On a bright and sunny morning at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., a young cheetah perches on a log, watching its sibling laze about in the sun. An Asian elephant paces. A panda naps, butt toward the crowd, wedged into the corner of a cave. At each exhibit, a crowd of children and their caretakers squeals in delight over every tiny movement, no matter how dull the action.
Big, attractive, charismatic animals like these are what bring people through the gates. Zoos exist to entertain, so of course they’ll keep the creatures that people like the most. In the past few decades, though, zoos and aquariums have become the de-facto homes for many conservation efforts, particularly captive breeding programs. The human preference for pretty is skewing those efforts.
Ugly animals deserve to be saved, too.
The cheetahs, elephant, and panda are all members of the National Zoo’s captive breeding programs, and they’re pretty typical for such conservation efforts. Daniel Frynta, a biologist at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and colleagues recently tallied up all the reintroductions of mammals that occurred between 1992 and 2009. Of the more than 30 species on Frynta’s list, the only one that was even close to ugly was the African wild dog, and that probably doesn’t count since even the least-attractive canines usually find someone to love them.
Zoos collectively house representatives of only about one-quarter of the world’s bird species, 12 percent of the reptiles, and a measly 4 percent of the amphibians, a 2011 report found. Mammals come in at 16 percent, Frynta has calculated, and they are dominated by familiar families of large, attractive beasts, including felines, giraffes, elephants, primates, and bears. Small, subterranean dwellers with beady eyes tend not to make the list.
A similar trend exists for birds. When Frynta’s group looked at the world’s collection of parrots, amazons, and macaws, they found that large, colorful and long-tailed birds were more likely to be kept, rather than ones that were rare and needed conservation aid. This preference for big and attractive even holds true for snakes.
In animal conservation, the idea of Noah’s Ark comes up again and again, that zoos and aquariums can be an insurance policy for the world’s creatures. We can destroy their habitats and, when we decide we want them back in the wild again, have a spare set ready to go, the thinking goes. This approach has worked for several species, including wolves, Przewalski’s horses, and black-footed ferrets. And when the chytridiomycosis fungal disease threatened the world’s amphibians, many zoos stepped up and increased their collections of frogs, toads, and other critters, creating the Amphibian Ark as a sort of backup storage facility that will one day repopulate ecosystems where the chytrid disease wipes out entire species or populations.
But the truth is that no zoo can be an ark. They don’t have enough space or funds, and a zoo can’t get away with socking away just one male and one female without quickly running into problems of inbreeding. Done right, captive breeding requires lots of space and lots of animals, and choices have to be made.
Right now, that choice is often driven by the desires of a bunch of 2-year-olds and the parents trying to pacify them. Animals’ conservation status isn’t as big of a concern, and it shows. Zoos and aquariums contain only about 1 in 7 threatened species and large populations of even fewer. As a result, they’re missing out on the opportunity to save some incredible rare and ugly animals:
- The solenodon—there are two species, Cuban and Haitian—looks like a cross between a rat and an anteater. Its saliva is venomous, and the creatures have been known to bite without being provoked. But they are vulnerable to cats, dogs, and other introduced predators, and they’re so rare that the Cuban variety was rediscovered in 2012 after a decade-long search.
- Female hooded seals might count as pretty—seals, in general, are pretty cute—but the faces of their male counterparts are dominated by an odd, inflatable bladder that hangs from between the eyes. When a male is threatened, he’ll blow this bladder up, like a big red balloon, sending a warning to the other guy.
- The greater adjutant, a type of stork from Southeast Asia, probably has some PR issues, since the birds are often found around garbage dumps. But as carrion eaters, they fill an important nutrient-recycling role in the wild.
Zoos and aquariums could take a clue from the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a stand-up comedy troupe currently on the U.K. science festival circuit: They could add another monkey species, like the bald-headed uakari, a red-faced primate found in Brazil and Peru. Or they could take in some blobfish, an inedible species found in the deep waters that was once named the world’s ugliest animal and has been nearly wiped out by trawl fishermen.
“Zoos full of endangered but ugly animals will never make money,” Frynta has acknowledged. But when people know that an ugly species is threatened, they actually perceive it as more attractive and are more likely to give it their support, researchers have found. Zoos and aquariums could convince people to help them save at least some unattractive creatures. In some cases they already have.
Australians have sunk millions of dollars into rescuing the Tasmanian devil, which is not only unattractive but also has a reputation for being vicious. A Russian program is establishing a captive breeding program for a species of saiga, a dour-faced antelope, that’s disappearing from the steppes of Eurasia. The aye-aye—a medium-sized lemur that the locals in Madagascar kill simply because they find them so creepy—is the subject of a captive breeding program at the Bristol Zoo in England.
And on every trip to the National Zoo, deep within the small mammal house, there’s always a group of visitors clustered around the naked mole-rat exhibit, with kids cheering as the nearly hairless rodents—which are neither mole nor rat—scurry about in their maze of transparent tubes. If there were ever a poster animal for ugly, this species would be it, and even they have their fans.
Choosing to save only the ones that bring in the tourist dollars might save clouded leopards or polar bears or orangutans, but we’ll be missing a lot of species that are not only interesting but also important ecologically. Making choices based on how something looks is rarely a great strategy for anything, including conservation.
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