I appreciate Lisa Remorenko’s effort, in her Pet Chat column, to distill the circumstances surrounding the tragic loss of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo’s silverback gorilla that was killed after a 3-year-old child fell into his exhibit.
I left a great job at World Wildlife Fund and an exciting stint as the executive director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to work in zoos because of their unique and important roles in conservation and education. So, it didn’t take the unfortunate Cincinnati Zoo incident for me to do any soul-searching about the safety of the animals under our care, the safety of our guests, or the justification for zoos.
Regarding safety, as a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), we train for a wide range of emergencies and regularly inspect exhibits. Over the years we have modified animal enclosures and viewing areas in direct response to zoo guests exhibiting unsafe behaviors. That’s our responsibility.
The debate over animals in captivity is legitimate and worthy of deep consideration. It’s the reason animal welfare, including exhibit design and behavioral enrichment activities, is a priority for us.
In order to make their case, the extremists intent on closing zoos often marginalize or ignore the significant contributions that accredited zoos and aquariums make to conservation and education.
However, the evidence around us can’t be ignored. California condors again soar over the Sespe Condor Range and island foxes scamper around native habitat in Channel Islands National Park. Zoos played a vital role in their recoveries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) licenses over 2,000 animal exhibitors, but only 220 are accredited by the AZA. That accreditation sets the Santa Barbara Zoo apart in terms of safety, animal welfare, contributions to conservation, education programming, and other operations. We thoroughly inspected every five years by the AZA, and annually by the USDA.
I was disappointed to see Remorenko employ the usual rhetoric used by a small group of extremists to paint all “zoos” with the same brush. It is like trying to describe all public schools as though they were cloned from a single institution. Each school has its own strengths and weaknesses. And so it is with zoos.
Just as teachers are dedicated to educating the next generation, everyone at the Santa Barbara Zoo is committed to sharing the wonders of nature and to nurturing a sense of responsibility for its preservation. The zoo is not the final destination for learning about nature and caring for wildlife — it’s the launch pad for exploring the riches of the natural world that surround us on the central coast and beyond.
Visit the zoo and attend any one of the six or more daily “Keeper Talks,” enjoy one of the live shows by our amazing puppets, or check out California Trails and see how our conservation program aids in the recovery of local species. If you have questions, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich Block is CEO of the Santa Barbara Zoo.