Which would you rather ride on: a green grasshopper, a squiggly caterpillar, or a chariot drawn by a dung beetle?
At the Bug Carousel in the Bronx Zoo, there was none of the usual scramble for the usual favorites. I watched first-timers squirm as they assessed the options.
“Is that a worm?” A girl with pigtails pointed with unconcealed revulsion. “That’s so gross.” A little boy hesitated before the giant honeybee. He patted it first, before clambering on.
There are 64 hand-carved critters on the Bug Carousel. Its soundtrack comprises a composition of real insect sounds, captured by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the organization that oversees the zoo. By the end of the ride, everyone was having a ball atop their chosen insect. Even the babysitting grandmother, stuck with the curly earthworm, clung on with gleeful delight.
For many children, riding on the Bug Carousel might be their only positive encounter with insects.
New Yorkers have busy lives. Some city dwellers might go for years without ever getting out into nature. For many people, a visit to the zoo might be their only encounter with wildlife.
At the zoo, people have an opportunity to make a personal connection with animals. And, it is in our nature to care about things that we connect with.
I reached out to Scott Silver, a conservation biologist, who served as the director of the Queens Zoo for 20 years. Dr. Silver invited me to accompany his zoo conservation class on their annual fieldtrip to the Bronx Zoo.
“It might be a tiger pawing at the glass. Or seeing the sheer size of an elephant for the first time. In that moment, you form a personal bond with that animal. You develop empathy for it. You begin to care,” he explained. “The zoo fosters a public constituency for wildlife conservation.”
Although many consider zoos to be mere entertainment venues, a central function of a zoo is educating the public on wildlife conservation. Each week, busloads of children stream into the Bronx Zoo to learn about endangered species, including the plight of commonly misunderstood animals. One such lesson is that vultures can eat deadly pathogens like rabies, cholera, and even anthrax without passing them on to others or harming themselves. Vultures are nature’s best clean-up crew, but also one of the most vulnerable families of birds. Currently, 14 of the 22 vulture species worldwide are threatened with extinction.
Education is not limited to the classroom. Placards — diligently researched and carefully designed — are placed throughout the Bronx Zoo. They tell visitors about the favorite food and pastimes of the animal on display, whilst also explaining how the species is affected by poisoning, pollution and deforestation.
When I invite friends to the zoo, I am frequently snubbed. Concerns over animal welfare, based primarily on media coverage of animal husbandry practices in non-accredited institutions, have resulted in a cadre of animal lovers who protest vociferously: “Zoos make money off animal cruelty.” They could be right, partly.
Not all zoos are alike. The Bronx Zoo is among the small proportion of zoos in the US that are accredited with the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To attain this accreditation, a zoo must meet demanding and scientifically rigorous standards of animal welfare and veterinary care. Furthermore, they are required to contribute a considerable percentage of proceeds and research toward wildlife conservation and education. The ethos and practices of unaccredited zoos can vary widely. Rather than writing off all zoos, reluctant visitors should do their research and be discriminating about which zoos deserve their patronage.
The other criticism often hurled at zoos is that keeping wildlife captive is fundamentally cruel. Dr. Silver describes a contrasting reality, based on 40 years of first-hand observation: “Many animals do really well in a zoo setting. Tigers, lions and snow leopards are often very lazy. They enjoy sitting in the sun and being fed. Some of the most content animals I have seen are cats at zoos.”
Education may set the groundwork for an appreciation of nature, but it is the personal interaction with animals, which a zoo facilitates, that leaves the lasting impact. “There is a sense of wonder that people retain well after their zoo visit,” says Dr. Silver. “When people see animals, have a chance to interact with animals, they are moved. The next time they make a decision about something, they remember.”
I present you with this challenge: Stop by the Bronx Zoo Bug Carousel, and choose the cicada (most children do not). Ride on the back of this extraordinary creature, which spends up to 17 years of its life burrowed beneath the soil, before making just one fleeting appearance above ground. Whilst the air once vibrated with the cicada’s deafening shrill, changing temperatures have disrupted their seasonal rhythm, threatening the species’ future.
When you leave the zoo, can you honestly say that you care nothing for the cicada’s survival — after riding eight circles with it on the carousel?
Alice Yan is an environmental lawyer and Fulbright scholar in Columbia University’s Department of Ecology Evolution and Environmental Biology. Her research focuses on ecological conservation, ecosystem dynamics and predator-prey relationships.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.