From zoos to environmental education & ecotourism centres

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 Bashing villains (soft, anonymous, targets not, say, a powerful hotel developer!), real and perceived (all-inclusives, orphanages, slum tourism, voluntourism) is becoming a bit of a tradition these days. A UK-based responsible OTA, a minor player compared to mainstream OTA giants yet a big one on the adjectival tourism scene, has abruptly announced that they will no longer be promoting zoos. This makes sense although one wonders why and if they were promoting them in the first place. Zoos will probably not become too worried - they have a steady demand and better public relations record and CSR standards than, say, aquaria housing orcas and other dolphins (which is, according to most marine scientists, outright animal abuse). Some like the Philadelphia Zoo, try to create more 'humane' and natural (and spectacular for visitors, of course) conditions for wild animals in the form of aerial, circular pathways. Many zoos are now creating bigger, barless enclosures, faux-habitats, with natural vegetation, moats and glass partitions - these mostly make humans feel better. But a number of quality zoos are actively involved in reintroduction programs and fund conservation efforts and environmental education, as well as training and employment for environment & conservation graduates. It is not fair to dismiss all zoos, and all that zoos do, as evil. On the other hand, anyone who has looked a caged tiger in the eye can attest that this feels very wrong; if you believe in animal rights, this is slavery. From a political ecology viewpoint, zoos are the ultimate (western) symbol of human authoritarianism and domination over other life forms and a visible and direct legacy of the era of European imperialism and exploitation of other continents and peoples.

Thus, the right path for quality zoos to is to accelerate their transition to zoological & environmental education centres for the benefit of the new generations of urban children while continuing to generate much-needed funding and expertise for conservation. Modern technology already offers, and will offer far more, exciting alternatives to a caged animal displays: 3D interactive displays, holograms, real-time waterhole cams, tracking collars. Zoos can focus on reproducing and reintroducing highly endangered animals and tracking and displaying real-time, released animal progress in the wild, treating hurt wildlife, campaigning against recreational hunting and animal abuse and teaching children how to respect and be responsible pet owners. There is also space for botanical gardens, for organic agriculture and permaculture exhibits (and courses) as well as for educational arcades (edutainment) and ecotravel booking centres. Each Zoo should adopt one or more specific protected areas in the global south and benefit neigbouring local communities through ecotourism promotion and capacity building, set up cultural exchange programs, and appropriate infrastructure. Thus a realistic proposition is: existing zoos should commit to not replacing any, non-endangered, wild animal that dies with another one and to use the empty space for alternative educational and fun uses as above. At the same time, legislation should change drastically and no new old-style zoos should be licensed, at least in countries that pride themselves about their environmental and animal abuse legislation. But I believe quality, zoological & environmental education centres have a new role to play in the 21st century and the solution involves engaging with them, rather than just not promoting them or ignoring them.

Oh, and if you do eat meat but express outrage about animals in cages, please consider the irony (and stop eating meat!)

On Overbooking
 

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