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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Our Hometown Zoo

Published 12/19/08
By Adam M. Roberts, Senior Vice President

So many people across the country have a hometown zoo. Mine in Washington, DC, about which I’ve written before, is rather dreadful. I had high hopes for what I might find in Sacramento when I visited our head office there this month.

High hopes dashed.

Are zoos good for conservation? I’m told that the Sacramento zoo spends less than $10,000 annually on conservation projects to help animals in the wild.

A Request for Proposals has been put out to study the zoo moving to a new location. The cost? $90,000. Really. Spending nine times more on a zoo move study than saving species in the wild. Shame.

Are zoos educational? Most exhibits at the Sacramento Zoo have one small sign, some graying and peeling, with a paragraph or two about the animal inside. You can, however, spend an additional three dollars to buy a plastic key to insert into a box to hear more about the animal on display. In our day at the zoo I saw not a single parent or child inserting the key and listening to the information. Not one. Education for a price? Doesn’t matter if it’s three dollars or thirty. If no one avails themselves of the service it’s a waste. And it lays waste to the claims of education at the zoo.

Of course, it’s not particularly educational to have African lions in an enclosure next to Asian tigers. It’s not educational to watch a hyena pace back and forth endlessly. It’s not educational to watch birds who can’t fly because of the restrictive roof over their heads.

If I were a better mathematician I would have had a great time comparing the square footage afforded to each animal to the square footage devoted to picnic table space and the gift shop and cafeteria. Suffice it to say, plenty of room for human visitors eating and stretching and relaxing and spending. Very little space for the animals.

Perhaps no exhibit showed this more starkly than the reptile house where two window cubes were placed one on top of the other: the top one, larger, had a toy frog and certificates about contributing to the zoo; the bottom one, smaller, had an actual animal in it. Seriously, what is going on here? Who is designing these exhibits? Clearly not someone placing animal care as the #1 priority.

It is a symptom of the “modern” American zoo, an urban jungle in American city centers. They are places to see animals up close. That’s it. Not conserve them in the wild. Not learn about them. Just watch them. We all pay a steep price for this gawking. But no one pays more than the animals whose lives are forever restricted in their zoo enclosure.

Tell me about your hometown zoo. Write to me at adam@bornfreeusa.org or fill out our Zoo Check form at www.bornfreeusa.org/zoocheck.

Blogging off,


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