Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Funds should go to conservation, not cages

Ever since I first learned about Google Alerts, I’ve been receiving dozens of links to articles about zoos on an almost daily basis. Over the past few years I’ve gotten in the habit of printing out articles about new zoo exhibits and the refurbishment of old zoo exhibits, especially if they indicate their cost.

I expect that anyone reading those articles in isolation say to themselves, “Wow, that’s a lot of money” and leave it at that. I suppose it’s a natural reaction since a great many new zoo exhibits range in price from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, certainly a lot of money to most of us. But most people don’t think about the fact that zoos all over North America and around the world are engaged in the same kinds of expensive projects as their local or regional zoos are. And when you start to add up the costs, it’s mind blowing.

Here’s just a small sample of what I’ve come across in the past week or so. The National Zoo recently opened a new elephant exhibit that cost a whopping $56 million. The Oregon Zoo plans to exceed that with their own $58 million elephant exhibit. Meanwhile the Houston Zoo will open a $28 million gorilla exhibit in 2015, while this summer the Dakota Zoo will open a small primate exhibit that, by comparison, is dirt cheap at only $750,000. As I sat down to write this blog, another one came in. The Indianapolis Zoo is planning a $30 million orangutan exhibit. Those few projects come in at a staggering $172.75 million and that’s just the tip of the proverbial “new exhibit” iceberg.

About three years ago I added up all the zoo capital projects that were featured in articles in a 1 month period. I’m sure I didn’t see them all, but what I did see added up to $1.213 billion dollars. They’d house at most a few hundred individuals representing a motley assortment of species. All in the name of conservation.

Most of the zoo promotional material that’s used to rationalize these obscenely expensive exhibits feature vague claims about how important they are to public education, conservation and how they’ll produce a positive conservation outcome that will benefit animals and their wild habitats. Of course, most of that commentary is unsubstantiated, meaningless and self-serving. The reality is that most zoos talk the talk, but when it comes down to putting their money where their mouth is, they don’t do much to help. Instead, they construct monuments to waste and pat themselves on the back for doing it.

There are thousands of conservation projects around the world that are starving for funds. They’re aimed at preserving habitat, conducting anti-poaching patrols, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, fighting the wild animal parts trade and addressing a plethora of other concerns. Pick a handful of these projects at random, look at their cost and at what they can accomplish and it becomes abundantly clear why they should be funded and not the new zoo exhibits.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.


  1. Absolutely true. It is disgraceful to me and utterly hypocritical for zoos to claim what they do. Far better to educate through video of animals in protected areas (sanctuaries, African parklands, etc) than to keep one locked up in captivity. None of those animals can be very happy at all. So for anyone who truly loves and respects wildlife, I'd heartily endorse helping true conservationists to their work. That's what I do.

  2. I have been told the the WHOLE Amboseli Research Project runs on about $500,000 a year. Nothing has taught us as much about elephants, over 40 years, than that project. . . it's truly heart breaking, how many elephants in the wild that money could save and protect.

  3. Many zoos indeed do put funds towards conservation funds and release efforts.