12 min read

Zoos Are Sort Of Educational, But Not That Helpful

<p> skeeze / <a href="https://pixabay.com/en/wolf-canis-lupus-grey-wild-canine-518209/" target="_blank">Pixabay</a> (Public domain) </p>

If you are to deprive an animal wild by nature of freedom, or if you breed a naturally wild animal to produce young that will be imprisoned throughout their lives, it seems to me to be morally imperative to have very good reasons to do so. Therefore, I believe zoos must do exactly as they claim to do: take care of the animals' needs and welfare; inculcate respect and concern for animals; contribute to the conservation of endangered wildlife species, and educate the public about animals and the environment.

Recently, I agreed to help prepare a critique of one of the claim that zoos are educational. The effort focused on what is probably one of Canada's most "educational" and largest zoo, the Toronto Zoo.

Having visited that zoo since before its 1974 opening (I was hired to illustrate some of its animals even as it was under construction), I had grown weary of seeing minimal information about many species kept there, as well as overhearing the public misidentify species, fail to read signs, and teach errors to their kids. For decades, I had been informally observing how the public reacted to available information.

There are now far more signs and teaching aids available at the Toronto Zoo than in years gone by, and yet as I began to try to quantify the information, I ran into some problems, each deserving of far more discussion than is appropriate for a blog, but let me focus here an aspect of the claim that zoos are educational.

The real purpose of zoos, generally, is to entertain (and, with regard to private zoos, make money). But you do get little gem-sized indicators of some education, as when a child will say something like "Warthogs run with their tails up!" or "Snakes really aren't slimy." However, my impression is that much of such knowledge is acquired elsewhere. On the occasions they exist, the enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the animal comes with the kid and were obtained elsewhere.

Signs range from giving virtually no information about the animals to a great deal, and they are usually, but not always, accurate.

But this is not about signs, nor even about information. As a matter of fact, I just recently learned you can go online and find educational material about some of the species on display on the Toronto Zoo's website. You don't need animals in zoos to achieve that. Visitors were hard-pressed just to read the signs, let alone go online to learn more. Even I didn't know the zoo had that information available.

But there is another concern that occurred to me as I read the sign for the Arctic wolf, a subspecies, or race, of "the" wolf.

To fully understand what that means, you have to know what a subspecies is, and that requires a fundamental understanding of evolution, nomenclature, and taxonomy - not a university education, but knowledge that is all accessible to interested lay people. But most people are just not that interested. Thus there is rampant confusion over such terms as race, subspecies, geographic variation, breed, hybrid, cline, and so on. Indeed, a large percentage of the American, and smaller percentage of the Canadian, population don't even "believe in" evolution, and thus can't start to know how and why "types" of animals are named!

Click here to learn more about how species and subspecies are named.

In the case of the Arctic wolf, the online message says "This wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). The year-round white coats and slightly shorter ears and noses distinguish them from the other subspecies of Canis lupus. They are also slightly smaller in stature." All true and worth teaching, but what, exactly is a subspecies? If you know, you are unlikely to have to visit a zoo to learn about Arctic wolves. And for that matter, the story of the Arctic wolf becomes complex and interesting.

Click here to read more about the issues surrounding the subspecies classification of the Arctic wolf.

It is not that a person who wants to learn about animals cannot do so from a visit to the zoo, but rather, that a zoo is not necessary, nor conducive, to such learning. It is a place where kids romp on splash pads or a merry-go-round, or eat junk food, and adults push strollers or snap pictures and a good time is had by all, except for the animals.

One response by the zoo community is, of course, that at least people get to see the animals they might otherwise learn about, and I'll address that, and other pro-zoo rationales, in future blogs.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,


Species and subspecies: Put very simply, a subspecies is subdivision, within a species, consisting of an interbreeding population that is in some ways different from others of the species in other parts of the overall range, and yet freely interbreeding, or intergrading, where the two groups overlap. A species is always identified by a scientific name that is a "binomial," consisting of two words, the first, the genus, in this case Canis, and the second indicating the species, in this case lupus. If the species is found to have "subspecies," the species name of the first described subspecies is doubled - Canis lupus lupus - while the new subspecies and any subsequently seen and described are given a different third name, in this case Canis lupus arctos. The genus name is always uppercase, species and subspecies names are lower case, the name is always in a different font (usually italics) than the accompany text, and the subspecies name is called a "trinomial."

The Arctic wolf: Some research involving DNA analysis shows that Arctic wolves are very recently evolved, thus not "deserving" of subspecies status since they lack haplotypes distinct from adjoining wolf subspecies. And, if we try to describe "haplotypes," it gets very complex and technical - let's just say the DNA of Arctic wolves may be the same as that of the adjoining subspecies, plural, including Canis lupus lycaan. But, that research has been called into doubt, and certainly, visually, they are different (they are, for one thing, white!). Also, they continue to evolve, and it looks like changes that have been detected could indicate increased hybridization with domestic dogs (which, in turn, originated from wolf ancestors, and while given separate species status, are, in a very real sense, the same species!). Furthermore, there is now a belief that our "eastern" wolf may be the same species as the endangered American red wolf (Canis rufus) and evolved in some way from coyote hybridization.

Yes, yes, I know that all of the complexity and confusion, and I have given the barest outline, is most definitely not what the zoo visitor, myself included, wants to know. That's my point!