 50s in human care for the reasons I mentioned in an earlier paragraph.  But that doesn't mean that they can't live that long in The Wild.  However, there are bottlenose dolphins whose average life expectancy is under 13 years old, because they live in an extremely polluted environment in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas.  It's different depending on what population you're looking at.

Again, perspective makes the difference.

We could share with our guests the reasons why more dolphins tend to live longer in human care without making The Wild seem like the worst place ever.  We could learn about some of the environmental issues in our own backyard, learn how to make an impact, and share that with our guests.  If we know something about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, we could say, "Yes, that area is awful and the animals in that area really need our help.  Here's what you can do at home, or at the beach, or on vacation."

That sends the message I know we as animal caretakers want to convey: The animals in zoos and aquariums are ambassadors, and are thriving in our care.  Let's all work together to better the lives of animals in The Wild through conscientious conservation efforts.  

So what is the reality?  The Wild is altogether wonderful and horrible.  It isn't governed by a mindful presence, but a series of processes that human beings have labeled such as: selection pressure, change in allelic frequency over time, infanticide, altruism.  It has no conscious.  The organisms that live in it are not 100% at the mercy of an uncontrollable system, but they are also not frolicking about singing tralalala every day.  There is a struggle, sometimes a natural one and other times, one that is totally our fault.  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because she is a poor hunter is a natural struggle (that could result in the death of both her and her progeny).  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because of serious ice melting and there is limited access to seals is a problem we as human beings have created.  There is a serious difference.

Leave me my ice and snow, please!

But there are populations of animals who are thriving and doing just fine.  Florida's manatee population has increased, and while they still have problems with human boaters, we as humans made a conscious and collective effort to make serious lifestyle changes in order to save the species.  So did we win that war? Can we relax and just forget about the manatees?  


Because guess what?  There's a push now from land-owners along the Crystal River spring system to take the manatee off the endangered species list so they can drive their boats really really fast on the river.  So we are still trying to win that battle (because some people really don't care about animals like we all do, no matter what side we're on).  The manatee Wild is a better place than it's been in a long time, but that could change if we don't stay on top of the situation.

So instead of us fighting each other about how "good" or "bad" The Wild is, let's re-prioritize our efforts to focus both the laymen and our own attention on conservation issues that make a positive impact on wild populations of (insert your favorite organism) wherever they may live.  It's not a battle to be won for the sake of defensiveness; it's a battle to be won for the sake of our planet and its inhabitants.  Which battle do you want to fight for?

* If not, good for you! You're further ahead than us.  Seriously.


  1. Thank you!! This is a very cool and accurate perspective for animal lovers everywhere.

  2. Personally, despite bad things like disease that are more prevalent out of human care, I think the wild WOULD be the best place for animals, if it weren't affected by people. But it's not. (Something the extremists of the anti-captivity side seem to forget.) There is no place on this earth completely untouched by human influence, and we are the thing doing the most harm. I am for, and work for, aquariums and zoos because they are a means to teach about and make strides in conservation. That is the most important thing we can do for the animals we love.

    1. I agree with you on all points. I think it's a balance between both worlds, just sometimes some of us get too far onto one side which detracts from the issues at hand. Thanks for your comment!!