The two births at Chehaw Wild Animal Park caught my eye recently – a colobus monkey and an eland antelope. Zoo animal births are not an uncommon occurrence. Hundreds of animals are born at zoos around the world every week. But these two births were special to me because they occurred at my hometown zoo. I can go see these babies.
Unfortunately, deaths also occur at zoos. It is a byproduct of the circle of life. The Oklahoma City Zoo was touched last week by the death of a 37-year-old Asian elephant named Chai. According to news reports, the elephant died unexpectedly and was the second to die at the zoo in the past six months.
Chai became a bit of a celebrity last year when animal rights activists unsuccessfully tried to block her transfer from the zoo in Seattle, insisting that she be sent to an elephant “sanctuary” instead. Now, these same people are railing against the Oklahoma City Zoo and calling for them to shut down their elephant program.
The death of a couple of elephants at a U.S. zoo pales in comparison to what is happening every day in the wild. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, in 2012 alone some 35,000 elephants were killed in Africa, which works out to an astonishing 96 animals killed every day.
The death of three elephants made the news recently when a British helicopter pilot was shot out of the sky and killed trying to stop elephant poachers in Tanzania. The vast majority of these wild animals die unknown deaths. If not for zoos sounding the alarm, nobody would notice.
Zoos raise money for conservation and fuel the public outcry over these senseless deaths. If we do away with zoos, as animal rights activists would have us do, then we would not know that a baby colobus monkey is snow white when it is born, that a mother eland hides its newborn baby in the tall grass, or that the life expectancy of an Asian elephant is about 48 years.
Do I get emotional about the birth of a colobus monkey or the death of an African elephant in the wild? Probably not. It is the animals in my hometown, my state and my country that draw my attention. They inspire me to care.
That is where I learn about the tragedy of elephant poaching and that colobus monkeys are one of many species threatened by the bush meat trade in Africa. The value of zoos (and aquariums) is that they personalize wildlife, stirring our emotions, teaching us respect for other creatures and creating young conservationists in the process.
We tend to care about what we know, and what we know is what we see around us, not what is occurring in some far off land. In Oklahoma City, they mourn the death of an elephant while in Albany, we celebrate new birth.
In both of these instances, we can find a glimmer of hope for the future of wildlife under siege.
Doug Porter recently retired after serving as executive director of Chehaw.