In early February, I was contacted by CNN to review an episode from the 3rd season of MORGAN SPURLOCK INSIDE MAN, which airs on February 5th, 2015. This episode portrays life in captivity for a number of species across the spectrum of facilities licensed to house exotic animals in the United States and ponders the ethics of keeping animals in zoo settings.
With much accuracy, the segment conveys the sentiment of directors, curators, animal care managers and keepers at accredited zoos throughout the US and Canada. Spurlock's show, which is filmed on location, examines Detroit Zoo's particular and unprecedented effort to promote the welfare of all of its animal residents on a daily basis. Although the program follows the daily activities of penguins, lowland gorillas and elephants, it speaks to the broader treatment of charismatic species confined to the campuses of zoological parks in municipal regions, where expansion of zoo habitats is often limited.
There is little attempt to hide anything behind-the-scenes. As for most holding areas in zoos, the night quarters are designed to facilitate husbandry practices and not to "wow" patrons who are rarely given access to off-exhibit areas.
The Spurlock segment provides a very objective view into the conventions of keeping animals in zoological facilities. It speaks to the limitations of captivity and what the standards of care mean for captive wildlife including sentient creatures like gorillas in today's accredited zoological parks.
Once considered radical by members of the zoo community, Scott Carter and Zoo Director Ron Kagan (both of whom are interviewed in the episode) are now considered progressive among industry veterans. They have demonstrated that the public really values a zoo that is willing to offer an honest assessment of its own animal management practices and the welfare of the animals under human care at its facility.
As a former zoo keeper, I would argue that this is one of the best, if not the best, televised, behind-the-scenes look at husbandry and health practices in a modern zoo. Some may argue, but for a single episode, this piece explores a number of issues in a most comprehensive manner. It showcases the realities of day-to-day operations, the interface between the keepers and the animals, the "perspectives" of the animals themselves as they experience a day on exhibit, and some of the experiences of the patrons and public at large.
What I appreciate most about this piece, having had a fairly intimate tour of the Detroit Zoo by Scott Carter a few years back, is that this CNN program really speaks to the typical experience for an animal at an AZA- accredited institution, if one can surmise what that is like in any regard. CNN, and perhaps, the Zoo, elected to feature some very common off-exhibiting holding areas for animals, and not necessarily the Zoo's most state-of-the art exhibits. Hence, the piece provides a very typical behind-the-scenes experience for the viewer. Again, it is an honest and candid portrayal of accredited zoos today.
The featured roadside zoo in the segment also exposes the potential treatment of captive wildlife under the auspices of anyone with a USDA license. I don't know that the sentiment of the owner of the roadside zoo is shared by the majority of people running USDA licensed, unaccredited zoos, but it speaks to the lack of regulation permitted in operating such a menagerie. Hence, CNN does an exemplary job of juxtaposing the accredited facilities with the unaccredited facilities not only in terms of animal welfare, but in terms of the credentials and competency of animal care providers. Hopefully, this is conveyed to viewership as it was conveyed to me--someone with more of a trained eye.
The featured sanctuary PAWS is perhaps a bit of an outlier, although as far as sanctuaries for elephants, in particular go, it is very representative of the few, but spacious enclosures found in elephant sanctuaries in the US.
The segment speaks to the semblance of freedom offered to these intelligent, sentient creatures (elephants) and I think it will provide the public with an appreciation for what some zoos may neglect to be able to offer their elephants. Although, I should note that many zoos housing elephants have recently upgraded their facilities extensively, putting millions of dollars into new more expansive enclosures under pressure from AZA. With that said the footage taken and narrative recorded from Ed Stewart will certainly motivate viewers to contemplate the benefits of placing zoo elephants in sanctuary settings vs. confining them to smaller spaces in zoos.
Overall it is a very compelling and honest look into the life of a zoo animal. Again, I appreciate that by intention or mere accident it features very typical and standard housing facilities of a modern day zoo both in regard to the environments the animals call home (e.g. night areas and exhibits).
I'm eager to follow the response from the viewership. I think it will be enlightening and provocative at the same time. I also hope in viewing this, that leaders of other major metropolitan zoos will follow Detroit Zoo, endeavoring to be as honest with themselves and the public in sharing a very transparent look at some of our country's most popular and controversial attractions.
I enjoyed Morgan's treatment and approach. He added just enough levity and thoughtfulness to the segment.