July 30, 2009

MA Zoo-Funding Battle Hints At PC Zoo-Management Infection

Filed under: Business Moves,Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 2:57 pm

BostonZooPostPic0709The zoo I’m referring to is the Franklin Park Zoo (FPZ), not the Massachusetts Legislature or the Bay State’s Executive Branch — though the slang version of the word’s meaning likely applies to all of them.

As reported in a July 10 Boston Globe story, in reaction to Governor Deval Patrick’s line-item veto of $4 million of the FPZ’s $6.5 million annual subsidy, Zoo New England, which runs the FPZ’s two zoo sites, “…. in a written statement that echoed a letter sent earlier to legislative leaders, said they would be unlikely to find homes for at least 20 percent of the animals, ‘requiring either destroying them, or the care of the animals in perpetuity.’”

After a fierce public and political backlash, zoo management appeared to pull back. Glen Johnson at the Associated Press on July 13 said that  ”it stepped back from that claim over the weekend, saying ‘there are no plans for the zoo to euthanize any animals in the collection as a result of the budget cuts.’”

Or did they?

On July 15, the Boston Herald reported that “The chief of the Boston area’s two major zoos is standing by statements that the facilities would shut down and some animals would have to be euthanized if the Legislature does not restore $4 million in state funding.”

Yesterday, the AP reported that state’s legislature plans to restore $2.5 million of Patrick’s $4 million cut yesterday in a veto override package.

With all the back and forth and the de facto animal death threats, it’s more than a little surprising that this story didn’t have a wider national breakout. But that is indeed the case: A Google News search on “Boston Zoo Patrick” (not in quotes), sorted by date but with no duplicates, returns only 74 results (not the 207 indicated by Google at the top of the related page). Fox News and USA Today appear to be the only outlets outside of New England that covered the story.

The July 10 Globe report by Matt Viser also notes that the FPZ’s two zoo sites receive 570,000 visitors a year, an $11 million operating budget (meaning that taxpayers are funding about 60% of its operations), and a strange penchant for secrecy given its publicly-funded status (bold is mine):

…. a film crew is laying the groundwork to begin filming a comedy, “The Zookeeper,” starring Kevin James and Rosario Dawson, near an unused outdoor gorilla exhibit near the zoo’s rear entrance. Filming is scheduled to run from July 20 through October, and the zoo was paid a substantial location fee that zoo officials would not disclose.

More significant in the long run, a lengthy July 26 report by the Globe’s Keith O’Brien on the status of the nation’s zookeepers’ thought processes (zoo-logic, if you will), has several clues that explain why zoos can’t beef up their receipts from attendees and non-government sources.

It seems that zoo managements are slowly abandoning popular attractions in favor of turning their enterprises into indoctrination camps.

Here are key paragraphs from O’Brien’s four-pager that reveal a bit of that zoo-logic:

Goodbye, Jumbo
The identity crisis of the modern zoo

Ron Kagan’s decision …. (was) shocking. The executive director of the Detroit Zoo announced in 2004 that he was voluntarily sending his zoo’s two Asian elephants to a California sanctuary, where the land was plentiful, the weather temperate, and the elephants could roam. The reason, Kagan said, was simple. To paraphrase: The zoo, despite its best efforts, was essentially ruining the elephants’ lives.

…. Kagan’s choice, which is still reverberating in the zoo industry five years later, marks the latest twist in a long, often clumsy, historical shift – from animals caged for our delight, to a more enlightened conservation message, and finally to the notion that zoos can actually change human behavior by teaching us about the ways we’re damaging the natural world. Now more than ever, zoos are bringing the message of wildlife conservation to the forefront, making it not only part of their marketing plans, but their core missions. Indeed, some zoo directors now say conservation is the only pure reason for keeping animals at all.

…. Even as government funding dries up, attendance at many zoos is steady, and even rising. And with the natural world in increasing peril – poachers killing elephants in Africa, climate change threatening habitats worldwide, and American children increasingly sealed off into safe suburban bubbles – many zoo officials feel that this is their moment, their chance to remind people why wildlife matters, before it is too late.

…. In a recent study conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums titled “Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter,” researchers surveyed more than 5,000 visitors and reported that zoos are indeed helping to shape the way people think about the natural world. Fifty-seven percent said their zoo visits strengthened their connection with nature. Fifty-four percent said zoos and aquariums prompted them to reconsider their role in environmental problems, and 61 percent talked about what they had learned.

But visitors don’t come to zoos “to eat their vitamins,” said Thane Maynard, executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. And so, zoos are trying to take on an ever more idealistic mission, while serving up fun by blurring the lines between the worlds of the humans and the animals.

…. Ron Kagan isn’t against conservation; that’s part of the mission, he said. What he’d like to see more of, however, is in-depth discussion about animal welfare, how to best gauge it, and what to do about it if zoos are falling short of meeting animals’ needs. It’s a discussion that may lead to the conclusion that the zoos’ ultimate mission means giving up more of its animals, but Kagan’s all right with that.

I don’t know about you, but it seems that there is an offensive undercurrent of thought in modern zoo-logic that treatment of animals in bygone years was presumptively cruel.

It would be one thing if the zoos were truly private entities making these decisions on their own. And of course attention must be paid to evolving standards relating to what constitutes proper animal care.

But given the fact that so many zoos are now at least partially subsidized by the government, it seems that there is less focus on pleasing customers within proper animal-care constraints and more focus on creating politically correct “teachable moments.” That focus may partially explain why non-government receipts from attendance and donations is mostly flat. Government-funding cutbacks in the form of gradual zero-outs might force zoos to get back to their core mission within more reasonable financial constraints. It should be tried. Meanwhile, zookeepers whose knee-jerk reaction is threaten the destruction of animals in their care if they don’t get their way need to grow up.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.



  1. The zoo-logic is nonsense. As long as you feed them, water them and keep them mildly entertained, most animals are perfectly content. They could care less about how much land they have, whether they can “roam,” and whether the temperature is perfect. Wild Animals do they things to do to survive in the brutality of nature, not because it’s fun.

    The article also ignores that animals in captivity are far healthier and live far longer than their wild counterparts.

    And that “natural world is in peril” meme is more nonsense. In fact, the environment improves and has improved year after year. Things like “habitat destruction” and all the rest has declined. And as for “climate change” someone needs to tell these people those most animals thrive in warmer temperatures and not colder ones. But it’s not unusual for the AGW scaremongers to completely ignore the benefits of a warmer climate in favor of propagating the simplistic “warmer temperatures cause every disaster in the world and are 100% bad” notion unto the public.

    Comment by zf — July 30, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  2. Zoos can be great for the animals that we take good care of. They can be horrible for the animals that we don’t take good care of. When possible, I think we should only have animals in zoos that we can provide a decent life. These days, that’s most animals– just not elephants. And the problem, incidentally, has nothing to do with performing or being close to people. If so, you’d have a hard time explaining why elephants in logging camps don’t die early. It has to do mostly with feet, but that’s kind of off topic.

    I don’t understand why education in zoos is a waste of money but education at PetSmart isn’t.

    I’m not knocking Animal Planet, or kids. Nature shows have actually changed things for zoos– the audience is better educated and more realistic about animals, and they can talk about subjects that used to be meaningless to the average visitor.

    Comment by Fineblogsite — August 1, 2009 @ 12:39 am

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