The following excerpt is from “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature,” by Sylva Herald contributor Brannen Basham. Get the book at City Lights Bookstore, order it at sprigglys.com, or find the audiobook version on Audible.
It is difficult to truly consider that even with the best intentions, as a species we excel at disruption. In our never-ending struggle to achieve an easier existence we have wrought incredible damage on the natural world that we rely on for food, water and air. By overestimating the talents and wisdom of ourselves we have altered the Earth in ways that we still poorly understand at best.
Humans in the near and distant future will be taught about the crossroads in which we currently stand, one of the largest problems yet faced by our species. The very methods that have brought our species to this golden age of technology also threaten to deeply disturb the future of life on this planet.
This was not all done on purpose, of course – it is only through recent advances in the scientific community that we have been able to discern the true effects of applications that were long assumed harmless. However we can no longer hide behind the velvet robe of ignorance. There is still time to heal these wounds. And luckily for us, the framework for our salvation is already growing all around us.
Human intervention in the natural world, while dramatic and long-lasting, is not all bad. An interesting example of this is the development of zoos. Zoo patrons usually leave with increased feelings of awe, understanding and connectedness with the animals they have seen.
Some also use the experience to make a connection between the uncontrolled beauty of the natural world and the ways that humans as a whole can disrupt that environment. These lessons are incredibly important, as admiration and respect for all living things are the first steps towards actively working to preserve them.
Therefore, zoos as a cultural institution should remain at the forefront of education even while we work to make them more comfortable for their occupants. In this direction, there is much work to be done, as unfortunately the true elegance of the animals within is hard to find while they are housed.
Many natural subtleties are impossible to recreate in a zoo setting – the countless interactions between an animal and its environment shape its physical and mental state into a unique blend of traits that become disjointed once removed from their natural home.
We can admire the powerful and vibrant beak of the toucan, and gasp in shock at the beautiful colorations of poison dart frogs, however these observations do little justice to the fine-tuned and meticulously balanced adaptations that these creatures possess.
To truly understand how and why animals are made the way they are, they must be observed in their natural habitats. It is only there that we can clearly see how exactly they fit into the puzzle of their individual niches.
Although zoos are necessary tools in the education of the natural world, we cannot lose sight of the fact that they are a somewhat flawed means to an end – to enlighten visitors on the wondrous and imperiled world around us. Protecting and restoring natural landscapes, the only areas which allow nature to play its practiced parts, is a no-brainer once love for the creatures who live there has been established.
You don’t have to travel to your nearest city zoo to make these close connections, however.
Most of us have zoos in our very own back yards.