Zoos should leave the ark metaphor behind

Isolating wildlife from a deluge of human influence is only part of a solution to the world's biodiversity crisis.
Zoos should leave the ark metaphor behind

It's time for zoos to move beyond the ark metaphor and embrace the complexities of sustainable development.

This is the central theme of a new book chapter, “Zoo Conservation Disembarks: Stepping off the Ark and into Global Sustainable Development”, written by myself and co-author Dr. Adrián Cerezo in The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation (published by the University of Chicago Press). 

For over a century, zoos have used the metaphor of the ark to describe their role in society. The story of the ark was originally used by zoos to describe the aggregation of all of God’s creation under a single roof. The modern re-telling shifts the focus of the metaphor toward the great flood of human influence with zoos serving as lifeboats. In this version, zoos are described as unique, isolated havens striving to rescue biodiversity in a sea of uninhabitable ecosystems that have been irreversibly damaged by humans.

During the transition from menageries to conservation organizations, zoos have cultivated an unparalleled knowledge of captive breeding and captive population management. However, this specialized knowledge shows its limitations when zoos attempt to reintroduce animals into the wild. While knowledge of captive breeding is necessary to address many elements of wildlife conservation and the even more complex agenda of global sustainable development, it is far from sufficient.

In the case of species reintroductions, there is also the need for expertise on how to consistently and successfully release those animals into the wild that is beyond the scope of a typical zoo’s mission. In other words, it’s impossible to release successfully captive-bred animals into the wild if there’s nowhere for them to go.

No matter how well zoos do their job of sustaining captive populations of endangered species, these animals cannot thrive in their natural environments until issues of poverty, over-utilization of natural resources, environmental injustices, and lack of gender equity, among others, are resolved. And try as they might, it is impossible for zoos to take on all sustainable development issues that are intertwined the goal of wildlife conservation.

This limitation is not unique to zoos. Other institutions are confronted with the same realization that no matter how well they do their job, sustainable development is a multidimensional issue that must be addressed from all directions. No institution, no matter how large or well-funded, can take on this complex and multidisciplinary agenda by itself. The United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), shining beacons lighting the path towards sustainability, are interrelated in such a way that it is impossible to fully accomplish a single goal without making significant progress on others as well. For example, the nutrition kids receive at home (SDG 2: Zero hunger) has an obvious effect on their ability to focus in the classroom (SDG 4: Quality education). And clean water for drinking (SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation) is intimately intertwined with the health of aquatic ecosystems (SDG 14: Life below water).

The solution lies in systems. Institutions, including zoos, must disembark from their isolated lifeboats and work together in collaborative partnerships with institutions of differing expertise to achieve progress in multiple aspects of global sustainable development. Achieving the SDGs requires a close network of specialized institutions working towards a shared vision of a sustainable future. No single institution, no matter how passionate or well-funded, has the resources or competence to tackle all of the Sustainable Development Goals simultaneously. But by leveraging their expertise within a network of institutions, lasting impact can be made on multiple goals at once. Though tangible progress may not be as immediate as could be made by pushing forward on a single goal or single institutional agenda, the progress made by simultaneously considering multiple facets of sustainability will be more resilient and lasting.

From the perspective of zoos and aquariums, it is time to step away from the ark and into the complexities of global sustainable development. 

(Illustrations by Dr. Adrián Cerezo, Yale University. Illustrations originally published in The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation.) 

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