"We all have in us this thing called biophilia, the kind of love of nature, and zoos are kind of a central gathering point for communities to connect with nature."
Zoos have been part of the fabric of human society for centuries. From early menageries to modern day facilities, the chance to see an exotic animal has been a captivating and enriching experience.
But that experience has not always been the same for the animals themselves. The past, present, and especially the future of zoos was the topic of a recent seminar held at Canisius College and the Buffalo Zoo.
Visionaries from around the world gathered in Western New York to discuss a variety of topics from architecture to ethics, and Canisius seemed a natural to play host.
"In Animal Behavior and Zoo Biology, Canisius is one of the leaders in The United States," says Michael Noonan, Chair of the Canisius College Deptartment of Animal Behavior, Ecology & Conservation. "We have the largest Animal Behavior program at the undergraduate level, and we have the nations only Anthrozoology graduate program, which studies this sort of thing; the impact that humans have on animals."
Western New York is also home to the Buffalo Zoo, which is a perfect example of the evolution of zoos. The zoo was founded in 1875, making it the third oldest in the United States. Like all zoos of that era, the early focus was on entertaining its guests, with the animals living in habitats that were unnatural at best.
But over the past few decades the zoo has undergone an impressive renaissance, flowering into a unique and engaging facility with emphasis on the welfare of the animals, as well as educating it's guests.
"Two of the very best exhibits I've seen in zoos anywhere are at the Buffalo Zoo," says Noonan. "I'm an absolutely huge fan of the Otter exhibit they've created, and the new Rainforest Exhibit is spectacular! And so, for me, especially as a teacher of zoo biology, it's a great opportunity because the students here and the public gets to see exactly what you've described, a zoo in transition."
But what has prompted this worldwide about face in zoo philosophy? That question can only be answered by the human animal, and in answering that question, we may find a deeper truth about ourselves.
"Stopping harm to others helps the others, of course, but stopping harm to others helps each of us recognize we have these possibilities," says Paul Waldau, Associate Professor Of Anthrozoology at Canisius. "We claim we're a moral species, we're very elegant when we're humble about that fact, and zoos' making every effort possible to protect, educate, and deepen our understanding of the fact that we live in a multi-species world, zoos have a major role to play here."
One of the most important areas of focus for zoos now is conservation, a goal aided by education.
"A really great impact for us in terms of helping conservation, is more in terms of education," says Ron Kagan, Director of the Detroit Zoo. "Getting people to understand the connections, how ecosystems work, how we can not only harm things less, help things."
"Lots of zoo work is very attuned to the best of conservation," says Waldau. "The leading zoos on this have been exemplary at trying to get people to pay attention to this, because even if zoos do everything right and the people don't follow, we're in trouble."
Despite all of the changes made in zoos...and bright futures ahead; there remain many challenges...and change that only we, as stewards can decide upon.
"I don't think entertainment is the most important thing," says Waldau. "I think, in a way, profoundly important education is, and that education is, we live in a multi-species world, we're going to live in a multi-species world, lets leave a rich version of that for our children, and zoos have an incredibly important role to play in that message."