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Ugly Animals Need Love Too

image of Rose Eveleth
Would you go to a zoo to see this handsome creature? The big brown bat and its ugly compatriots get little attention from zoo-based conservation efforts.
Zoos can help save species, but are they only saving the ones we like?

Zoos are like fancy hotels, says Daniel Frynta, an ecologist at Charles University in Prague, even without the fluffy pillows and individually packaged soaps. Only the richest animals get to check in.  And if an animal gets a room, he says, its species might just survive.

Species in zoos are often safer from extinction because they are commonly the subjects of captive breeding programs in which zoos entice animals to produce offspring that can then be released into the wild. Although it can be hit or miss, for some species captive breeding represents a last hope for survival. The Hawaiian crow and the Seychelles giant tortoise only exist in zoos, for example. The Arabian oryx was once extinct in the wild, but captive breeding programs allowed for the release of individuals back into their native habitat. "The record is imperfect," says Nate Flessness, the Science Director at the International Species Information System, "but zoos are the only ones doing anything."

Frynta defines a rich animal as one that we like. And, he says, we have very specific taste. It’s got to be big. It’s got to be cute.It’s got to behave or look human-like. If it’s colorful, we like it. We also like things that play and speak and travel in family groups. Those animals, he says, get to stay in zoos. Poor animals -- the ugly ones -- stay outside where their habitats are quickly being destroyed.

"The biodiversity crisis is upon us," says David Stokes, an ecologist at the University of Washington in Bothell.  "The ones we’ll save are going to be the ones we decide to save." If the zoos decide not to save the ugly animals, he says, the ugly animals could go extinct. Snails and insects, for example, almost never make it in.

Of course, zoos have their drawbacks. Studies comparing the life span of animals in zoos to their wild counterparts have found that captive animals tend to live shorter lives. Elephants, for example, live an average of 36 years in the wild, but only 17 in zoos. But for many species, zoos can be a vital refuge from poaching, habitat loss and disease.

Yet Frynta’s research shows that zoos may not be living up to their conservation promises. In a paper published in PLoS ONE in September, his team asked Czech citizens to rank pictures of endangered and non-endangered parrots from most to least beautiful. They compared the rankings with the worldwide zoo holdings and the species’ conservation needs, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature -- an international organization that evaluates the threats to each species. Overwhelmingly, zoos are keeping pretty birds rather than endangered ones.

That’s because zoos have another kind of survival to worry about: their own. "We have to deliver what our visitors want," says Greg Bockheim, director of the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk. Visitors want to see animals they like and recognize. Frynta agrees: "Zoos full of endangered but ugly animals will never make money."

And while gorillas and lions aren’t emptying their bank accounts to check in at these so-called hotels, they can certainly make visitors empty their pockets. A white tiger, says Bockheim, can triple a zoo’s attendance. And directors could put that money towards conservation for less loved animals, he says.

However, many zoos are reluctant to talk about their efforts to balance conservation and profit. Calls to over a dozen zoological organizations weren't returned, including the Wildlife Conservation Society -- a conservation organization that also manages five zoos in the New York City area.

Unlike ideas about human beauty, our love for some animals and ambivalence towards others is universal, says Frynta. In a study comparing students in Prague with tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, Frynta’s team found that the two groups think the very same species of snakes are beautiful.

By knowing what we do like, zoos could enhance the public’s support of species we don’t want to cuddle with, says Frynta. Want the public to connect with a snail or a bat? Give it a human name, like George or Sally, tell people about its family, design an exhibit that allows visitors to understand the animal’s daily life, says Bockheim.

And, if directors can’t get everyone to love it, pick a prettier but still threatened species. In every group of animals, Frynta says, "we can find some species which are highly preferred and also endangered." By conserving the panda, zoos can conserve the whole forest it lives in and the ugly animals that live in it too.

Others are less optimistic about the fate of our less attractive animal friends. "Of course they are doomed. Why wouldn’t they be doomed?" asks Anna Gunnthorsdottir, an economist at the Australian School of Business in Sydney who studies how human preference changes conservation behavior. The question is hard to answer.

Last year, for example, the UN Convention on Migratory Species declared 2011-2012 the Year of the Bat. Their website does all the things Bockheim suggested; it says bats are "exceptional, delightful, fascinating and likeable." The Year of the Bat follows the Year of Biodiversity, the Year of the Gorilla, and the Year of the Frog, each of which the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums celebrated with activities at zoos all over the world. This year, however, they won’t be planning anything big. Bats are simply "not a topic that will attract that much attention," says Marcus Gusset, their conservation director.

Even if zoos wanted to breed every endangered species in the world, there just isn’t room, says Bockheim. "You can’t save everything, that’s just how it is."

The current rate of extinction is up to 1,000 times faster than it would be without humans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Frynta, however, isn’t ready to give up just yet. He has faith in the conservation community. "We have just one goal," he says, "the survival of endangered species." And their survival, he says, may have little to do with the animals themselves. It could simply depend on how we manage our guest list.

This article is provided by Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

image of Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific America... READ MORE >
I really love the article. it's very well written Looking for future articles :)
Quote: That’s because zoos have another kind of survival to worry about: their own. "We have to deliver what our visitors want," says Greg Bockheim, director of the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk. Visitors want to see animals they like and recognize. Frynta agrees: "Zoos full of endangered but ugly animals will never make money."/ But people keep and love dogs so ugly not even their mothers could possibly love them. I think the real problem is ugly animals don't get enough positive PR and exposure in general.