🌿Wild Ones #48: Environmental Communication Digest

Environmental Keyword: 'The Captivity Paradox' and the Modern Zoo + A Green Approach to Linguistics + Visualizing Climate Change + More!

Eranthemum Sanguinolentum engraved by Benjamin Fawcett (1808-1893) for Shirley Hibberd’s (1825-1890) New and Rare Beautiful-Leaved Plants. Digitally enhanced from Rawpixel’s 1929 edition of the publication.

Hi everyone, welcome back to Wild Ones, a weekly digest by me, Gavin Lamb, about news, ideas, research, and tips in environmental communication. If you’re new, welcome! You can read more about why I started Wild Ones here. Sign up here to get these digests in your inbox:


🌱Environmental Keyword

‘The Captivity Paradox’

“The economic significance of charismatic animals to zoos has implications for animal welfare. The central, tragic paradox to this commodification of charisma is that many of the animals that are so captivating to zoo-going publics are those that fare least well in conditions of captivity. This is the captivity paradox.” –– Jamie Lorimer, in Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after nature

  • In the essay, Emma Marris makes the case for phasing out modern zoos centered on displaying captive wildlife for human ‘edutainment.’ Some conservation-oriented zoos could transition to wildlife-centered “refuge-zoos,” says Marris, which “could become places where animals live. Display would be incidental.” But the vast majority of zoos are no longer worth the moral cost of captivity.

  • Tracing the origins of the modern zoo to 19th-century European public zoos, modeled in particular on the London Zoo, Marris examines a shift in public discourse about the role of zoos in society: “Zoos shifted just slightly from overt demonstrations of mastery over beasts to a narrative of benevolent protection of individual animals.”

  • This shift from zoos as displays of human mastery to benevolent wildlife protectors led to the mainstream idea today that zoos are essential tools in wildlife and biodiversity conservation. There are two key discourses zoos embraced in “actively rebranding themselves as serious contributors to conservation.”

    1. Breeding captive wildlife as insurance against extinction: “Zoo animals, this new narrative went, function as backup populations for wild animals under threat…”

    2. Displaying captive wildlife as conservation ambassadors for their species: Marris interviews Dan Ashe (@DanAshe), president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. He tells Marris that the overall aim of zoos is to instill in visitors a “sense of empathy for the individual animal, as well as the wild populations of that animal.”

  • This second point is similar to the wildlife tourism discourse I often hear in my own research on the sea turtle tourism industry in Hawai‘i. This is the idea that tourists’ encounters with charismatic wildlife are an important conservation tool for getting people to actually care about wildlife and the natural world. (See Powell & Ham 2008 for example).

  • Even for conservation-minded zoos, staging close encounters with wildlife ‘on display’ is key to creating the perfect combination of entertainment and education (or “edutainment”): “Proximal, embodied encounters with charismatic fauna are the elixir here—from the Serengeti to the zoo,” writes environmental geographer Jamie Lorimer. “Their evocative, promissory images populate marketing materials” and “Wildlife managers go to great lengths to ensure bountiful and visible populations (at least within the bounds of the private spaces in which they might be viewed)….”

  • Many of the commenters on Marris’ NYtimes article also made the argument that “zoos help us care.” For example, Tom from Wisconsin replied: “You don't care about what you never see. We do not care about people in far off lands, do you expect we would care about their animals? Zoos do bring animals for us to see. Zoo bring animals for us to care about. With out exposure who cares if a species goes extinct. Zoos help us care” (note: typos in original post).

  • But for Marris, it’s not just that it’s unethical to hold charismatic wildlife captive so they can function as conservation ambassadors for the free-roaming members of their species (although that’s a key line of her argument). She’s also skeptical there is even a link between visiting a zoo for a day and subsequently adopting life-long conservation attitudes:

    “People don’t go to zoos to learn about the biodiversity crisis or how they can help. They go to get out of the house, to get their children some fresh air, to see interesting animals. They go for the same reason people went to zoos in the 19th century: to be entertained.”

  • If a zoo were modeled first on serving the spatial needs of wildlife, rather than those of humans – such as Marris’ proposal to transition zoos to zoo-refuges where “display would be incidental” and animals could live out their lives according to their own spatial needs – then the very commodity zoos depend on for their existence would likely slip away into the less controlled, less displayable wild spaces of a more spacious refuge. This is the ‘captivity paradox’ zoos face.

  • There is another layer to the ‘captivity paradox’: the wildlife most sought out by zoos are often the ones that struggle most with captivity. This is how Jamie Lorimer describes the ‘captivity paradox’ (to expand on a quote of his I mentioned at the beginning):

“The central, tragic paradox to this commodification of charisma is that many of the animals that are so captivating to zoo-going publics are those that fare least well in conditions of captivity. This is the captivity paradox…Although the living conditions of zoo animals have improved significantly in recent years, it is difficult—even with a sympathetic take on zoos’ claims for conservation—not to see these charismatic icons as sacrificial victims, performing their captive, commodified, and simulated lives so that other (often less charismatic, free-ranging) life might persist.”

  • So, what might a solution to zoos’ ‘captivity paradox’ look like? I’m really curious to hear how any readers out there remember their experiences at zoos, how this experience influenced your environmentalism (or not), and how/if zoos should be radically transformed. Emma Marris has one interesting proposal: Phase-out the breeding of captive wildlife in zoos (except when there are plans to reintroduce near-extinct species back into the wild) and then, turn zoos into botanical gardens:

“As an avid fan of botanical gardens, I humbly suggest that as the captive animals retire and die off without being replaced, these biodiversity-worshiping institutions devote more and more space to the wonderful world of plants.”

– Emma Marris, in Modern Zoos Are Not Worth the Moral Cost.


📚 What I’m reading


🎧 What I’m listening to


📰 News and Events


📚 Research


💡 Ideas


💬 Quotes I’m thinking about

“It is easy to think that if we protect species and ecosystems, then we will be protecting animals too. But while protecting species and ecosystems might help, it is not enough. Animals are more than parts of a whole, like drops of water or grains of sand. They are living, breathing, thinking, feeling individuals. What some animals need differs from what other animals need, and what animals need individually differs from what they need collectively.”

– Jeff Sebo, Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. In All we owe to animals, an essay in The Conversation.


✏️From the archive


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