Sinking Noah's Ark

June 24, 1992

Not everyone approves of a zoo. Animals are jailed; they live unnatural lives; they cannot extend their instincts and abilities. Some people think that modern society should give up zoos and just watch animal videos.

Those people are wrong. Zoos are more indispensable than ever. They bring people of a society together in one place as nothing else does save possibly baseball. They succeed on one level as freak shows yet on another as extraordinarily sophisticated education providers. They cater wonderfully to the simplest minds in society and the most complex. There is nothing to match the wonder of an orangutan in the flesh. Modern zoo-keeping has been made many humane advancements in the sensitive care of animals.

But more important, zoos have become Noah's Ark. The natural habitat in which animals should live is disappearing. The number of extinct and endangered species is growing. Zoos rescue animals, breed them, and sometimes reintroduce them into p pTC wild from which they had disappeared. If the vanishing tiger and giant panda are to be saved, zoos will have to help.

So it is of more than local interest that what has been the greatest zoo in the world since 1826 is closing. The London Zoo in Regent's Park announced a year ago it would shut down unless it found new support, because the British government stopped its subsidy. Then, in March, it pronounced itself saved by unloading 1,200 animals and letting 90 human workers go. That proved insufficient. The zoo, its patronage drastically down, is still not covering expenses. The Zoological Society of London will maintain its country home at Whipsnade, but London Zoo will close forever in September.

This is no victory for animals' rights. It is a setback for education about animals and ultimately for the animals themselves. And it is folly for the British government. No real zoo with medicine, breeding, research and landscaping operates without subsidy. Not only does the London Zoo fail as a business, so do the National Gallery, Kensington Garden, the Wren churches and the Tower of London. Are they next? The British government has set many models of enlightened behavior. The policy which led to this extinction is not one of them.

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