Gigi the gorilla celebrates her 36th birthday in 2008 at the Franklin Park Zoo. (c) Zoo New England. Image credit:TwitPick, by zoonewengland.
Stop me if you've heard this one.
A veritable All-Star Team of international environmental, scientific, and governmental organizations repeatedly warn that unless we do something in our own lives and pressure our elected officials to take action, multiple species are likely to vanish from the planet, some in as little as a decade.Many people-not you Treehuggers, of course-say, "Oh, how awful. Someone should really do something." Then they yawn and/or scratch themselves while changing the channel, reading the latest Tweet about how MJ is still dead, or clicking on to the next funny video of a dog making pasta.
(Oh, like it's not out there, somewhere. Go look. I'll wait.)
This goes on, for years.
But then, as with Zoo New England's recent shrewd campaign against budget cuts proposed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the plight of some more individualized animals breaks through the static with a much more immediate dilemma.
ABC covered it.
Rapt, outraged, motivated attention surges through the web, starting locally, building regionally, and going national and international within a day or two. Emails and blog posts are strongly worded. Send keys are vigorously punched. Credit cards and e-petitions are speedily deployed; politicians and zoo officials are implored, denounced, and, usually, cowed: the animals shall live, no matter what.
And the people shall feel good about themselves for caring about the animals.
It makes psychological sense-even if it's ecological nonsense-for you to get more upset about the travails of Knut the polar bear in the Berlin Zoo or the Gorilla Family of the Franklin Park Zoo (one of the two zoos run by Zoo New England) than you do about blogless bears losing their Arctic habitat or gorillas without downloadable trading cards being hunted for bushmeat in Africa.
Zoo animals are your e-neighbors, and you can feel you have some real power over their fate. You can relate to them, they're your friends on Facebook. Those other threatened animals are just so...undifferentiated.
And totally off-grid, for reals.
The terrible, fierce, emotional beauty of the age we live in is that you can care about a captive animal you visit reliably-whether online or merely across town-and use the tools of the age to do something about its particular, individualized fate in ways you can't for the masses of wild animals facing extinction. Zoos-and the technological and physical intimacy they make possible-have become really, really good at inspiring people to save animals...that live in zoos.
So, the outrage sparked this week over the threat of cuts to the Zoo New England organization makes admirable psychic sense in an aptly Emersonian fashion: "Man brings the test of all things to himself." And as with the earlier uproar over Knut, this dynamic raises troubling questions about how we relate to our environmental challenges, and the way we prioritize them.
(To say nothing of how we prioritize the threat of budget cuts to zoos alongside those to human health care, senior care, education, and a host of other issues beyond the scope of this blog.)
These cuts, which will probably have been fully reversed by the time you read this, could have ended up meaning not only that the Stone and Franklin Zoos would have had to close in a year, but also that -some two or three years down the road-the state might have had to euthanize as many as 20% of the zoos' current animals.
(Full disclosure time: Zoo New England and Earthwatch have ties to each other, both through formal collaborations and in the informal social sphere of the non-profit environmental profession in New England. As always, my thoughts here are mine, not Earthwatch's.)
The first predicted outcome-the zoos' having to close-seems to have upset lots of local people, understandably, on the "Hey, I like that zoo! I take my kids there! Someone oughta save it!"-level. The second outcome-which was raised by Zoo New England itself in a masterful bit of guerilla gorilla public relations-seems to have upset people all over the state, throughout New England, and across the globe.
Simply put, the vague, "we're just sayin'"-style observation that animals the state couldn't find homes for would eventually have to be killed went viral faster than H1N1.
As seems to be the way of such things, more people took action online (and through quaintly old-fashioned phone calls) to forestall this possible negative outcome for a relative handful of "endangered" captive animals than even E.O Wilson, in his maddest green-fever dream, could hope would rise to prevent species-level extinctions.
What happens to the Twitter-less gorillas?
It's one thing, after all, to follow the adventures of the Franklin Park Zoo's Gorilla family via in-person visits and online check-ins so that when you hear their lives might be threatened, you'll send off an angry email or twenty. It's another thing to follow the precarious situation of nameless, Twitter-less gorillas worldwide and find a focus for your concern or outrage. Do warring African paramilitary factions destroying gorilla habitats respond to tearful SMS messages from suburban sixth graders?
Don't misunderstand: I think it's great that threats to zoo animals get people so riled up that they take action. And I think it's really great that technology allows for people to take those actions-and feel strands of connection to these animals-that weren't possible even a few years ago.
But I also fear that the very ease with which we can, in fact, "do something" about these small-scale outrages (because that's what they are when compared to probable-not hypothetical-mass extinctions of wild animals) diffuses, rather than focuses or sustains, our sense that we must-and maybe can-do something about more truly global problems.
At my most cynical, I despair that these periodic and intense periods of attention to the fate of a few zoo animals let us purge too easily, too quickly, our pity and fear for the plight of entire species, or even the planet at large. While I actually applaud Zoo New England for pulling off its version of National Lampoon Magazine's infamous 1973 cover ("If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog."), I'm left unsettled by the fact that, once again, lots of people who obviously care deeply about animals are missing the forests for the cages.
It's not an either/or, of course: one can send outraged emails to Governor Patrick to stop the hypothetical euthanizing of Little Joe and to the heads of West and Central African governments to help them stop an actual bushmeat crisis endangering all the great apes. And one can certainly offer financial support to both the local zoo-including its conservation education programs-and worldwide conservation agencies, which actually need the money a great deal more urgently.
If even half the people who've ever taken e-action after getting outraged about a fiscal threat to their local zoo, or to a distant-but-familiar zoo animal being followed via a webcam, also acted on behalf of the worldwide biodiversity crisis, we'd be using this technology to make real progress.
But if that's not happening, I'm afraid we may be using it simply to feel better about our immediate psychological environment at the expense of our willingness to effect change in the wider world.
The old adage of thinking globally and acting locally may have to be readjusted: these days, we can-and should-be able and willing to do our thinking and acting on behalf of animals both near and far, captive and free, Twittering and silent.
By: George Grattan
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