You would think that saving animals from extinction is a pretty straightforward goal, right? Not at the St. Louis Zoo, where zookeepers "are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save." According to a New York Times article by Leslie Kaufman, "Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list."
For example, the priority of saving the ruffed lemurs - a species native to Madagascar - from extinction is currently taking precedence over the lion-tailed macaque:
Now scores of these black-and-white ruffed lemurs are being bred here at the St. Louis Zoo and at other zoos across the United States as part of a broader effort to prevent their extinction.
But Ozzie, a lion-tailed macaque, will never father children. Lion-tails once flourished in the tops of rain forests in India, using their naturally dark coloring to disappear into the height of the jungle. Though there are only about 4,000 remaining in the wild, not one among Ozzie’s group here in St. Louis will be bred. American zoos are on the verge of giving up on trying to save them.
According to Dr. Steven Monfort,"the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, part of the National Zoo in Washington," this means of unnatural selection is due to zookeepers placing entertainment value above conservation, and thus lacking the resources to save more species and not neglect others:
Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur. And less emphasis should be placed on animals that are popular attractions but are doing fine in the wild, like African elephants and California sea lions, Dr. Monfort said, adding that they should be replaced with animals in desperate need of rescuing.
He wants all zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to aim higher on conservation efforts. “I am comfortable with raising the standards for zoos so that eventually it will be harder and harder to be accredited unless you are doing that,” he said in an interview. “If you can’t keep up, then you probably need to be dropped off the bottom.”
Indeed, the function of zoos has evolved over centuries, given that the first zoos were purely for the entertainment of the general public:
In their first century, American zoos plucked exotic animals from the wild and exploited them mainly for entertainment value, throwing in some wildlife education and a touch of preservation. When wilderness began disappearing, causing animals to fail at an accelerating pace, zoo officials became rescuers and protectors. Since the 1980s, zoos have developed coordinated breeding programs that have brought dozens of animals, like the golden lion tamarin of Brazil, back from the brink.
Some remnants of the olden days still persist, shortchanging species who are currently in need. The article goes on to describe how the St. Louis zoo spent $18 million on a new pool for sea lions - a species that is now thriving in the wild - instead of expanding breeding space for endangered species, or building a new pool for the walruses. This was due to the sea lions' popularity; they were the ones drawing in the crowds, not the walruses.
However, focusing more on the endangered species is not as easy as it sounds, as it could lead to overcrowding, which would not be beneficial to a majority of the other animals:
As standards for animal care rise and zoos install larger, more natural-looking exhibits, there is room for fewer animals.
In the 1970s, the primate house in St. Louis held 36 species of monkeys and apes. Now it has 13. And that narrowing of the species list is likely to continue for another reason. Zoos have come to understand that for animals to reproduce successfully for the long term without inbreeding, they need to maintain much wider gene pools for each animal. There are 64 polar bears in captivity in American zoos, far short of the 200 considered optimal for maintaining the population over 100 years. So zoos have been adding to the numbers of some species while culling others at the same time. St. Louis says it houses 400 more animals but 65 fewer species or subspecies than it did in 2002.
Undeniably, commerce matters, as it brings in the funds needed to expand exhibits and provide more productive habitats for endangered animals. But ideally, once the popular animals bring in the money, it should be distributed evenly among the animals who are most in need of it. But that's just an outsider's opinion, as I am unfamiliar with the inner workings of zoo finances.
The only thing that's for certain is that saving endangered species requires the collective efforts of as many dedicated individuals as possible. Only then can they all have an equal chance to be redeemed from the brink of extinction.
For more information on endangered species, visit the website for the World Wildlife Fund, where you can stay up to date on the latest conservation threats and opportunities to pitch in to save animals in need - both the ruffed lemurs and the lion-tailed macaques, and the walruses as well as the sea lions.