One of the greatest challenges during Climate Change is not merely saving our wildlife, whose environment is changing far faster than they can adapt, but primarily saving their habitats. Humanity tends to view wildlife as labor saving devices, game for ‘harvesting’, pets, lab rats for testing products, food (of course), resources (leather), and increasing as creatures who share many of our best traits. But it is their role in our environment that ultimately matters most to our survival. In this way (and many others) Climate Change is challenging our survival.
When you search online for Wildlife at the EPA you get this:
Climate Impacts on Ecosystem: Climate is an important environmental influence on ecosystems. Climate changes and the impacts of climate change affect ecosystems in a variety of ways. For instance, warming could force species to migrate to higher latitudes or higher elevations where temperatures are more conducive to their survival. Similarly, as sea level rises, saltwater intrusion into a freshwater system may force some key species to relocate or die, thus removing predators or prey that were critical in the existing food chain. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The Holocene environment, where humanity thrived, evolved in lock-step for hundreds of thousands of years with our endemic wildlife. A threat to them is a threat to our life support system because the balance of Nature doesn’t just include our food chain but the great chain of our being alive. More and more we are understanding how the activities of wildlife (watch “How Wolves Change Rivers”) affect something so seemingly unrelated as the ecology of a river. Because Climate Change will affect all our endemic wildlife, and because we need these species for a healthy environment, you’d think that our state and county would focus on the climate connection.
You don’t learn a lot about this oneness of our environment and wildlife in a zoo (not to mention Climate Change); so it’s interesting that Rochester (actually it’s a Monroe County facility) still focuses on a better zoo in a time of Climate Change.
Our state’s environmental agency understands the critical link between our wildlife and Climate Change:
Commissioner's Policy - Climate Change and DEC Action Based on overwhelming scientific evidence, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ("Department" or "DEC") recognizes that New York State's ("State") air and water quality, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, and people and communities, are at risk from climate change. In order to perform its core mission of conserving, improving, and protecting the State's natural resources and environment, DEC must incorporate climate change considerations into all aspects of its activities, including but not limited to decision-making, planning, permitting, remediation, rulemaking, grants administration, natural resource management, enforcement, land stewardship and facilities management, internal operations, contracting, procurement, and public outreach and education. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
Yet, when you go to their wildlife page (Wildlife Health) there is nothing about Climate Change. (There is some stuff about your pet’s health. But, of course, your pet is not wild. Your dog is really neat and its health is important to you, but your dog is not part of any state-wide eco-region.) In the DEC’s latest WILDLIFE HEALTH PROGRAM STRATEGIC PLAN, Climate Change is only mentioned three times, and then only embedded in a laundry list of challenges for our wildlife—not a plan that is orchestrated around Climate Change as it must.
One of the problems with focusing on a better zoo in Rochester (or anywhere for that matter) are zoo priorities:
“The Zoo focuses on species of plants and animals native to New York State that are threatened or endangered in their natural ranges. A variety of local organizations and colleges have partnered with the Zoo to study threats and work on recovery and restoration plans for these species. We also work with national organizations to raise conservation awareness through education programs and field studies in places like Madagascar and Canada” Seneca Park Zoo/Priorities
This would be an excellent set of priorities if Climate Change wasn’t occurring. But it is. A zoo tends to focus on entertaining the public, saving individuals of rare species, not the ecologies that keep both the species and ourselves alive. A zoo tends not to focus on Climate Change, though I’m sure it considers it as part of the mix.
We should be asking ourselves some important questions about wildlife before continuing business as usual. First, why do we need zoos in the first place? They are a medieval entertainment frivolity that constantly needs to justify itself in the modern world. When you take wildlife, those creatures who helped define their/our environment, and stick them in a zoo, they become mere living artifacts. What is a polar bear without the Arctic? Why are we trying to save instances of species that will never be able to return to their environment because Climate Change is changing that environment, maybe forever?
Surely a nature program would be at least as educational as observing animals caged in prisons, totally out of their element? At least a nature program can connect the dots between wildlife and their environment and Climate Change in situ. Why don’t we put our efforts into saving the Arctic (which is disappearing very quickly) and many other environments around the world that are in extreme danger? Why can’t field conservation work be done via the DEC supported by tax dollars allocated for adapting to and mitigating Climate Change instead of the DEC getting funded by folks paying for licenses to ‘harvest’ and fish our wildlife? (‘Harvest’ is a wonderful euphemism for killing things dead with a bullet. Imagine if the media adopted this word when talking about terrorism and war.)
We are at a crucial point in saving wildlife, as Climate Change is already changing our wildlife’s environment. The answer is not a better zoo. The answer is to address wildlife issues under a comprehensive plan to address Climate Change. Should our tax dollars go to medieval forms of hospice or for actually helping those creatures who defined our environment so that they can continue to do so?
Saving our wildlife does not and should not have to be orchestrated from our zoos. Our efforts should be directed from our state and federal environmental agencies who should be giving top priority to protecting our wildlife/ecologies in a time of warming. But this vital connection is still getting buried by our present desire for wildlife as entertainment. Our tax dollars would be better spent protecting our environment so we don’t feel compelled to place our wildlife in sanctuaries, where there is no place for them to go when they get out.