In Defense Of Zoos?

Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director Ron Kagan talks about the history, morality and future of zoos. He probably makes the best case possible–the sanctuary model is the least objectionable–but I am not quite convinced.

I am all for educating the public about animals, conservation, climate change and the anthropocene. I just don’t think you need to confine animals and subject them to the stress of gawking crowds to do it, which also affirms and perpetuates the notion of human dominance and dominion.

If zoos had the guts to tell their visitors straight up that they are the greatest threat to animals on the planet, and that each and every visitor needs to make dramatic lifestyle changes if humanity is to stop destroying habitat and dooming thousands of species, I might be more convinced. But they don’t do that, do they? Because they think no one would show up to hear that hard truth.

Anyhow, lots of interesting ideas in this talk, many of which do not require the actual use of live animals.

Young People Aren’t Connecting With Nature

Forget Instagram. This is where true meaning lies.

I was recently mocking the Pokemon Go craze, which manifests itself in my local park in the form of dazed-looking teenagers, wandering aimlessly while holding a cell phone at arm’s length. My son, who naturally is familiar with my worldview and knew where this was headed, stopped me and pointed out: “Well, at least it is getting kids outside.”

That is both true, and sad. Sad that it takes Pokemon Go to get kids out in nature more often, and sad that all the indoor devices and distractions are winning over the lure and fun of the outdoors. I used to worry that my generation would be leaving our children an impoverished version of nature (which we will). But I recently also started to think that they might not notice, because they are so disengaged from the unplugged, natural spaces that are all around us.

Timothy Egan took to a raft on the Colorado River with his son to write about this phenomenon and what it portends for our national parks (where visitors are increasingly old and white). And his son, Casey, sort of learns that the world will not stop and he will not disappear into a black hole if he is unplugged for a week (and that the wild offers other distractions and pleasures). But still. The article wasn’t that reassuring, and mainly you get the impression that Casey did not come away from the adventure as an outdoors enthusiast so much as he realized that rafting down the Colorado with no cell service didn’t suck as bad as he thought it might.

The story, which is in Nat Geo, does a good job profiling some groups of young people who actually do love the outdoors and our national parks. But the stats it includes are daunting:

“Young people,” Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told me, “are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” That’s quite an accusation. Jarvis has been saying this for a couple of years, in different forums in the run-up to this year’s Park Service centennial. “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” he warned in one speech. “The national parks risk obsolescence in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and distracted demographic.”

Obsolescence? How could that be? Last year national park sites clocked 307 million visits—an all-time record. Fifty-seven locations set high-water marks for attendance. Oh, but don’t be deceived by the numbers, Jarvis advised during an interview in his office, a few blocks from the White House. Take a closer look at who’s going through the gates: people like the silver-haired Jarvis and, well … me. It’s a risky thing, this generalizing about generations. Did our kids fall out of love with America’s Best Idea? Or maybe they never fell in love to begin with. Anecdotally, I have noticed a passion deficit among Casey and his friends. And technology, as a companion, is a must. A large majority of millennials—71 percent—said they would be “very uncomfortable” on a one-week vacation without connectivity, according to a survey by Destination Analysts. For boomers, the figure was 33 percent.

Having been to Yellowstone with my family last summer, and appalled by the crowds, selfie-sticks and traffic, the lack of Millennial interest in the National Parks may become a boon to anyone who does spend time in them. But this would be a collateral benefit in a trend that could have dire long-term implications, which the Guardian’s George Monbiot lays out in a related essay this week, lamenting the removal of children from the outdoors, called “If Children Lose Contact With Nature They Won’t Fight For It“:

We don’t have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

Monbiot points out that not much good will come of this in a world in which Nature and the Planet need mobilization, activism, and committed advocacy (not to mention the fact that more kids are develoing attention deficits, obesity, etc., etc).

I am sympathetic to the teenagers. If I was a 12-year old today I would be similarly entranced by everything going on within the confines of a smartphone, iPad or computer. There is nothing wrong with kids today. They are simply exposed to more temptations than I was. But I have learned that simply saying “go outside” just won’t cut it. Even if they do go outside to the local park, it is often empty. Instead, I have learned that the most effective and rewarding strategy is to invite my children to join me outdoors. It’s a win-win-win: they get outside and off their screens, you get to spend time with them with no electronic distractions, and they (just maybe) will learn to love and appreciate the outdoors.

Yesterday I did just this, and invited my son to ride his bicycle with me to Arlington National cemetery. On the way we stopped at Roosevelt Island. In all, we rode maybe 12 miles on a beautiful Fall day. We talked about lots of things, scoffed at all the people taking endless pictures of themselves or staring down at their phones, and learned some new bike routes. At the end my son looked at me and asked: “can we do this sort of thing more often?”

“Earth In Human Hands”

I may find reasons to doubt the wisdom and future of the human race and the planet it is trashing. But astrobiologist David Grinspoon takes the long view, and sees both opportunity and hope. Fingers crossed he is right.

Here is the trailer for his new book, “Earth In Human Hands,” out Dec. 6.

Living (But Dying) Planet Report 2016

I’m just starting to dig into this detailed and compelling analysis of how humanity is affecting the planet, where the status quo will lead, and the magnitude of change required to slow or reverse the damage we are doing. It’s sobering reading, but worth the time and effort because you can’t absorb all the science without coming to the conclusion that you need to change the way you live–that we all need to change the way we live–and fast. And, to me, that is a key point. We are far too complacent, and far too willing to make some changes but not the big changes needed.

Here are some of the key themes and conclusions:

Under the current trajectory, the future of many living organisms in the Anthropocene is uncertain; in fact several indicators give cause for alarm. The Living Planet Index, which measures biodiversity abundance levels based on 14,152 monitored populations of 3,706 vertebrate species, shows a persistent downward trend. On average, monitored species population abundance declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. Monitored species are increasingly affected by pressures from unsustainable agriculture, fisheries, mining and other human activities that contribute to habitat loss and degradation, overexploitation, climate change and pollution. In a business-as-usual scenario, this downward trend in species populations continues into the future. United Nations targets that aim to halt the loss of biodiversity are designed to be achieved by 2020; but by then species populations may have declined on average by 67 per cent over the last half-century…..

Another way to look at the relationships between our behaviour and the Earth’s carrying capacity is through Ecological Footprint calculations. The Ecological Footprint represents the human demand on the planet’s ability to provide renewable resources and ecological services. Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.6 Earths to provide the goods and services we use each year. Furthermore, the per capita Ecological Footprint of highincome nations dwarfs that of low- and middle-income countries (Global Footprint Network, 2016). Consumption patterns in highincome countries result in disproportional demands on Earth’s renewable resources, often at the expense of people and nature elsewhere in the world. If current trends continue, unsustainable consumption and production patterns will likely expand along with human population and economic growth.

The growth of the Ecological Footprint, the violation of Planetary Boundaries and increasing pressure on biodiversity are rooted in systemic failures inherent to the current systems of production, consumption, finance and governance. The behaviours that lead to these patterns are largely determined by the way consumerist societies are organized, and fixed in place through the underlying rules and structures such as values, social norms, laws and policies that govern everyday choices (e.g. Steinberg, 2015). Structural elements of these systems such as the use of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being, the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, the prevalence of shortterm gain over long-term continuity in many business and political models, and the externalization of ecological and social costs in the current economic system encourage unsustainable choices by individuals, businesses and governments. The impacts of these choices are often felt well beyond the national and regional borders in which the choices originate. This is why the links between drivers, deeper causes and global phenomena like biodiversity loss can often be difficult to grasp.

I’d urge you to read the and study the whole thing. It tells the most important story there is.

President Trump And Animals

Don't forget us when you vote....
Don’t forget us when you vote….

There are many, many reasons to be wary of a Trump presidency, and hope that one does not come to pass. But concern for animals and animal welfare should not be forgotten. And the tea leaves are not encouraging:

From a four-legged vantage point, a Trump administration would be a disaster. Last month, the Trump campaign floated billionaire Forrest Lucas as the potential secretary of the interior in his administration, a position that oversees vital animal-related programs at the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Described as “the leading anti-animal advocate in the United States” by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Lucas has dedicated much of his time and fortune to defending some of the worst animal abuse industries in our country.

Lucas’ anti-animal front organization, Protect the Harvest, spent a quarter of a million dollars to try to block a ballot initiative in North Dakota that would have set felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty to dogs, cats and horses. That’s relevant to Lucas’ potential influence in a Trump administration, given that the Bureau of Land Management manages tens of thousands of wild horses in the West.

Lucas’ political machine has also advanced other anti-animal causes, including so-called “right to farm” legislation in states like North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Oklahoma. Such legislation would leave millions of animals suffering in silence on factory farms and slaughterhouses, while undermining the Bureau of Land Management’s role in humanely administering 155 million acres of grazing land for cattle and sheep.

So if you are tempted to try and blow up conventional politics and the status quo (which I would love to blow up, but just in a more hopeful, more productive, and less risky manner), it doesn’t look like the animal world will be grateful.

Full story is here.

Morgan In Captivity

I was going through computer files the other day, and I came across an archive of stuff I have on Morgan at Loro Parque. I have always felt a sadness for Morgan, picked up off the Dutch coast in 2010 and now at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. (I wrote about Loro Parque in 2011, because that is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld killer whale just a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in Florida).

You can read all about Morgan, and how she came to be at Loro Parque, here. The story has a lot of twists and turns, but the bottom line is that Morgan is a recently wild killer while who now finds herself owned by SeaWorld, and with her valuable wild DNA likely to become part of SeaWorld’s captive breeding mill.

Anyhow, I started clicking on some of the videos of Morgan (they are from 2013) and for some reason this video perfectly captured for me the banality and tedium of a once wild life that is now experienced in a confined pool, and devoted to entertaining holiday crowds. Teaching Morgan how to wave her tail just seems so pathetic and lame. And her energy level and affect seems to indicate she feels the same way. Good times.

Sustainable Is Also Healthy

In my recent Outside story about sustainable eating I didn’t get into the question of whether foods which are easier on the planet are also healthy (or healthier). So this Washington Post story, which looks at whether there is scientific consensus or disagreement, on a number of dietary choices, caught my eye.

Check out this summary chart. Looks to me as if there is pretty solid scientific consensus on the health benefits of a more plant-based, low environmental footprint diet.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 10.52.26 AM

It reinforces what I believe about plant-based foods. They are a three-fer: 1) Good for you; 2) Good for the planet; and 3) Good for animals.

I find that logic overwhelming, which leaves taste and habit as the only real barriers to a plant-based diet. And good recipes (and chefs like Dan Barber) can easily obliterate those barriers.

Diet And The Planet


After writing about eating seafood more sustainably, my editor at Outside and I figured we might as well go Full Monty and broaden the question to take a hard look at eating more sustainably in general. So I dove into lots of research on how our food choices affect the planet, and you can read the results here.

Key takeaways:

  • your food choices are the easiest way for you to dramatically shrink your environmental footprint
  • eating less or no meat has the biggest impact on dietary sustainability
  • if you want to maximize both your nutrition and the environmental benefits of your diet, eat more pulses/legumes: lentils, beans, etc.
  • we worry way too much about whether we are getting enough protein. We get plenty, even if we are vegetarians, and eating more protein than we need is very costly to the environment
  • going vegetarian can halve your impact on climate, and land and water use; going vegan can reduce it by around three-quarters (I was impressed by the extra environmental bump you get from going from vegetarian to vegan).
  • eating organic has a demonstrable benefit to soils, waterways and climate.
  • one of the biggest environmental tragedies related to diet is food waste–which in the US is a shocking 40%. That also makes reducing food waste in your home a huge opportunity to shrink your environmental impact.

So, to sum up, if you really want to eat more sustainably: Eat less or no meat, and eat  organic and locally whenever possible. Stop eating so much protein, and stop eating so much in general (overeating is costly to the planet and your health). Oh, and stop wasting so much food!

Animal Citizenship?

“Whoa, back off citizen! Sheep have rights, too.”


Well, we already have the Nonhuman Rights Project going for personhood. This angle, explored via Vox, is worth pursuing as well:

What if domestic animals — pets such as dogs and cats as well livestock like cows and chickens — were granted citizenship rights? That may sound like a crazy question, but Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka thinks it’s a critically important one.

Kymlicka, a professor at Queen’s University, is a well-regarded figure in modern political philosophy. He’s also the author, along with writer Sue Donaldson, of Zoopolis, a book making the case for animal citizenship. Their basic premise is simple: animals are already part of our society, as pets and work animals, therefore we should formally recognize them as such.

That’s not just a head-in-the-clouds thought experiment. We already have basic laws forbidding animal abuse and regulating industrial slaughterhouses. But, as anyone who has visited an animal shelter or thought about the ethics of what they eat can attest, we as a society have not come anywhere close to solving the problem of animal mistreatment. If we really want to improve animals’ lives, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, we need to stop thinking in terms of merely treating animals better. Rather, we need to acknowledge on a fundamental level that animals are a part of society and deserve to be treated as such. That leads you, however improbable it might sound, to citizenship.

Here’s a key point from Kymlicka, in an interview with Vox:

We need to create a shared interspecies society which is responsive to the interests of both its human and animal members. That means that it’s not just a question of how you ensure that animals aren’t abused. If we view them as members of society — it’s as much their society as ours — then it changes the perspective 180 degrees. The question is no longer “how do we make sure they’re not so badly treated?” We instead need to ask “what kind of relationships do they want to have with us?”

That’s really a radical question. It’s one we’ve never really bothered to ask. I think there are some domesticated animals that enjoy activities with us — I think that’s clearest in the case of dogs, but it’s also true of other domesticated animals whose lives are enriched by being part of interspecies activities with us. But there are other animals who, if we took what they wanted seriously, would probably choose to have less and less to do with us. I think this would be true of horses.

And if you are still with him to this point then there is a logical implication that follows. As Kymlicka puts it: “We can’t go around eating our co-citizens.”

Fair point, fair point. Read Vox’s full interview with Kymlicka here. It is a very interesting way to stretch our thinking and logic as we apply it to animals. One way or another, via personhood or citizenship or some other cultural/legal construct, we will eventually give animals the rights and protections they deserve.


All Animals Go To Heaven

“Sure, why shouldn’t animals should get in on all this?”


I don’t believe in heaven. But I am glad to know that the Pope believes that all God’s creatures have a place there:

Trying to console a distraught little boy whose dog had died, Francis told him in a recent public appearance on St. Peter’s Square, “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” While it is unclear whether the pope’s remarks helped soothe the child, they were welcomed by groups like the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who saw them as a repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.

“My inbox got flooded,” said Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach at the Humane Society, the largest animal protection group in the United States. “Almost immediately, everybody was talking about it.”

Charles Camosy, an author and professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, said it was difficult to know precisely what Francis meant, since he spoke “in pastoral language that is not really meant to be dissected by academics.” But asked if the remarks had caused a new debate on whether animals have souls, suffer and go to heaven, Mr. Camosy said, “In a word: absolutely.”

And whether you believe in heaven or not, any debate over whether animals can suffer, and have feelings and awareness (if not souls) is a good debate to be having.

%d bloggers like this: