Zoos are like fancy hotels, albeit without the fluffy pillows and individually packaged soaps, or so says Daniel Frynta, an ecologist at Charles University in Prague. Only the "richest" animals get to check in. And if an endangered species gets a room, he says, it might just survive.
Frynta defines a rich animal as one that we humans find appealing. 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 humanlike. If a critter is colorful, we like it. We also like it when zoo denizens play and speak and travel in family groups. Those animals, he says, get to stay in zoos. "Poor" animals—that is ugly ones—stay outside where their habitats are quickly being destroyed.
Species in zoos are often protected from total extinction because they are commonly the subjects of captive breeding programs in which staffers entice animals to mate and reproduce offspring that can then be released into the wild or shared with other zoos. Although it's hit or miss, captive breeding represents the last hope for survival for many species. 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. And zoos often fund conservation programs that happen outside their walls. "The record is imperfect," says Nate Flessness, science director at the International Species Information System, "but zoos are the only ones doing anything."
David Stokes, an ecologist at the University of Washington Bothell, agrees, noting that a biodiversity crisis is at hand. 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 and Natural Resources (IUCN). The surviving species will "be the ones we decide to save," Stokes says. If zoos decide not to save "ugly" animals, they could go extinct. Snails and insects, for example, almost never make it into zoos.
The ugly truth: Zoos are businesses
Still, zoos have their drawbacks: Studies comparing the life spans of animals in zoological parks with 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. For many species, however, zoos can be a vital refuge from poaching, habitat loss and disease.
Yet, Frynta's research shows that zoos may not be entirely living up to their conservation promises. In a September 7 PLoS ONE paper his team asked Czech citizens to rank pictures of endangered and non-endangered parrots from most to least beautiful. The researchers then compared the rankings with worldwide zoo holdings and species' conservation needs as defined by the IUCN. 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 although gorillas and lions would not have to empty their bank accounts—if they had them—to check in at these so-called hotels, such popular mammals can certainly entice visitors to empty their own pockets. A white tiger, Bockheim says, can triple zoo attendance—And directors could put that money toward conservation for less beloved animals, he says.