The Biscayne Times

Jun 23rd
Entertainment and Ethics PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
September 2016

Our tourist parks could do so much better

FPix_GoingGreen_9-16lorida is out to get its wildlife.

Black bears die under state-sanctioned hunts. Florida panthers struggle to survive between subdivisions and highways. Boaters are killing manatees at a record pace, and in Miami, the Downtown Development Authority wants more docks for mega-yachts. Manatee protection laws stand in the way, but the agency hopes a lobbyist will fix that.

No doubt, this disrespectful attitude toward wildlife was born with Florida roadside attractions that featured alligator wrestling and caged baby bears. In Miami we’ve grown up with bicycle-riding parrots and leaping dolphins.

But instead of luring visitors with costumed creatures, what if those same tourist facilities focused on conservation? And, in doing so, what if they helped create a future that preserved not just the animals, but the critical habitats upon which we all depend?

That’s the idea veterinarian Steve Leidner recently explored with representatives of Zoo Miami, the county’s zoological park. “Zoos will become lifeboats as habitats dwindle,” said Leidner.

As Earth approaches the sixth mass extinction, a period of rapidly declining biodiversity, it’s believed that habitats will no longer be able to sustain species.

Leidner is hoping, however, that zoos and aquariums could help prevent this cataclysm by getting people to understand the connection between their daily activities and the fate of worldwide ecosystems.

To do that, Leidner says, facilities like Zoo Miami would have to shift from entertainment to the promotion of conservation. This could be achieved by adjusting things like signage, interpretive programs, and even the food and beverage choices (nix the bottled water vending machines, please). Zoo Miami has a behind-the-scenes conservation and research program, but it’s the visitor experience that Leidner wants to infuse with the conservation message.

“The public is increasingly aware that wild creatures have rights in captivity and in the wild,” Leidner said. “People are demanding more respect for wildlife.”

It’s a shift, he believes, that began with SeaWorld announcing it would stop its Orca breeding program and phase out killer whale performances.

In Miami, the first zoo was built in 1948 at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, and featured metal and concrete cages.

The new Zoo Miami in South Dade, carved from rock pinelands, a globally imperiled habitat, features cage-free landscapes that try to present the animals in context -- on an African plain or in a tropical jungle.

But is this teaching today’s children anything new? Don’t visitors still seek the same entertainment experience in term of animal attractions, like the Miami Seaquarium or Jungle Island?

Though it has a marine mammal rehabilitation program and an aquarium to study sea life, the Seaquarium on Virginia Key still sells the thrill of watching captive dolphins leap from a pool where a lone killer whale splashes tourists to the deafening beat of salsa songs.

It’s out of context, and many would argue that it’s cruel, but the beat goes on.

Miami, long obsessed with being on the trending edge of fashion, architecture, and technology, continues to tolerate tourist attractions with a 1950s sensibility.

I visited Zoo Miami to see how things could change, and I found hope among some student volunteers.

“Painted dogs are not hyenas,” I’m told by one of three “teen scientists” stationed at the gorilla exhibit. These high school students serve as conservation ambassadors for visitors.

“People are just so misinformed,” another of the girls tells me. They’re holding gorilla and chimpanzee skull replicas and, if asked, will recite the details behind every ridge and fold. They tell me gorillas are fighting for survival, as their habitat is being destroyed to make cell phones.

“Where they live, there is an ore, coltan, that’s being mined,” one explains.

Other signs throughout the zoo document habitat losses in Africa and India, including the fact that palm oil farming has destroyed nearly three million acres of forest habitat that was the home of sun bears, orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos.

Right next to Zoo Miami is rare habitat we may lose to a theme park sponsored by Miami-Dade County, tentatively called Miami Wilds.

I ask the girls how they feel about that. “We already have Santa’s Enchanted Forest,” suggests one. “We don’t need more.”

Then they start talking conservation, how the project could destroy endangered species like the coontie and Atala butterfly that live in those pinelands just beyond Zoo Miami’s property line.

“I get it. Jobs -- but…” says another. She falls silent, unable to finish her thought. She looks out over the zoo grounds, past the exotic and endangered animals from dwindling habitats in faraway continents, toward our own endangered corner of the world beyond the entrance gate.

The Richmond Pinelands are the last two percent of this rare habitat outside Everglades National Park.

When they build the theme park and the shopping centers and housing complexes on the remaining pineland, what signs will the zoo post about our own lost habitat? What will these girls think?


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