A day at the zoo (Mar/Apr 09)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:04

Everything in our world is connected, says Dorothy Rowe

One of the hardest jobs you can ever undertake is to persuade people to abandon comforting old ideas and accept challenging new ones. People resist new ideas, even when these new ideas might benefit them. Members of MIND have had some success in persuading some people that madness isn’t a mysterious malady that overcomes certain individuals and turns them into objects of no importance but is simply a desperate way of trying to survive when, overwhelmed by events past and present, we lose all confidence in ourselves. However, we haven’t persuaded everybody of this. Many psychiatrists and psychologists still use the language of illness, and many people in the throes of severe mental distress are led to see themselves as being degraded and valueless. Though individuals have told me that what I have written has helped them, I feel that I have made little difference to society generally. However, while visiting Taronga Zoo in Sydney, I realised that there are people who must feel the same about their work. Everyone who works at the zoo tries to educate their visitors about the importance of looking after the planet and all the creatures that inhabit it, and every day, as they walk around the zoo, they can see that they have failed to impart this lesson.

Taronga Zoo occupies 43 acres of land that slopes steeply down to Sydney Harbour. When it opened in 1916, its aim was to exhibit exotic wild life. As a child I visited it in the 1930s when the animals and birds were in cages, and some were used to entertain the visitors. A popular pastime was elephant rides, where each elephant carried six or eight people sitting back to back on wooden seats running the length of the elephant. The keeper didn’t object when my father, a heavily built man, climbed aboard and nearly destabilised the whole contraption. It was the visitors, not the animals, who mattered.

However, by 1967 ideas had changed, at least amongst scientists who studied wild life. The zoo still needed to attract visitors to pay for the zoo’s upkeep, but now the emphasis was on scientific research, conservation and education. In 1977 a second zoo was opened on 300 hectares of land on the western plains of NSW. This zoo was built on the open range principle, where moats replaced fences and visitors could feel that they were sharing the land with the animals.

My son Edward and I had stayed overnight, sleeping in a tent, at the Western Plains Zoo and, more recently, we visited Taronga Zoo where, in contrast to my childhood visits, we saw the inhabitants across moats, or through glass, or from vantage points above them. At every appropriate place there was well-presented information about the wildlife we were looking at and where they came from. We were being educated about our fellow inhabitants of this planet, and we were learning how to think scientifically. At different times during the day the keepers gave talks about the animals in their care. The Seal Show, presented in a large open-air auditorium beside a deep pool, was particularly popular. Here the seals and their keepers presented some clever lessons about not scattering our litter on land and sea.

Yet many people in that audience failed to understand the message. The empty auditorium after the show revealed the litter left behind. Along every path, often no more than 25 metres apart and clearly labelled for recycling, were a multitude of garbage bins, yet all the time some of the zoo staff were busy collecting rubbish dropped by lazy visitors. The lessons about thinking scientifically were lost on those visitors who, on seeing a shallow pool unguarded by glass, were impelled to throw a coin in it. Edwardassured me that Australian coins are made of an alloy that was unlikely to harm the wildlife in the pond, but he, like me, was appalled that so many people still believed that, if they threw a coin into a pool and made a wish, some mysterious being – God, Fate, angels – would grant that wish. Taronga Zoo is a charity and grateful for financial help, but they don’t provide Trevi Fountains for the gullible.

Changing our ideas creates uncertainty, and many people fear uncertainty so much that they prefer fantasies that give the illusion of certainty rather than face the reality of their situation. Another of our illusions is that we are superior to the other inhabitants of the planet, be they elephants or people who do not share our beliefs. Our reality is that in the world we live in a world where everything is connected to everything else, and this includes ourselves. If we are to survive as a species we have to learn about and look after everything on our planet.

Published in Openmind 156 March/April 2009