Hancocks wants to reform more than just the way zoo animals are housed and treated. “My proposal is to uninvent zoos as we know them and to create a new type of institution,” he tells us, going on to call for a fundamental rethinking of the entire purpose of zoos. The display of animals for their own sake is not justifiable, but zoos can and should be pivotal institutions in practicing and promoting conservation. Many zoos today do indeed tout their conservation efforts, but according to Hancocks, most such efforts are mere show, having little or no effect outside their own doors. He argues that the proper focus of zoos‘ attention should be whole ecosystems, particularly local ecosystems instead of the typical diet of glamorous species.
“Visitors to San Diego Zoo can hear messages about the threat of tiger extinction and nod their head in concern, then drive north to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and hear messages about the depredation of elephants by poaching,” he writes. Between the two institutions, they will have traveled “through a region in which virtually every square inch of native chaparral habitat has been destroyed.” Though it’s one of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth, there is no hint at either zoo of the magnitude of the local Californian problem. “It is too uncomfortably close to home.”
An emphasis on exotic species and faraway habitats such as the Amazon rain forest, notes Hancocks, serves to distract us from the problems of our own eco systems, which are often just as fragile. How many U.S. citizens know that North American hardwood forests are in danger of disappearing? he asks. We live today with a paradox: Many children know more about exotic species like dolphins and pandas than their grandparents could have imagined, but next to nothing about their local fauna and flora. In one study of Arizona children, none of the Anglos and only about half the Hispanics knew that the fruit of the prickly pear was edible, yet it has been “a major food source in the area for at least 8,000 years.” An important role for zoos in the future should be to lead the fight for conservation of and education about local ecosystems, says Hancocks, and he endorses a proposal that would have every accredited zoo essentially adopt an ecosystem.
Again, rather than focus efforts on a small number of “charismatic megafauna,” Hancocks calls for zoos to make preservation of total biodiversity their primary goal. Preserving a tiny fraction of the mammalian order will mean nothing if whole ecosystems collapse, and recent environmental science is throwing up evidence that ecosystems decline catastrophically when key species are lost. Those may not be the most “appealing” species in any traditional sense, but it is precisely the concept of what we find appealing in nature that Hancocks hopes zoos of the future will change. Given that declining biodiversity is probably the greatest of all the environmental challenges we face, Hancocks‘ book has a special urgency. This is not just a cry for the wild, but a call to arms.