We Need to Be Doing More: A Call to Action After NYT’s ‘The Swazi 17’ Story

The recent New York Times Magazine cover story on elephants, The Swazi 17”, was quite stunning. Not stunning in the ‘beautiful’ sense of the word but ‘shocking and startling’. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a must read for any zoo or aquarium professional. It shares the story of 17 Swazi elephants and their move from Africa to three zoos in the U.S.

Some may dispute the accuracy of the article or note a biased point-of-view of the author. Both of which may be true. Yet, from my perspective, a number of things are not in doubt. The story: 1) got premier placement on a national platform in a widely read, reputable publication; 2) worked to build an emotional connection with the reader; and 3) was not talking about roadside zoos or attractions; it featured three highly regarded AZA accredited zoos. 

As a professional whose livelihood is inextricably linked to the future of the zoo community, I came away profoundly concerned about the impact of stories like this on the future of zoos and aquariums. Dismiss it at your own peril. This article or others that are sure to follow may ‘have legs’ and could easily get noticed in the social media eco-sphere. This should serve as yet another wake-up call. If we are going to survive, we need to change not just what we do, but how we communicate it.              

Last week while I was working at the Toronto Zoo, I talked with Sarra Gourlie and Tammy Beddows who work in the nutrition department. They shared fascinating details about the individualized and innovative diets they provide to all of the Zoo’s animals. But they also talked about the polar bear studies they, with help of keepers and veterinarians, are doing to understand how many calories those animals need daily to survive and live like a wild polar bear. It is really learning from zoo polar bears to help their wild counterparts. It’s clear that important science is being done to support a future for polar bears.* This is the work; these are the types of stories that will make more people understand and feel better about the ‘why’ of zoos and aquariums.

I know we are doing impactful and important conservation work. I know we provide exceptional care for the animals at our zoos and aquariums. Yet, we must be more effective in getting our messages out. We need to communicate about species we’ve saved; animals being released back into the wild; and the important scientific work being done by smart people at our facilities to prevent animals from going extinct. And we need to put the time and resources into gathering more data and research about the impact of our messages and educational work. And if we learn all of this is not working, that we are failing in changing behaviors, then it’s time to get creative and look for different and better ways to inspire action.

But we also need to be doing more. More investment in conservation. Greater focus. A stronger commitment to sustainability. New brands are good. Being true to our missions is better. Putting our money where our mouth is, is best. In some cases, that may mean doing less but doing it better. Maybe it’s not having 2,500 species, but 250 that have a direct connection to our conservation efforts – both at home and globally. It’s increasing and focusing our spending in conservation – supporting 10 highly impactful programs instead of 50 with $500 checks. It’s being sustainable even when it’s not easy or it hurts the bottom line.

If we don’t pay attention, change our ways and start now, animals might not be the only thing in danger of going extinct; zoos and aquariums may go that way as well.  Over 181 million people come through our gates every year. Let’s get all of them to help us in saving animals. Together, we have the power to create the next generation of change agents. Let’s go!

*If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating nutritional work and other conservation science being done at the Toronto Zoo, reach out and we’ll be sure to connect you to the experts at the Zoo.