Combating Nature Deficit Disorder with Zoos and Aquariums

A few years ago, I interviewed my friend and esteemed colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins about "Nature Deficit Disorder" for this article for National Geographic online. In the following excerpt, I introduce the concept of this emerging trend in the way people perceive the world around them:

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term 'Nature Deficit Disorder' to describe a growing phenomenon as a result of urbanization. Kids and adults are spending less time outdoors to the detriment of their own health and the environment.  They have less appreciation and respect for nature than previous generations and there seems to be a general disconnect to wildlife and other natural resources.

Dr. Hutchins who served as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Director/William Conway Endowed Chair of Conservation and Science before becoming CEO of the Wildlife Society remains committed to combating Nature Deficit Disorder. He now works with the American Bird Conservancy protecting birds of prey and other avian species impacted by wind energy installations and associated power lines and towers, but he is still a strong proponent of zoos. While working on behalf of these living institutions, Dr. Hutchins was instrumental in developing many of the conservation programs that accredited zoos use today to manage their captive populations, including taxon advisory groups. These programs still influence the many education, outreach and conservation initiatives of zoological facilities in North America. Suffice it to say, Dr. Hutchins is keenly aware of the value of natural history institutions and their potential to impart important information to the urban-dwelling populous, which is largely disconnected from nature.

In the National Geographic interview, Dr. Hutchins said, "There are real consequences to this growing lack of knowledge about nature and wildlife. For one thing, how will people develop a sense of responsibility for nature and wildlife if they know little or nothing about it? In fact, many urban and suburban dwellers see pigeons, starlings, European sparrows, ring-necked pheasants, feral domestic horses and cats, and they think 'wildlife', when, in fact, these animals are non-native, introduced species that are negatively impacting our native species and their habitats.

This lack of knowledge of what it is going to take to manage and conserve wildlife and their habitats in a world dominated by human influences is also seriously undermining conservation efforts."

So when I saw a captioned image recently posted on social media, which expressed an unflattering remark from a mother about her child's low aptitude for wildlife, including an inability to identify commonly known species like elephants at a zoo, I took pause.  This was a poignant reminder of why we need zoos and aquariums. We need them to help mitigate the growing epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder.

Zoos are not perfect, but they cater to millions and millions of people. And if their informal education programs don't always inspire people to become university professors, at the very least, they expose people to critical conservation issues and the plight of vanishing species. The context of every single animal display may not capture the essence of natural landscapes, but many exhibits do a good job of replicating nature. In addition, reshaping the perception of the life of the captive animal for visitors may be a challenge in light of the sentiment of unrelenting extremist groups, but for the most part, every zoo visit teaches a child something about the natural world.

You can read all you want about the natural history of imperiled wildlife species and you can spend countless hours watching documentary film footage of the animal kingdom in action, but you can't replace that visceral response elicited by seeing a living, breathing, and behaving creature at a zoo or aquarium. Undoubtedly, such experiences make young people think about the planet and they instill a conservation ethic in ways that other educational venues probably can't.

The best place to view wild animals is in their natural habitats, but many people cannot afford to take their families to remote locations. The intimate experience of connecting with live animals in a high-quality, accredited zoo or aquarium is the next best alternative. A visit to these institutions is educational and empowering as I mentioned in this Huffington Post blog several weeks ago. We can't expect everyone to immerse themselves in nature if they have never even had a taste of it.  Our world is human-dominated and even where wildlife still exists, the environment is often human-modified. Is there a better way for young people to safely and initially explore nature then a visit to the zoo?