MA Zoo-Funding Battle Hints At PC Zoo-Management Infection

July 30th, 2009 3:13 PM

The zoo I'm referring to is the Franklin Park Zoo (FPZ), not the Massachusetts state legislature, although the slang version of the word's meaning likely applies there as well.

As reported in a July 10 Boston Globe story, in reaction to Patrick's line-item veto of $4 million of the FPZ's $6.5 million annual subsidy, Zoo New England, which runs the FPZ's two zoo sites, ".... in a written statement that echoed a letter sent earlier to legislative leaders, said they would be unlikely to find homes for at least 20 percent of the animals, 'requiring either destroying them, or the care of the animals in perpetuity.'"

After a fierce public and political backlash, zoo management appeared to pull back. Glen Johnson at the Associated Press on July 13 said that  "it stepped back from that claim over the weekend, saying 'there are no plans for the zoo to euthanize any animals in the collection as a result of the budget cuts.'"

Or did they?

On July 15, the Boston Herald reported that "The chief of the Boston area’s two major zoos is standing by statements that the facilities would shut down and some animals would have to be euthanized if the Legislature does not restore $4 million in state funding."

Yesterday, the AP reported that state's legislature plans to restore $2.5 million of Patrick's $4 million cut yesterday in a veto override package.

With all the back and forth and the de facto animal death threats, it's more than a little surprising that this story didn't have a wider national breakout. But that is indeed the case: A Google News search on "Boston Zoo Patrick" (not in quotes), sorted by date but with no duplicates, returns only 74 results (not the 207 indicated by Google at the top of the related page). Fox News and USA Today appear to be the only outlets outside of New England that covered the story.

The July 10 Globe report by Matt Viser also notes that the FPZ's two zoo sites receive 570,000 visitors a year, an $11 million operating budget (meaning that taxpayers are funding about 60% of its operations), and a strange penchant for secrecy given its publicly-funded status (bold is mine):

.... a film crew is laying the groundwork to begin filming a comedy, “The Zookeeper,” starring Kevin James and Rosario Dawson, near an unused outdoor gorilla exhibit near the zoo’s rear entrance. Filming is scheduled to run from July 20 through October, and the zoo was paid a substantial location fee that zoo officials would not disclose.

More significant in the long run, a lengthy July 26 report by the Globe's Keith O'Brien on the status of the nation's zookeepers' thought processes (zoo-logic, if you will), has several clues that explain why zoos can't beef up their receipts from attendees and non-government sources.

It seems that zoo managements are slowly abandoning popular attractions in favor of turning their enterprises into indoctrination camps.

Here are key paragraphs from O'Brien's four-pager that reveal a bit of that zoo-logic:

Goodbye, Jumbo
The identity crisis of the modern zoo

Ron Kagan’s decision .... (was) shocking. The executive director of the Detroit Zoo announced in 2004 that he was voluntarily sending his zoo’s two Asian elephants to a California sanctuary, where the land was plentiful, the weather temperate, and the elephants could roam. The reason, Kagan said, was simple. To paraphrase: The zoo, despite its best efforts, was essentially ruining the elephants’ lives.

.... Kagan’s choice, which is still reverberating in the zoo industry five years later, marks the latest twist in a long, often clumsy, historical shift - from animals caged for our delight, to a more enlightened conservation message, and finally to the notion that zoos can actually change human behavior by teaching us about the ways we’re damaging the natural world. Now more than ever, zoos are bringing the message of wildlife conservation to the forefront, making it not only part of their marketing plans, but their core missions. Indeed, some zoo directors now say conservation is the only pure reason for keeping animals at all.

.... Even as government funding dries up, attendance at many zoos is steady, and even rising. And with the natural world in increasing peril - poachers killing elephants in Africa, climate change threatening habitats worldwide, and American children increasingly sealed off into safe suburban bubbles - many zoo officials feel that this is their moment, their chance to remind people why wildlife matters, before it is too late.

.... In a recent study conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums titled “Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter,” researchers surveyed more than 5,000 visitors and reported that zoos are indeed helping to shape the way people think about the natural world. Fifty-seven percent said their zoo visits strengthened their connection with nature. Fifty-four percent said zoos and aquariums prompted them to reconsider their role in environmental problems, and 61 percent talked about what they had learned.

But visitors don’t come to zoos “to eat their vitamins,” said Thane Maynard, executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. And so, zoos are trying to take on an ever more idealistic mission, while serving up fun by blurring the lines between the worlds of the humans and the animals.

.... Ron Kagan isn’t against conservation; that’s part of the mission, he said. What he’d like to see more of, however, is in-depth discussion about animal welfare, how to best gauge it, and what to do about it if zoos are falling short of meeting animals’ needs. It’s a discussion that may lead to the conclusion that the zoos’ ultimate mission means giving up more of its animals, but Kagan’s all right with that.

I don't know about you, but it seems that there is an offensive undercurrent of thought in modern zoo-logic that treatment of animals in bygone years was presumptively cruel.

It would be one thing if the zoos were truly private entities making these decisions on their own. And of course attention must be paid to evolving standards relating to what constitutes proper animal care.

But given the fact that so many zoos are now at least partially subsidized by the government, it seems that there is less focus on pleasing customers within proper animal-care constraints and more focus on creating politically correct "teachable moments." That focus may partially explain why non-government receipts from attendance and donations is mostly flat. Government-funding cutbacks in the form of gradual zero-outs might force zoos to get back to their core mission within more reasonable financial constraints. It should be tried. Meanwhile, zookeepers whose knee-jerk reaction is to threaten the destruction of animals in their care if they don't get their way need to grow up.

Cross-posted at