Many zoos, however, are reluctant to discuss their efforts to balance conservation priorities and profit. Calls to more than a dozen zoological organizations were not returned, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, a conservation organization that also manages five zoos in the New York City area.
Universal animal aesthetics
A solution may lie in the fact that unlike ideas about human beauty, our love for some animals and ambivalence toward others may beuniversal, Frynta says. In a cross-cultural study comparing students in Prague with tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, Frynta's team found that the two groups think the very same snake species are beautiful.
By knowing what people do like, zoos could enhance the public's support of species we don't want to cuddle with, Frynta says. 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, Bockheim says.
And, if directors can't get everyone to love a homely beastie, pick a prettier but still threatened one. In every group of animals, Frynta says, "we can find some species which are highly preferred and also endangered." By protecting the panda, zoos can encourage the conservation of the entire forest in which it lives—including the charismatically challenged animals that also call it home.
Others are less optimistic about the fate of creatures that have a dearth of animal magnetism. "Of course they are doomed. Why wouldn't they be doomed?" asks Anna Gunnthorsdottir, an economist at the University of New South Wales Australian School of Business in Sydney who studies how human preference changes conservation behavior. Even if zoos follow all of Bockheim's suggestions, there are just some animals we may never love.
Last year, for example, the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species declared 2011–12 the Year of the Bat. Their Web site 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 (WAZA) celebrated with activities at zoos all over the world. This year, however, they will not be planning anything big. Bats are simply "not a topic that will attract that much attention," says Markus Gusset, WAZA conservation officer.
And even if zoos wanted to breed every endangered species in the world, there just isn't room in zoos, Bockheim says. "You can't save everything, that's just how it is."
Frynta, however, is not 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 adds, 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.