Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wild Animals Face a Tough Road Ahead

Actress and activist Bo Derek (above left) and Peter Knights prepare for their Commonwealth Club program on protecting wildlife. Photo by Riki Rafner.

Last week in New York City, a majority of the City Council members signed their support for a bill that would prohibit “the display of wild or exotic animals for public entertainment or amusement.” writes Jennifer Lee of The New York Times. This bill has passed through the offices of New York City legislators before without much luck, but it recently received a new influx of attention centered around the Ringling Brothers circus. The Ringling Brothers circus arrived in New York City last week, just days after the closing arguments in a federal lawsuit charging the Ringling Brothers circus with violating the Endangered Species Act by mistreating their Asian Elephants.

The animals that make up the Ringling Brothers circus are of course only “wild” in the loosest sense of the term. In fact, the numbers of these animals actually alive in the wild are quickly declining. Recently, Bo Derek and Peter Knights came to The Commonwealth Club to talk about illegal wildlife trade. Knights, executive director of WildAid, and Derek, an active member of the WildAid board, discussed the wildlife black market, thriving due to the high demand for these animals, or parts of these animals, for food, medicine or pets. If New York City were to pass this bill, it could help to reduce the demand for exotic pets, because exhibiting them could no longer be used as a source of income, and in effect could help increase their numbers in the wild. It would also prevent the Ringling Brothers circus, and any other form of entertainment that used wild or exotic animals, from performing in the city.

Some people see the Ringling Brothers circus as a way to keep endangered species alive. At this point many species rely on captive breeding programs of some kind to survive, but there seems to be a large moral dilemma surrounding just how to go about keeping these species around. Michelle Prado, the lead lawyer for the Ringling Brothers in the federal lawsuit, argued that at this point “There is no wild,” and without the captive breeding of these animals they would die off completely. John Phillips, the executive director of the New York League of Humane Voters, which is a strong supporter of the New York City bill, contended that breeding these animals in sanctuaries is far different from breeding them for the circus. “If they wanted to stay in Florida and breed the elephants and try to run a conservation center,” Phillips said, “that would be a completely different story.”

The quality of the animals’ lives, not just life itself, seems a central part of the work to keep alive dying species. Because of this, many zoos have had to rethink the appropriateness of exhibiting certain species. Elephants specifically have been phased out of many zoos due to their inability to thrive in a zoo environment. “Just as polar bears don't thrive in a hot climate, Asian elephants shouldn't live in small groups without many acres to roam," said Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan when the Detroit Zoo closed its elephant exhibit in 2005. Both the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo have dealt with much controversy over their elephant exhibits. The Los Angeles Zoo recently received permission to finish building its new six-acre elephant exhibit, but a condition placed on the San Francisco Zoo stating that any new elephant exhibit must be at least 15-acres means that The City by the Bay will likely never house elephants again.

Wildlife advocates such as Derek and Knights seemed to be in constant battles with the Bush administration over laws passed that allowed for businesses to take far fewer environmental precautions. Especially upsetting to them was a Bush administration midnight regulation that allowed federal agencies to “in many cases rely on their own personnel in deciding what impact a project would have on a fish, bird, plant, animal or insect protected under the Endangered Species Act,” rather than having to consult independent wildlife biologists and pass the usual checks by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But on March 3, 2009, to much applause from the environmental and wildlife communities, President Obama overturned this regulation.

Wild animals, both free and captive, are basically at the whim of humanity. Their survival and their quality of life depend on us, and there are still many questions about the best ways to handle the massive problem of extinction many species now face. Bo Derek and Peter Knights hoped to use their event at The Commonwealth Club to call attention to this plight and to educate consumers on the enormous power they have to take a stand against the mistreatment and illegal trade of wild animals. “As a voter you only get to vote every four years, but as a consumer you get to vote on the kind of world you want every day.” Knights said. “In all of your consumption decisions, you can shape the world we live in.”

To listen to the Bo Derek and Peter Knights talk, click here, you can purchase the audio of the event here.


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