How do you feel about the role zoos play in protecting threatened species?

St. Paul, Minnesota, USA — Primate zookeeper Megan Elder gets up close with one of the four male gorillas at the Como Park Zoo. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

The new Gorilla Forest exhibit at Como zoo opens today and will be home to seven gorillas, six of which are new to the zoo. The $11 million redesign includes what is said to be the largest all-mesh enclosure in North America. The changes to the exhibit exceed the requirements for holding, exhibiting and managing the gorillas under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the United States Department of Agriculture.

With natural habitats for animals like gorillas being destroyed by construction and development from humans, there is controversy about how conservation should be addressed. Some believe keeping animals in zoos is a way to prevent extinction, while others have major grievances about the unnatural living conditions within zoos and argue for the preservation of natural habitats abroad.

The Capital Animals’ Protection Society voices strong opposition to animal captivity and is working to eliminate zoos in the UK.

“We maintain that zoos deliver a misleading, and damaging message by implying (both implicitly and explicitly) that captivity is beneficial to the cause of species conservation and that visitors are able to witness “wildlife” first-hand in the zoo environment. This message directly contradicts that of many leading experts in the field of conservation and the overwhelming body of evidence that demonstrates that species can be conserved only as part of their entire ecosystem; that is, habitat conservation is the only way in which effective conservation can be realized.”

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park website states that all subspecies of gorilla are endangered and the six gorillas at the National Zoo are managed under a “Species Survival Plan” where they have successfully bred the animals.

Today’s Question: How do you feel about the role zoos play in protecting threatened species?

  • reggie

    I agree with the quoted statement from the Animal Protection Society: habitat preservation is the best (maybe only) conservation strategy. Unfortunately, we humans have crossed that Rubicon, and we continue to gobble up the habitats of many species to extract resources for our own. Eventually, the planet will correct this imbalance.

    As for zoos and gorillas: zoos are certainly run and staffed by people who believe the work they do helps better understand and protect the animals in their care, but they are paid-for by making them circuses for the rest of us. If zoos get us out from behind our screens and into places that let us see and think differently about all facets of the natural world, that alone makes them worthwhile. I don’t know if they ultimately have much effect on the protection of gorillas, but they might just provide a little protection from ourselves.

  • Steve the Cynic

    If the existence of zoos becomes an excuse for not preserving natural habitat, they do more harm than good. If they work to educate the public on the importance of natural habitat to the critters we share this planet with, they serve a good purpose.

  • James

    Its like peeing in the ocean. It barely postpones the inevitable.

  • Jim G

    Zoos are important. We can’t bring civilization to the planet’s wild areas without destroying them. It’s also the only way urban kids can learn about, see, and smell living wild creatures that they are increasingly isolated from.

    I remember taking a group of 3rd graders to Como Zoo. Just after we had passed the tiger exhibit I realized that the one hyperactive child I was most concerned about was missing. I imagined him taunting the 500 pound tiger or attempting to get a closer look by climbing down into the enclosure. I asked parents to watch the rest of my class as I rushed back imagining the end of my teaching career and this lead story in the Star tribune: “Teacher loses child who is then eaten by tigers.” The terror I felt was palpable as I searched the perimeter, and then I saw him; running towards me with a terrified expression in his eyes changing to the relief that I also felt. That’s the only time this kid ever showed genuine emotion, and it took getting lost near the tigers to trigger it.

  • david

    A couple winters ago we were at Como zoo. It was crazy cold so we almost had the place to ourselves. In the monkey house a big gorilla was sitting at the glass looking into the spectator room. As we approached he seemed to look displeased, and turned his back to us. It really seemed that he didn’t want to be there. Probably projecting our own human feeling on him, but still what kind of existence for a species could this really be. Would be nice if humans could stop this exponential population growth. Without either voluntarily doing so or having it forced upon us seems zoos will be many species fate.

  • Lynette

    In my dream world there are no zoos. In my dream world they are unnecessary. But as a regular follower and donor to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund I see from their news reports the challenging circumstances that gorillas have in the wild. At Como Zoo, we can meet gorillas–our primate relatives–up close, perhaps helping us to understand them, connect with them, and maybe assist others to live where they really belong–in natural forests. (Great photos for the feature coverage story from Jeffrey Thompson.)

  • Fred

    Fine. How do you feel about the NSA subpoenaing to Verizon “ALL call detail…wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls?” – No warrants, no due process, no fourth amendment protections

  • lawrence

    My family and I vacationed at Custer State Park, South Dakota one summer. While driving through this reserve, we walked across a field of natural prairie grass among pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs; watched a herd of bison from our car wallow in a river bed; and took a picture of a bobcat sunning itself on a bluff before nightfall. That experience surpassed anything I had ever seen in a zoo. It was at that moment that I realized that zoos are meant to tell us how magnificent animals can be in their natural habitat, and that it is up to us to fight for their preservation and to some day see them there in the wild for ourselves. Sadly, most Americans treat the animals at the zoo like they were regular TV programming, with little regard to the acting craft/profession; objects meant for our amusement so that every one feels like royalty. Is it any wonder that the animals at the zoo turn their heads away from us in disgust?

  • Sad Zoos

    Zoos came from a time when nobody thought the environment was endangered, and rich people thought it was cute and an appropriate way to show off and share some of their money with the people. Do they really do anything long term to help endangered species survive? What will happen to those salmon diets for the seals when jobs run scarce and there’s no money left in the till to feed them? Zoo economies are fragile, their distance from habitat is fragile, their support from the people is fragile. It’s like building a million dollar underpass so the panther can cross the freeway, and developers can continue to eat up Florida swampland at record pace: it’s a big joke. The panthers need habitat to survive, not underpasses. Animals need their homes and habitats, not precious zoos.

    All this genetic footwork to save a species or two is fine and good, but it’s like dancing on the edge of a precipice. Too little, too late, unsustainable.