Last night I volunteered at the LA Zoo's major annual fund raising party, the Beastly Ball. Apparently volunteer positions for this event are highly coveted, so I was very honored to be selected to participate as such a recent graduate. I guess I made a good impression on somebody. :-) This year's honoree was the lovely Betty White (seen here with a young crocodilian). I was assigned to the silent auction, and worked a table with lots of winery tours and dinner packages for guests to bid on. There was great music, a giant grasshopper man bouncing around, and my favorite restaurant, Malo, had a table set up right across the way. It was immense fun watching all the fancy people with their jungle themed jewels and fancy dresses, high-priced faces and hair-dos. The silent auction ended at 8:15, and we were then free to watch the main program. The entire entry courtyard had been transformed into a shimmering dining hall and dance floor, and I rubbed elbows with Betty White and Mayor Villaragosa before getting drawn back out for more volunteer work handing out the auction items to their winners as they left the party. It was actually a lot of fun, but I was exhausted by the end of it because I'd been there since 9:00 a.m.
My shift started out that morning at the Meerkat hotspot, answering questions and talking about how one meerkat is always on guard duty, watching the sky and surrounding areas for predators. There was much talk about the movie Madagascar (no, these are not lemurs), which I had to re-direct to the Lion King (if you must have a movie parallel).
I then walked down to the front gate to help mitigate the misinformation being spread by the International Day of Action for Elephants in Zoos protesters. Their cause is worthy, but unfortunately they're barking up the wrong tree in this particular case. I took one of their flyers, which talked all about the cruelty that elephants suffer in captivity. It's all true -- elephants do suffer a great deal in many places around the world -- but not at the LA Zoo, or any zoo of any quality. Perhaps we shouldn't keep elephants in captivity at all. Perhaps it's a selfish notion to think that we have a right to see elephants in Los Angeles, or anywhere outside their native habitats. But if it weren't for the educational and conservation efforts of places like the LA Zoo, we wouldn't have any elephants at all, in zoos or in the wild. I do agree that elephants should only be kept by zoos that are able to provide them with very large enclosures, and plenty of stimulation, enrichment, and companionship with other elephants. If you can't do that, you shouldn't have elephants. But if you can, I believe that experiencing an elephant in the flesh at a quality zoo can really help people appreciate them in a way that no other experience can, and that will hopefully lead to greater awareness of their plight in the wild, and ultimately their protection and preservation. I tried to explain this briefly to a couple of the young protesters who were carrying signs about how many elephants have died at the LA Zoo. I asked them where they got their information, and they laughed nervously and said they didn't really know, they were just given these signs to carry. What the hell, people? If you don't even know the facts, what on earth is motivating you to stand outside in the hot sun trying to convince people that the LA Zoo is evil when there are TONS of other things going on that really ARE evil? Talk about misdirected energy.
I realize that zoos are not for everyone, and I respect the fact that many people dislike zoos and choose not to patronize them. But I think the issues around keeping captive animals are fascinating and complex, and I believe that modern zoos can do much more good than harm in the broader crusade to preserve our wild habitats and the creatures that live within them. That's what motivates me to wear khaki pants and a white safari shirt, and trek around in the hot sun every other weekend, trying to disseminate little bits of information to people about the awesomeness of animals.