Chris Selley: Zoos are shrinking amid lagging attendance and higher costs — and that’s a bad thing

Chris Selley: Zoos are shrinking amid lagging attendance and higher costs — and that’s a bad thing
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This week, Edmontons Valley Zoo was again named one of the worst in North America for elephants which is to say for Lucy, whom critics allege lives an unconscionably cramped, frigid and lonely existence. And perennially embattled Marineland, in Niagara Falls, Ont., was slapped with six new animal-cruelty charges.

The Bowmanville Zoo, east of Toronto, long beset by animal cruelty allegations, shut its gates for good on Thanksgiving. And in June Buenos Aires announced plans to close its 140-year-old zoo, at least partly on principle. This situation of captivity is degrading for the animals, said Mayor Horacio Rodriguez.

John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, suspects this winnowing process will continue: I think in 25 years we will have seen some shrinkage, mostly in the roadside zoos but some even in the mainstream zoos. Minimum socially acceptable animal welfare standards keep increasing, and adhering to them isnt cheap, he says.

Clment Lanthier, president and CEO of the Calgary Zoo, agrees. I think there will be fewer zoos, he says. Zoos will be more focused i.e., not just places to come and stare at the largest possible variety of animals.

Falling attendance has dogged the Toronto Zoo, Canadas largest, in recent years. And even as city taxpayers subsidize it to the tune of $12 million a year, a family of four has to shell out a whopping $72 to visit. Calgarians contributed $7.7 million to their zoo in 2015; the same family of four paid $76 to visit. If observing animals is valuable education and entertainment, Netflix streams lots of natural history documentaries in glorious HD. The animals are in their natural habitats and, unlike in zoos, guaranteed to be awake.

All the more reason, then, for zoos that are much more than menageries to educate the public about their role. A lot of people dont really see the conservation that zoos do, not only through (captive) breeding but out in the wild, says Maria Frank, the Toronto Zoos curator of mammals. Zoo revenues constitute the third-largest funding source for conservation efforts, she says, citing the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Were not an attraction. We are a science-based, education-based organization.

On that front, Canadas major zoos are on the same page. I think youre going to see zoos and aquariums really turning into centres of engagement, says Nightingale, places to inspire concern for endangered species and habitat preservation, and to nudge visitors toward acting upon that concern.

The Toronto Zoo recently took me on a four-hour behind-the-scenes tour. As someone not especially fascinated by animals except as pets and sources of protein, I was prepared to be bored. I was not. Indeed, if everyone could get that tour, the zoos attendance worries would be over.

In the reptile department, Rick Vos deftly corralled a wee Massassauga rattlesnake into a plastic container, where we could see it angrily twitching its tail in vain. (They gain their rattles as their skin sheds.) Vos is part of an effort to re-establish the rattlers in southwestern Ontario.

Leanne Collett is helping to repopulate Rouge River valley, adjacent to the Toronto Zoo, with Blandings turtles. The goal is to release 50 juveniles every spring for 15 years. In my inexpert opinion, they are a particularly hilarious species of turtle: a little one Collett plucked from its tank flailed its limbs, repeatedly extended and retracted its neck, and then just gave up and went limp. An older gentleman turtle, ironically named Captain Sunshine, looked as if he were plotting Colletts assassination.

The Vancouver Aquarium is well known for its work rehabilitating and re-releasing injured sea animals; on Thursday it opened a state-of-the-art $544,000 hospital at its Mammal Rescue Centre built entirely with private money.

Canadas leading zoos do similar work, away from visitors gaze. The Granby Zoo, in Quebecs Eastern Townships, is also in the turtle-breeding business: Patrick Par, the zoos director of conservation and research, says they will soon breed and release their thousandth endangered spiny softshell turtle into the wild. If you find unwanted bats in your attic, he might offer them refuge: the zoo is trying to address the fungal white-nose syndrome epidemic. The Calgary Zoos huge Centre for Conservation Research breeds endangered whooping cranes and black-footed ferrets.

Back in Toronto, the gregarious Cynthia Lee, curator of fishes and marine invertebrates, breeds critically endangered freshwater fish from Madagascar and Lake Victoria, in Africa. She might be the best pitchwoman an unsexy, endangered fish could ever have. Schoolchildren seem to know more about rainforests than Canadian ecosystems, she says. The first question we ask is, Can you give us a Canadian endangered species? Not a fish on that list!

Denise Prefontaine, director of the child-centric Edmonton Valley Zoo, says education is the primary mission for her relatively small facility: the zoo doesnt have polar bears of its own, she says, but nevertheless we have a story to tell about the North.

In addition to generally spiffing up animal habitats and the visitor experience, the Toronto Zoos ongoing revamp part of a $162 million strategic plan includes a new pavilion dedicated to Canadian species. And if that might not be the biggest commercial draw, its easy to imagine that the new Wildlife Health Centre, slated to be finished in the spring, will be. For zoologists and veterinarians, its a state-of-the-art medical facility. For visitors, its a place they can watch surgery being performed on everything from rattlesnakes to rhinoceroses and lions.

Major surgeries might happen weekly, says Chris Dutton, the zoos head of veterinary services, but non-major ones more often: We do root canal treatment on large carnivores, for example. (I might pay money to see a lion get a root canal just for the suspense. Others, I suppose, might find it educational.)

The new Rouge National Urban Park, next door to the Toronto Zoo, is a huge opportunity to provide a bigger, more coherent and locally relevant nature experience, says CEO John Tracogna. Having visited the revamped zoo, he says you should walk away saying I was in Canada; they had a good focus on Canadian species; I learned a lot.

While the new zoo model is all about science and education and conservation, it is also essentially pragmatic capitalism: displaying animals in captivity in humane conditions, including big ones from far away that people really just want to gawp at pandas, for example, are a sure-fire draw in order to make money for wildlife preservation at a time when scientists warn tens of thousands of species are at unprecedented risk.

Its extremely sad, but the reality is that zoos are necessary, says Lanthier, CEO of the Calgary Zoo. If zoos didnt exist, he says, someone would probably invent them just to fend off extinctions.

Over time, some of those big animals from far away will probably disappear from zoos. The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps killer whales. Prefontaine, director of the Edmonton Valley Zoo, takes great exception to strident criticism over Lucy the elephants treatment. She says Lucy is treated lovingly by dedicated staff. But she also notes the zoo long ago committed to Lucy being their last elephant for many of the same reasons Toronto, Calgary and other zoos sent their elephants to sanctuaries: more suitable climate and habitat, and more elephants to hang out with.

Taxpayer subsidies aside, however, the basic model seems entirely defensible: people will pay a lot of money to look at animals in captivity, and the money can be used to help animals in the wild. Sixty per cent of animal populations in the world have disappeared in a matter of 50 years, says Lanthier. The question should not be should we have zoos or not. We should raise the bar and expect better from zoos: every zoo should be concerned about animal welfare, invest in conservation and try to connect people with wildlife so that we can change that trend of animal populations disappearing.
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