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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 5, 2009

Paradise Lost?
Support zoos so we can learn about the “entangled bank” we share

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The fifth-graders at Altamont Elementary School are working hard to raise funds for a trip that will be the culmination of their years at the school. This spring, they will travel with their families to the Bronx Zoo.

But what if the zoo weren’t there?

That venerable institution opened its gates to the public more than a century ago, in 1899. The zoo is a place that kids have been able to count on for decades. The Wildlife Conservation Society that supports the Bronx Zoo, one of the first conservation organizations in the country, began with a clear mission: Advance wildlife conservation, promote the study of zoology, and create a first-class zoo.

It has succeeded on all counts. Since its beginning, the society has been at the forefront of conservation, starting with a successful effort in 1907 to save the American bison from extinction. Its work has helped create more than 100 protected areas around the world from the coastal forests of Gabon to the coral reefs of Belize. “These areas,” says the society, “encompass some of the wildest places that remain on Earth and are home to animals that are vulnerable to extinction, important to humans, and powerful icons of nature.”

In teaching people — grownups as well as kids — about wild animals and their habitats, the society has created advocates for their protection.

Current exhibits at the Bronx Zoo include one called African Plains where visitors trek past lions and zebras and storks as African wild dogs and giraffes eye each other. “It’s as close to the Serengeti as you can get in the Bronx!” promises zoo literature.

Another display features a 13-and-a-half-foot Nile crocodile that weighs 800 pounds. Madagascar’s top predator, the Nile croc is important in Malagasy culture “as both a fearsome predator and a revered symbol of power.” Other creatures from the world’s fourth-largest island include “leaping lemurs” and “hissing cockroaches,” the zoo promises, all found in native habitat with towering baobabs and octopus trees.

At Tiger Mountain, visitors can “come nose-to-nose with Siberian tigers” in a woodland that recreates the Russian Far East “where they will discover training, toys, and foraging games that help the big cats stay fit and stimulated.”

The Altamont kids can also learn about creatures that come from their own country, like the grizzly bear, a subspecies of the brown bear. Their fur is sometimes tipped with white or tan, giving them a grizzled appearance. But, the zoo assures, despite their grisly reputation, these bears eat mostly berries and usually avoid humans.

At a time when humans have threatened the natural balance of the world — ravaging native habitats; polluting water, land, and air; and even causing the climate to shift — we need now more than ever to understand those creatures with which we share the planet.

But, despite this, funding for zoos is being cut. Governor David Paterson’s budget proposal calls for cutting all funds to New York’s 76 zoos, botanical gardens, and aquariums. Times are tough and Paterson understandably wants to close a $15 billion shortfall, but cutting 100 percent of zoo funding is unwise. Many zoos have said they will have to close down exhibits or close up entirely. Their leaders have pointed out that, if you have animals or fish or plants, you have to care for them.

The website for the Bronx Zoo has a funny video that shows a man in the zoo director’s office solemnly telling a worker he’s fired because of the budget cuts. The worker turns out to be a prehensile-tailed porcupine that ambles sadly away, down the long hall as a frog sits outside the office door, waiting his turn.

The amusing clip makes the point that the Bronx Zoo has brought millions of visitors, like the kids from Altamont, to the city and thereby generated millions of dollars for the economy.  In tough times, people often cut back on far-flung vacations and visit venues closer to home.

In his State of the State Address, the governor called for “shared sacrifice”; cutting back on zoo funds would be difficult but understandable; total elimination of funds is unacceptable.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is circulating a petition, available online at www.wcs.org, that states the proposed state cuts would “seriously compromise the financial health of the living museums that host 12 million visitors annually and attract millions of tourism dollars to New York.” It goes on, “Overall, the total economic activity generated by the Wildlife Conservation Society during fiscal year 2008 was $414 million.”

We urge you to sign the petition.

And we urge our legislature not to support the 100-percent cut.

Four-fifths of Americans now live in urban areas. Zoos, botanical gardens, and aquariums are among the only ways people who are divorced from nature come to understand the other species that share the planet.

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859, our Earth had fewer than a billion people. Darwin wrote of species that were interconnected with each other in ways we still don’t fully understand.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,” he wrote, “clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

People now number over six-and-a-half billion, and countless species have gone extinct. In the 21st Century alone, we have already lost the Baiji dolphin, which once swam in the Yangtze river in China; the West African black rhino; Spix’s macaw that brightened the jungles of Brazil; the black-faced honeycreeper and the Kama’o thrush of Hawaii; the Pyrenean ibex; and the golden toad of Costa Rica.

The World of Reptiles at the Bronx Zoo teaches about the threat to amphibians around the world. The zoo calls the extinction crisis “unprecedented since the age of dinosaurs.”

Five years ago, a survey of amphibian species, the Global Amphibian Assessment, found that almost a third of the world’s known amphibian species are threatened, and, since 1980, more than 100 species had gone extinct. Climate changes have led to outbreaks of the Chytrid fungus that is killing off amphibians around the globe.

 How many of us even know about this crisis let alone what we can do to solve it? Maybe we should all take a trip to the Bronx Zoo like the Altamont Elementary kids.

It’s time we learned before it’s too late.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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