The Meaning behind WAZA’s 2021 Season’s Greetings Card

Posted: 16 December 2021
By: Kimio Honda

Many zoos and aquariums around the world have worked very hard to save wildlife and wild places for well over a century. Despite wins and losses, the overall contributions are quite compelling. Zoos and aquariums have also kept up with their effort to improve the welfare of the animals in their care; they have been building the basic data, knowledge, and expertise that are hard to obtain in the wild, and applying them in return to help the animals in the wild. But over the past several years I have been saying that these efforts have left one key species mostly out of the picture: our own. Conservation and animal welfare issues exist because of us humans. Much of the efforts by zoos and aquariums to date can be characterised as symptomatic treatments and often equivalent to emergency care in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). While we must continue and strengthen the treatment of patients, we need to start paying attention to the cause.

If we look at these problems from another angle, they can be considered as the result of urbanisation or the transformation of industrial society. Over a half of the world population lives in urban society today. We have built the comfortable bubble of urban society, but in reality, the bubble is more like a womb of Mother Nature as we rely on the resources from outside and send out waste and pollution. The Biosphere 2 experiment famously demonstrated the practical difficulties of creating a closed system artificially. A biologist Paul R. Ehrlich once said that the industrial society is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature. The extreme growth of urban society is coming back to harm and poison itself.

In the meantime, the people outside of urban society are suffering severely. 11% of the world’s population are undernourished, and in 2018, four out of five people below the international poverty line lived in rural areas. On top of this, many local conflicts continue, and new ones keep emerging, even though large scale international wars have not happened for decades. 80 million people are forcibly displaced around the world.

It should be clear that it takes nothing short of a small socio-economic revolution in order to stop destruction of biodiversity and start building sustainable societies. Ultimately, we would need adjusted economic frameworks that are not based on perpetual growth of market: human population. Monetary economy may need some adjustments, too. Museums have been talking and acting about social justice and social change . How do zoos and aquariums fit in this picture?

One strategy in my mind is for zoos and aquariums to become a gateway to nature. Zoos and aquariums have been a window to nature; our guests remain in the bubble of the urban society. We should try to give them a taste of nature in the broadest sense. Zoos and aquariums in large cities have already become an important option of safe playgrounds. The opportunities should be expanded for children to play with sticks and branches, leaves, rocks, and dirt. Since most zoos and aquariums retain natural habitats on the grounds, the guests should get more cues about local wildlife including invertebrates, plants, and fungi that exist around them and should be given more opportunities to explore them. In my experience many guests are excited to find and look at local birds once they are told what types of birds are around.

The scope can be expanded to a day trip to the sea or woodland with an expert. These experiences can be tied to habitat restoration and other conservation-related activities, or agriculture and fishery. Partnerships with local nature centres and other organisations would lessen the burden and broaden the audience.

As conservation psychologists and authors like Richard Louv and David Sobel suggest, these activities and experiences should help raise the generations who are more likely to be wholesome and effective members of the society and have positive memories in nature, positive and intrinsic values in nature, and the physical, tactile understanding of nature rather than a conceptual, ideological notion. And if zoos and aquariums serve as a gateway to nature, these generations will have positive memories about zoos and aquariums in relation to nature, too.

As conservation psychologists and authors like Richard Louv and David Sobel suggest, these activities and experiences should help raise the generations who are more likely to be wholesome and effective members of the society and have positive memories in nature, positive and intrinsic values in nature, and the physical, tactile understanding of nature rather than a conceptual, ideological notion. And if zoos and aquariums serve as a gateway to nature, these generations will have positive memories about zoos and aquariums in relation to nature, too

Zoos and aquariums also can learn from museums about serving the communities with special needs. Art museums have been found to be able to offer effective services to enrich the lives of people with dementia and their caregivers. Zoos and aquariums should be equally fit to enrich and empower people with special needs, by not just tactile animal engagements but the views of extraordinary animals and plants in the unique spaces and atmospheres. It is important to widen and diversify our views on the public engagement beyond the traditional natural history and biology.

I already know zoos and aquariums who invite their communities in the efforts to improve local habitats; who invite families to plant plants within the animal enclosures for enrichment; who have a natural area set aside for finding insects and invertebrates; who have led member tours for decades to rocky shores and to a local mountain to see flying squirrels at night; who provide nature play opportunities; who offer programmes for children with special needs. So, I am not suggesting anything revolutionary. We only need to step up the effort and incorporate these elements as more standard practices. By doing so we can start nudging society and reducing the pressure on the ICU-style conservation efforts. Our social value will increase at the same time.

I realise that the capacity and opportunities for these suggested activities are limited even if we step up the efforts. One thing we haven’t quite figured out is how to capitalise effectively on the millions of guests who come through our gates. I had an exceptional privilege to work at the Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department of Wildlife Conservation Society for nearly two decades, where we could get really serious about how to reach our guests through everything they experience. From a temporary sign to landscaping, our design was guided by psychology and the cognitive biases our guests bring with them. Often we came up with our own hypothesis and tested them. I feel that the effort is still in its infancy but there are few institutions who take the matter as seriously as we did. Once we figure out how to reach our guests effectively, the next issue will probably be to figure out how to foster communities among them. (This is not a new idea, either. )

It is not a moment too soon for zoos and aquariums to start talking about and acting for social change. I am excited to see the WAZA Strategies for Sustainability and Conservation Education. My illustration is not about innovative exhibits, it is about my idea of what zoos and aquariums should be doing in order to achieve sustainable society that can coexist with wildlife and to maximise their social value. It is far from comprehensive representation, and it is as much a fantasy as a construct, but each element in it already exists and mirrors the two WAZA Strategies. I hope this piece triggers thoughts and inspirations in its viewers about current and future challenges and possibilities.

Kimio Honda

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.

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