One of the ‘games’ I play when visiting zoos is sneakily correcting people about animals. If someone is gushing over how cute the baby jaguar is, I’ll call over my boyfriend with a “Hey, come look at the ocelot!”. If someone is commenting how they always thought kangaroos were bigger, I’ll read the sign stating average lifespan of a wallaby out loud to who I’m with. Sometimes I’m a little more up front about it…I’ll just state a random fact about the animal or say something like “oh the axolotls are always too hidden for me to get a good photo”. I don’t like conflict and I don’t want to make anyone feel stupid for not knowing…but I also don’t want people to go home thinking they saw forty species at the zoo that day when it was actually sixty.
Now I understand I graduated in zoology, have worked at zoos, and frequent zoos often so I tend to know animal species a little more than the average zoo goer but this is still a frustration of mine. Let me tell you why:
Signs: The most obvious reason…I have yet to visit a zoo that hasn’t posted even the most basic sign about the animal you’re looking at. Even the worst zoos I’ve been to have at least ‘LION’ hand painted on a board and nailed to the fence. Yes sometimes the signs are not right in front of your face but they are usually pretty easy to spot.
Conservation: What you thought was an armadillo was actually a pangolin, the most trafficked mammal in the world. By reading the signs and understanding what you are looking at it might give you a different outlook on the animal in front of you. Maybe when you realize you’re looking at an animal who has lost 90% of it’s habitat to deforestation you might decide to adopt one on the way out. By encountering an orangutan for the first time and learning how unsustainable palm oil is wiping them out, that visitor may change their spending habits in their home.
Education: Even just for the fact of an educational outing, please learn what it is you are looking at. Maybe it will just be another animal name that you know; it may help you during trivia night sometime. Who knows you might even learn something about yourself or the world! Did you know that weird thing you just assumed was like any other crustacean at the bottom of the ocean is in fact a horseshoe crab? Did you know that they have had a profound impact on human medicine?
Children: Quite often when I’m hearing people referring to animals by the wrong name it is parents discussing the animals with their children. Now I understand with young kids it’s easier to say ‘monkey’ rather than ‘gibbon’ because they may already know what a monkey is, or say ‘cat’ for all of the big cats….but is it really? Children are picking up on a lot of vocabulary and teaching them the difference between a tiger and a lion is not that big of a feat. In terms of older children who have an easier time with the distinctions, why WOULDN’T you? Raising your children to have a broader view of the species throughout the world and the challenges they face with climate change, habitat loss, and poaching (to name a few…) can make them more environmentally conscious adults in the future. For example linking shoreline cleanups with the spiny softshell turtle they fell in love with at the zoo could encourage them to take part. After experiencing the popcorn scent of a binturong and discovering the island of Sumatra on a map, your child may become an advocate for its critically endangered inhabitants.
Conservation relies on awareness and public interest. A major aspect of zoos is raising awareness and encouraging the public to relate to the species they are interacting with, which in turn boosts activism and conservation efforts. If every zoo visitor left having learned about the challenges of a species they otherwise did not know existed, that species has a better chance of survival. Donations, awareness, and greener living and spending habits are what can turn the fate of species around. Knowing how small interactions can produce big lifestyle changes is perhaps why I find it most irritating. I still discover new species during zoo visits! So next time you’re at the zoo try to discover at least one new animal!