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Which animals would you like to keep?

The big question is waiting for reply (African elephant in Sosto Zoo, photo: elajos)There is no doubt that collection management is the most important part of operating zoos. There are several factors which could influence decisions, some of them are objective and based on a well-supported idea, but less deliberate choices can often be seen too. Many times a wrong decision could lead to long-term negative consequences, including the reduction of the whole zoo’s efficiency. The following viewpoints are very subjective, so I am waiting for your comments to debate this important question.

There are about 60,000 vertebrate species in the world, including 30,000 fishes, 10,000 birds, 6,200 mammals – about, because no one knows the actual numbers. However, there are only 6,000-7,000 species kept in zoos. Even the largest zoos have 1,000-1,500 species only, no more… So, there are relatively few species in zoos that you can choose from, and this is not accidental. These are the species that can live and breed under these special conditions. There is an interesting analogy with animal domestication several thousand years ago. After many failed attempts, our ancestors chose the few species which were able to adapt to live in a human environment. The criteria were the following:
- to be able to develop an artificial environment which corresponded to the biological needs of the species;
- animals needed to tolerate the proximity of humans with little aggression and stress;
- feeding: their natural food needed to be replaced with a human produced diet;
- these species needed to breed well in these conditions.
Are these criteria familiar to you? I hope, because these are also the necessary conditions of keeping animals in zoos. The developing of modern zoos in the 20th century was the era of second domestication, when the present collection of species formed under the selection. Now we mainly keep animals which have lived and bred in zoos for generations. Naturally, the change of the artificial environment by the development of zoo science and technology could increase the survival chance of new species too. In addition, it would not be a surprise if zoos gave up keeping some species. It is a kind of evolution, but, as I see it, the main mass of zoo animals has already been formed.

Serious question (African elephant in Sosto Zoo, photo: elajos)There are still many species which we could choose, but what are the next steps? There are several questions we have to consider when we set our goals (I will try to write them in order of importance):
- How does the species fit into the present or planned collection?
- Could we keep the species according to its biological needs and to the legal requirements and international expectations (for example species programmes)?
- The question of sustainability, the expenses of keeping (diet, keepers, heating etc.)?
- How difficult is it to acquire the species?
- How manageable is the species, including the question of offspring?
- What is the conservational value of the species?
- How large is the “show value” of the species?
- What is the educational value of the animal (“story species”);
- How large is the PR and marketing value of the species (for example its rarity)?

After these objective reasons, there is a subjective question too: the preference of the decision makers. I suppose it is not written anywhere as a rule, but it is a decisive factor and we can see in many zoos what the favourite animals of the managers are... This is not a problem until there is no opposition in it to the previous objective reasons.

Moreover, there is often a contradiction between the show and conservational value of an animal. In my opinion, these are balanced well in a good collection, and the main goal is to combine the two values in one species. It is not an easy task, and there are some glaring examples of very popular animals with less conservational values. The most controversial example: keeping and breeding white tigers in zoos. Some of us would give it up, others argue that the popularity of white tigers (and similar animals) makes possible to keep less interesting but more important species in a zoo. We have already written about this question on ZOOmoments, now I would add one remark only: I am sure that with effective zoo educational work and with spectacular facilities we could make almost all animal species interesting for visitors.

After this introduction, I would present some examples of collection fails. First, let’s see the “stamp collections”. There is only one consideration: collecting as many species as possible. Many times a zoo chooses a taxon and keeps, for example, “all” parrots or pheasants of the world, but I also know an example of collecting white animals. I often see these animals in relatively small places next to each other, as the passion of collecting usually does not take the possibilities and common sense into account… This example for collection planning is boring for visitors (even for experts), and even the valuable species cannot attract the deserved attention in this crowd. Less is more, we should concentrate on fewer species of a kind!

Collecting curiosities is an acceptable ambition to a certain extent, because zoos also compete for visitors. We should never forget that zoos also copy each other, and even rare animals will become common over time. This type of collection is also acceptable if we take the interests of the species into account: keeping in more zoos leads to more manageable collections, and exchanging professional experience is also useful. However, it could be a problem if only one zoo started to keep a completely new species, for its rarity only. The conservation value of a single population is minimal because of unavoidable inbreeding. It works in a form of cooperation only with several zoo participants – and then zoos should give up striving for keeping unique animals alone.

There is another kind of mistake: when we don’t consider the capacity of our zoo. I do not only mean the economical background alone, we should consider the specific conditions too (experts, technical support etc.). Sustainability is a very important factor, as maintaining a zoo requires high expenses. To avoid accidents from over-commitment, we have to create a realistic master plan and we should develop the zoo according to it.

In many zoos there is no scheme for placing animal exhibits, therefore they look random. I consider more organized systems better, aggregating the animals according to chosen criteria: geographic distribution, their habitat or taxonomical order.

Following problem?  (African elephant in Sosto Zoo, photo: elajos)Mixed exhibits are very popular, but they can be risky. It is not a mathematical question, the individual behavioural differences could cause serious problems, sometimes fatal accidents. We should be cautious when we plan the collection of the species for keeping together, and we have to provide enough area, separate feeding and retreating possibilities for the animals.

My opinion is quite different from those who prefer “stamp collections”. I consider the quality of the exhibits the most important factor in modern zoos, having both animal welfare and visitors in mind. More important than accumulating lots of unique species in very traditional, boring exhibits, just to prove we have all that can be acquired… In addition, the cooperation between zoos should be effective in collection planning, not only in cases of program species. Introducing a new species to the zoo world must be a planned and joint project of several contributing zoos.

Naturally, “zoo people” are diverse (fortunately) and there may be other pros and cons, many other arguments - if you have any, please share it here!

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