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BOOK REVIEW: The Stationary Ark by Gerald Durrell

The Stationary ArkThe Stationary Ark by Gerald Durrell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you have mixed feelings about zoos and aquaria. On the one hand, it’s an awe-inspiring experience to see the mighty, ferocious, and odd creatures that don’t make it into one’s backyard (for those who even have yards.) On the other hand, one has to wonder whether the creatures on display are as miserable as one would be in their shoes. (i.e. Figurative shoes. I do know that other animals don’t wear shoes… Except for horses… but I digress.)

In this book, Gerald Durrell examines the question of what makes for a zoo that’s good for the animals as well as for its human visitors. Most of us are sophisticated enough to realize that straight-up anthropomorphization (projecting human thought processes onto animals) isn’t a sound way to get to the bottom of an animal’s experience. Animals seem much more resilient than humans, but they aren’t infinitely tolerant. While one can’t conduct a “zoo resident satisfaction survey,” there are means by which to gain insight into the animal’s state of well-being, including: its health, its appetite, and its sex drive / reproductive success.

Durrell had the experience of opening a zoo, and was himself dismayed by what he saw at many of the zoos he visited. In some cases, they were designed for optimal viewing but didn’t give adequate consideration to the well-being of the animals. However, some zoos genuinely tried to act in the best interest of the animals, but they missed the mark by projecting human thinking onto animals–instead of examining the evidence for what conditions positively (or negatively) impact the animals’ health, appetite, and sex drive.

This short book (less than 150 pages) consists of seven chapters. The first chapter presents the challenges Durrell went through in trying to open a new and different kind of zoo. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 6, respectively, examine the issues that must be taken into account with regards to enclosures, feeding, mating, and sick animals. Obviously, these chapters don’t cover the entirety of the subject in detail, but rather combine generalities with a few interesting (and often humorous) examples from specific species. Chapter 5 gets into the challenges of keeping records in a zoo that isn’t just about entertainment but is also focused on conservation and education. The last chapter sums up Durrell’s arguments for how Zoos can be of benefit to animal species other than humans.

There are no graphics, notations, or bibliography. It’s not that kind of book, but is rather an extended essay. It does feature both humor and insight in good measure.

I’d recommend this book for those who want to better understand what features of a zoo are good (or bad) for the animals, and how zoos might be restructured to advance their roles in conservation and education.

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