Ethics & Living Collections: A View from the Zoo! Lecture Notes

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the title lecture, part of the University of Michigan’s Department of Museum Studies series, It’s Alive! Re-Discovering Institutions of Living Collection.   Our presenter was Ron Kagan, the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Detroit Zoological Society.

Zoos are members of the museum community; they offer meaningful social, cultural, educational, and physical environments to a human community.  Zoos and aquariums add living animals, the natural community, to this equation.  While in the museum community, Kagan advocates for different terminology when discussing its structure and collection.  Instead of using the term owners to describe the artifacts in a zoo’s collection, he encouraged the use of the term guardians and the idea of guardianship when thinking about human relationship to the living artifacts in a zoo’s collection.  When thinking about the idea of collectors of artifacts in a museum collection, Kagan sees zoos as conservators of the living resident population, the animals.

Like all museums, zoos are faced with ethical decisions when considering their role as guardians and conservators of their artifact collection.  One of the major questions, like human health care concerns, are whose interests are primary when it comes to patient care?  Unlike our healthcare system, zoos have hundreds of species needing 24/7 care.  The Detroit Zoo is moving towards a more patient centered-care model for its collection; Kagan believes if the animals come first, the zoo experience will be better for the people visiting the collection as well.  Humane care is a paramount concern at the zoo.  The Berman Academy for Humane Education Center was launched in 2002 with the main goal of helping people help animals.

The Detroit Zoological Society traces its origins to a group of animals abandoned by a bankrupt circus in 1883.  Citizens responded to by generously giving food and money to provide for their care.  The Society was created on this foundation of helping animals in need.  The naturalistic habitats that were developed demonstrate a desire to share the beauty of wild places and their inhabitants. (Academy for Humane Education).

The Detroit Zoo is also home to the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, “a resource center for captive animal welfare knowledge, research and best practices; a convener and forum for exotic animal welfare science, practice and policy discussions; and a center conducting research and training, and recognizing advances in exotic animal welfare” (Center for Zoo Animal Welfare).  The Center has five goals:

  1. Acquire and make easily accessible to zoo and aquarium professionals the current body of knowledge on animal welfare.
  2. Conduct and facilitate applied research on captive exotic animal welfare.
  3. Convene important discussions and presentations on captive exotic animal welfare.
  4. Train professionals on captive exotic animal welfare best practices and policies.
  5. Recognize advances in improving captive exotic animal welfare through awards.

While on a smaller scale, the UMMS’s Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine provides guidance for the University’s animal care and use programs campus wide.

ULAM provides a number of special services (e.g., breeding colony management, technical services, and pathology services) and operates several research support facilities (e.g., germ-free animal facility, housing of animals given hazardous agents, and animal surgery operating rooms).  Researchers can tap into the many levels of expertise offered by ULAM’s faculty veterinarians, veterinary residents, veterinary technicians, and laboratory animal technicians.

In all it has to offer, ULAM strives to deliver high quality animal care and professional support, and to create the optimal environment in which to do biomedical research. (ULAM Services Webpage)

Ethical conversations about breeding and genetic familial connections are a part of the zoo community too.  Zoos also have to consider their role in picking which species on which to focus larger conservation efforts.  Popular examples of conservation programs at zoos include panda breeding centers at the National Zoo in DC, the San Diego Zoo, and the Atlanta Zoo.  Kagan illuminated the issue of a specie’s aesthetic value when seeking donors to support such efforts.  The Detroit Zoo took on the challenge of creating a conservation center for a less cuddly class of the animal kingdom, Amphibians, and is now home to the National Amphibian Conservation Center.  Kagan also shared the exciting news, especially for a penguin lover like me, that the Detroit Zoo is building the world’s largest penguin conservation center, opening in 2015.

Jackass penguins on their nest (Spheniscus demersus) by Klaus Jost, from the University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web, (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Jackass penguins on their nest (Spheniscus demersus) by Klaus Jost, from the University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web, (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

The final presentation of the It’s Alive! lecture series, Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialogue with the Dead in Museums, is on November 20, 2013 at 6:30 in the UM Museum of Art Helmut Stern Auditorium.

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