Zoos: Thoughts from time as a volunteer

Zoos are the place where a lot of people come into contact with exotic animals for the first time – especially in Britain, Western Europe and North America, where much of our ‘wild’ life has been decimated over time as humans have colonised the landscape. Exotic creatures seem to enthral people, especially children, and zoos can have a magical grasp over adventurous and inquisitive young minds – including those of sometimes world-weary adults.

Some people keep that curiosity for nature and the environment and become conservators, naturalists, scientists and teachers, ever learning about and protecting the animals that captivate us. Likewise, I followed that interest into a PhD on the type of topic that made me stop and think, “how does that work?”. I soon found out that research requires a certain dedication and narrow-mindedness which, at times, can be overbearing. To offset this, I took an opportunity to volunteer at ZSL London Zoo. I took this to refresh my curiosity, to keep the seeking mind inside me alive. At the same time I saw this as an opportunity to learn something about myself.

Last month I had my final day as a volunteer after 4 years.

Did it help me? Yes! I looked forward to the Saturdays where I could watch the animals play, spend some time outdoors, and interact with people who were so excited at seeing monkeys or butterflies or sloths on their days out. To any researcher who might be struggling to see the bigger picture, to see why you decide to do what you’re doing, I fully recommend a trip out to a place where that topic is being shown to the public. Museums, zoos, nature parks, art exhibitions, library displays, wherever; seeing people’s enthusiasm for something is refreshing and can remind you of your own inquisitive self.

What did I learn? Plenty.

I learnt about zoos and spent time thinking about why they are popular and what they actually do for the species they keep.

    I don’t think you need the ‘big five’ to make a zoo work; the squirrel monkeys and emperor tamarins with their cheeky natures were very popular and the possibility to get very close to animals is enticing in itself. London Zoo is much better now it uses the little space it has cleverly, to keep more appropriate animals and more appropriate enclosures.
    Zoos might not be the best place for animals but, run well, the animals can live good lives. I didn’t have the chance during my time to talk to any visitor who disagreed with zoos but I understand that zoos aren’t perfect. The ethics and importance of zoos today is a difficult and delicate topic and one that I will need to read up on to give a proper account. There are some very good reasons why some should be shut down and some good questions about the others: whether animals should be collected and kept at all; whether breeding programmes from zoo animals are actually any use to wild populations; how to measure ‘quality of life’ in animals. There are some success stories for the animals, especially at ZSL – for example the action to save the partula snail, research on the chrytichtid fungus affecting the world’s amphibians, and discoveries about animal behaviour. But how important is the effect on the public? The communication the zoo ensures with the public conveys the significance of those conservation efforts. Would the public get this message without a visit to a zoo? Perhaps, but seeing a group of exotic animals, spending time watching them and absorbing their splendour, surely is an important factor.

I also learnt about myself and people:

    I found a new side of me I never knew existed, that I could be an introvert and still be comfortable talking to people.
    That people have short interest spans to even what you might consider is the most interesting thing in the world – you have such a short time to speak to the majority of visitors. Capture their interest in that time and you might be able to speak to them for a little longer. It helps if you have something to show them or a story to tell (a brightly coloured caterpillar, the name of a monkey, a piece of snake skin etc).

I enjoyed my time there and will be grateful for what it taught me.

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