Zoos can expand our connection to planet

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on June 26, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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For about five minutes, I was transfixed. A young mother rolled around on the ground with her daughter, in full view of everyone watching, four arms and four legs, intertwined, comingled, one organism, not two. Public displays of affection can be awkward. This one was lovely. And it wasn’t human.

They were Bornean Orangutans at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The littler one was Ember, age four-and-a-half. She snuggled with her mother, Hadiah. As orangutans go, they seem pretty normal, eating biscuits, fruits, vegetables; they’ll peak at a stout thee-feet-tall; they live roughly half the lifespan we humans do; and they share a whopping 97 percent of human DNA. They were born into captivity and they’re sadly part of a species endangered by human activity.

That’s always the starting point when it comes to zoos, isn’t it? There’s always a moment when you realize there’s glass walls and high bars everywhere. Is it OK that they’re held in enclosures, even if those cages are exceptional? It’s a moral question we all engage with, at some point. And if you’re against all and any animal in captivity, perhaps now’s the time to stop reading, because what I’m about to write may just be a ‘shock and awe’ strike to your psyche.

I like zoos. Scratch that. I like good zoos. Of course, there are good zoos and bad zoos, good enclosures and bad enclosures. Even the most loyal zoo advocate would admit that. And even at great zoos, there’s surely improvements that can always be found.

But instead of getting hung up on whether zoos have more in common with Guantanamo than the Galapagos—instead, let’s pivot to some clear positives all of us can get from a day or an hour at the zoo.

Zoos support conservation. Many species are there because their line is headed for extinction, which isn’t just upsetting, it very well may be a threat to our own place on the planet through loss of biodiversity. (As Elizabeth Kolbert called it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, we’re living through the “sixth extinction,” a mass animal die-off caused by human encroachment on animal habitats.)

Moreover, many zoo-dwellers are wounded and wouldn’t survive on their own in the wild. I can recall standing in front of two Bald Eagles in a New York state zoo; both had been nursed back to health after permanently hobbling injuries. Zoos keep many animals alive that would otherwise die.

Or, in fact, go extinct. The last wild Arabian Oryx, an antelope breed from the Arabian Peninsula, was shot and killed in 1972. Thankfully, the Phoenix Zoo led a breeding and reintroduction initiative that birthed over 200 calves from nine individuals, and today there are roughly 1,000 Arabian Oryx in the wild.

Zoos teach. We learn important lessons there. Of course, there’s the informational panels that give most of us a sense of where the animal might be from geographically, their standard life span, and height and weight.

But those lessons and conservation measures become pretty personal pretty quickly in the face of another living being. Across from Ember and Hadiah was an entire wall display dedicated to the harm caused to their species’ homeland by the over-extraction of palm oil.

And just about everything you buy may have palm oil in it, without your ever knowing it. I used to buy tons of products brimming with palm oil.

Yet, it was encounters like these—with Ember and Hadiah—that led me to learn to look for sustainably sourced palm oil products. Our local zoo’s gone and done something about it by developing a free app as a guide (the Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping app).

While I was reading the literature on palm oil, I looked over at my two daughters, who’d started a no-holds-barred public wrestling match. And there was this moment where I panned back and forth between Ember and Hadiah, and my daughters, and in that moment the thought flashed: we’re closer than we think. Just a branch apart on the tree of life.

Love isn’t limited to humans. And you see this everywhere at the zoo. It expands your awareness of the planet and the amazing animals we’re privileged to share it with. It reminds you to take action to prevent distant harm. And above all, it makes your world a bigger, brighter place.

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