Book Review: The Ark & Beyond – The Evolution of Zoo Conservation

The Art and BeyondEditors: Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, James Collins with a Forward by George Rabb. University of Chicago: 2018.

If I were teaching a graduate course, or indoctrinating new board members, I’d make this required reading. And if I were leading the zoo or aquarium I would have my staff read it together, section by section, across a year. I’d use it to carefully examine our organization’s origin story and history, its evolution in response to animal science and care, and its response to public and community needs. Then I would take extra time with section Four, Caring for Nature: Welfare, Wellness, and Natural Connections, and section Six, Alternative Models and Futures, to review our institutional mission and strategic plan to take up this challenge in the most appropriate yet expansive and meaningful ways possible with no boundaries but our globe.

Kera Abraham Panni, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommended this book to me. We discussed it when we were arranging for MBAq to join the We Are Still In Cultural Institutions sector. She would draw from the MBAq’s chapter “Expanding the Role in Conservation Action” to share the aquarium’s success story on the We Are Still In page, but you should really read the complete version in this chapter. It is a textbook example of how an institution learned to change the world by learning how to change human behavior.

Reading that chapter, and the other 28 is a crash course in Zoo/Aquarium history, conservation history. This collection of essays is an incredibly important, critical exploration of what it has meant, and now could mean, to be a conservation and educational institution. And it is a strong call to action: zoos and aquariums have a moral responsibility to continually develop the possible practices for care of creatures and habitats within their purview and throughout the world – and to engage the planet’s population in caring as well. Without the efforts of these institutions and their staff this work cannot be done well-enough for future generations of human and non-human animals to survive as we know them today.

In preparation for this writing, most of the 48 authors participated in one or more of a series of strategic convenings of researchers and practitioners from zoos and aquariums, academic institutions, and applied research organizations. Out of that “’thinking community’” (a reference to Aldo Leopold) the authors developed and now share their thoughts. They have clear and strong voices, and they back up their messages with considerable research. They take different approaches while all supporting the premise that zoos and aquariums are critical conservation organizations that must expand the use of their considerable standing and abilities to leverage a much larger, more interconnected effort to “prevent the extinction of more species and educate the public about their conservation.”

In the forward George Rabb writes “…the ultimate threat leading to the extinction vortex for populations and species is us, the human species. Further, most members of our species have become more separated from the natural world in urban concentrations, and thereby appreciation of and concern for the diversity of life have been diminished.” Based on the progress described in these pages, and new research, Rabb calls or a future where zoos and aquariums place even more emphasis on “environmental conservation as behavior expected of all peoples,” writing that our institutions not only must educate visitors to change their own views and practices, but “also spread the concern for the existence of all other life to friends and neighbors and acquaintances. Visitors to zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and natural history museums make up a tenth of the people on the planet….” Zoos and aquariums must “embark on changing the outlook and behavior of zoo visitors and supporters to achieve a sustainable relationship with the natural world and all its species.” Just think what would happen if museums, gardens and heritage sites added their collective efforts as well.

The editors write:  “The overarching theme of the project, the theme that bound us [authors] all together, was the meaning and significance of zoo and aquarium conservation as an idea and as a set of practices, and how an understanding of its complex traditions, challenges, and opportunities could be absorbed into broader narratives and discussions in conservation history, environmental ethics, the history of the life sciences, and conservation biology.” These valuable chapters are organized in six sections:

Part 1   Protoconservation in Early European Zoos

Part 2   The rise of US Zoo and Aquarium Conservation in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Part 3   Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Today: Visions and Programs

Part 4   Caring for Nature: Welfare, Wellness, and Natural Connections

Part 5   The Science and Challenge of the Conservation Ark

Part 6   Alternative Models and Futures

I cannot say enough about them all, so I plan some posts on my favorites. If you want a hint, then here it is. As a proponent of the critical role of zoos, gardens, aquariums, museums and historic sites in supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, I cheered during the introduction and the closing, and chapters 8, 11, 12, 15, 19, and 28, when authors aligned this work with decades of efforts by the United Nations and now the Sustainable Development Goals, or Agenda 2030, aligned with the Paris Agreement. Thank you, authors!

I’ll add to this my own chorus: with only a tenth of the planet’s population visiting zoos, aquariums and natural history museums, the rest of the museums, gardens, and heritage sites must join zoos and aquariums to unabashedly accept the responsibility of helping  visitors and communities become thoughtful, active, connected and courageous stewards of life on this planet. “What’s in your future?”

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