Zoos, Fences, and Other Thoughts

By Kaitlyn Ammerlaan

The only exposure to large mammals that most Americans have is within the context of zoos. Zoos offer people who live in the middle of the suburbs, as I did growing up, the chance to experience the beauty of animals from faraway places. Along with offering the opportunity to see exotic animals essentially in your own backyard, zoos act as an active center of youth education surrounding conservation and sustainability. Growing up, my dream was to be a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo so I could work with koalas every single day. As I grew and learned more about this crazy planet that we all live on, I knew that our species needed more than just an enclosure and some zookeepers to sustain their value. These animals need an ecosystem and our ecosystems need them in return. Cue my interest in South Africa; I wanted to be able to experience the dynamics of a fully intact ecosystem and see the animals that I grew up watching in zoos in their natural habitat.

Upon landing at the Hoedspruit airport in South Africa and traveling to Wits Rural Facility (our first stop), I noticed fences and boundaries between the different private game reserves and our own facility. I was somewhat reminded of zoos. I had the false perception that the region we were going to be traveling in would be completely open. I knew there were private game reserves, designated wildlife areas, and human communities but, I had the impression that the lines between all of these were blurred without real boundaries. A lot of these areas, however, have fences surrounding them, including or excluding certain animals based on the needs and goals of the owners of the land. At first glance, it made me sad that some of these animals appeared to be “penned in” and even to learn that some had been hand selected for the area. Had I traveled this far and given up so much to experience these animals in their native ecosystems and all that remained were very large zoos?

Beyond first impressions, after lectures about the region and travel around Kruger National Park, I realized that the ability for animals to interact in a stable ecosystem (even if it has boundaries) is so important in the complex web of the urban and wild interface. The South African game reserves and nature preserves along the border of Kruger national Park support many needs of the community and hold a much stronger value in terms of conservation than zoos. In terms of the community, the fences can help protect local livelihoods while maintaining a tourist industry that is so apparent in the regions that we’ve traveled so far. This accommodates the growing human needs that are often overlooked by a strictly preservationist perspective. Additionally, the preserves are unlike zoos in that the animals are free to interact with one another. The animals are wild and they need to survive for themselves without a reliance on humans for care. For example, a pack of wild dogs has recently moved into Wits Rural Facility and they are having a substantial impact on the populations of other animals in the area. The wild dogs have eliminated the facility’s population of nyala, altering the community and exemplifying the self-sustaining nature of this system. These areas with boundaries and fences like those we have seen and visited in South Africa are critically important to sustaining native populations of species that millions of people across the world can only see zoos.

Natalie Miller