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Zoo Is Not a Dirty Word

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A small, vocal group of animal activists in Los Angeles is mounting a campaign to halt construction on the new elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo, and to send the Zoo's Asian bull elephant, Billy, to a sanctuary.

As a writer, I know the power of words, and "sanctuary" is one of those wonderful words that packs a lot of emotion. Serene, safe, peaceful, idyllic -- all come to mind. Murmuring the word sanctuary through half-slitted eyes while conjuring the images the word evokes is enough to make me want to sign up to live in one.

Depending on your experience, "zoo" is also an emotionally loaded word. My own mental associations with the word have evolved dramatically over my lifetime. Childhood visits to the Bronx Zoo and others sparked a lifelong love of animals and fascination with their behavior. My family still laughs over an incident 30 years ago, when my little sister dropped her spending money into the monkey moat and then watched as one showy simian plucked the dollar bills from the water, held them up for all to see, and then promptly ate them.

In my twenties, I began to question the motives of zoos: Were they jailing animals for our entertainment who could otherwise be allowed to roam free?

My compassion for animals and my fascination with monkeys and apes in particular not only inspired my novels Monkey Love and Monkey Star, but also led me to pursue a degree in primatology and to work in both zoo and sanctuary settings.

Having worked at both, I can tell you what zoos and sanctuaries have in common: people who love the animals and are passionate about their welfare. Almost without exception, the people I've worked alongside were tireless in their efforts to care for the creatures entrusted to them.

The main difference, in my experience, is that sanctuaries by and large have fewer resources and lower standards for accreditation. At the sanctuary, we routinely fed expired and rotten food, doing our best to cut off the foul parts of each piece of produce, unable to toss out the whole batch because we were entirely dependent on donations from local grocers. Requests for much-needed supplies went unfilled for months, not due to lack of care, but lack of funds. I depleted my own cupboards to bring in treats for the chimpanzees I cared for, and recruited my fellow primatology students from Cal State Fullerton to help assemble Christmas gifts filled with goodies.

I still have great admiration and respect for my sanctuary colleagues, but most of them, like myself, eventually left the setting because they were heartsick at never being able to do enough.

For the past eight years, I've been involved with the L.A. Zoo, first as a research intern, then volunteer, and eventually staff. Working in a zoo, I was immediately struck by the size and quality of the animal habitats and the ready availability of most resources. And while the staff was as committed to animal care as my sanctuary friends, there were more of them. More vets on hand, more keepers assigned to each section, more volunteers chopping food and cleaning habitats. My only regret in leaving the sanctuary world was that I could not bring the chimpanzees I cared for with me to the zoo.

Animals at the Los Angeles Zoo lack for nothing. They have five full-time staff veterinarians, leaders in their field, on site not only to care for them in emergencies, but to provide routine preventive care using the latest digital diagnostic equipment. They receive fresh produce daily and their diets are determined by professionals trained in the field of animal nutrition, not dictated by what donations were able to be scrounged up that day.

Admittedly, there are good sanctuaries and bad ones, and some have deeper pockets than others. I'm not here to bad-mouth sanctuaries, but rather to challenge people's assumptions of zoos and sanctuaries, assumptions often based on gut reaction rather than science.

Working at a zoo put to rest my naïve questions about zoos' ulterior motives. Zoos may have originated as menageries, places to publicly exhibit nature's oddities with little regard for the animals' intrinsic needs, today "displaying" animals takes a backseat to preserving them. The zoos of my sister's money-eating monkey have evolved from places of spectacle to centers of serious science and conservation.

Zoos accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) not only adhere to a very strict set of animal care guidelines--much stricter than the USDA licensing requirements for sanctuaries--they also work tirelessly toward the bigger picture: the survival of species.

Conservation is the guiding principal of modern zoos, and it's not just a buzzword. Bringing this back to the elephant, there are fewer than 35,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild. Poaching, habitat destruction, and the illegal ivory trade threaten their continued survival. While caring for the elephants in their immediate care, AZA-accredited zoos also provide funding and field support for conservation programs on the ground in Asia. They are also arks, places where elephants and other endangered animals can breed and be assured a future.

The Los Angeles Zoo is in the middle of constructing an expansive elephant habitat that will be bigger than the gorgeous facility at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, yet the aforementioned well-intentioned but under-informed people have repeatedly attempted to derail the project in favor of sending Billy to a sanctuary, even a theoretical sanctuary that has yet to be designed, built, or tested.

If successful here, they will not stop at this zoo (indeed, related attacks have been ongoing at zoos nationwide). Nor will they stop at elephants. Giraffes and gorillas, prairie dogs and pill bugs--any creature living in a facility termed a "zoo" will be targeted by these groups as needing to be "saved."

But before you send money or sign a petition to save zoo-dwelling pillbugs, prairie dogs, or pachyderms, I implore you to visit your local zoo, speak to the biologists, veterinarians, researchers and keepers who care for them. If we all learn about what modern accredited zoos do, and share that knowledge with others, then perhaps one day, when people close their eyes and whisper the word "zoo," they'll see the same idyllic images that the word "sanctuary" currently conjures.

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