Musings on Museums and Festivals

In May, The Conversation published Jonathan Wynn’s provocatively-titled piece, “Why Cities Should Stop Building Museums and Focus on Festivals.” It was not a diatribe against museums per se, but more of a cautionary discussion related to the economic and societal effects of continuing to build more museums.

Wynn argues based on his research that building new infrastructure like museums and stadiums, while touted as a way to boost local economies and revitalize blighted areas, actually are a drain on cities’ resources and economies. The temporary and movable nature of festivals, by contrast, provides an alternative form of cultural offering to the community and tourists.

This article came out in advance of the summer’s many festivals (two of which I attended in DC) as well as the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Wynn characterizes the Olympics as an example of an “invasive ‘mega event’” leaving in its wake “concrete cultural infrastructure that monopolize[s] scarce real estate, leaving spaces underutilized for decades.”)

As someone who enjoys museums and festivals alike, I can’t help but get excited about any new museum. (Oooh, another interesting place to visit!) But the decision to build a new museum needs to take into account factors like financial feasibility, impact on the immediate surroundings, and resources to maintain the new museum while also sustaining already-existing museums.

Museums require an initial investment, but also continued resources in order to keep the doors open. In the last few years, the DC area has seen the demise of the non-profit Corcoran Gallery of Art, the for-profit National Museum of Crime and Punishment, and Arlington’s city-funded Artisphere. Meanwhile, grantmakers love flashy new buildings and wings, and are often not so interested in keeping a non-profit’s lights on (a phenomenon regularly discussed on the dryly witty Nonprofit with Balls blog).

Wynn further argues that festivals are more inclusive than museums, as festivals are often free. DC may be anomalous in that it has so many free museums and festivals, in addition to museums and festivals that charge admission.

Do museums and festivals offer comparable experiences to visitors? As I looked back on the Around the World Cultural Food Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, earlier this summer, I noted a number of similarities with museums.

A performance of Mixteco dance by Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Sounds of California). Four men shown in masks and costumes made from animal parts, dancing boisterously for an audience.

A performance of Mixteco dance by Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Sounds of California)

The Folklife Festival is, of course, itself sponsored by an institution of museums. Each year’s festival is filled with objects and exhibits, and the Smithsonian constantly has programming in the form of lectures and performances inside its buildings, just as at the stages and tents at Folklife. Further overlap between the Smithsonian’s museums and Folklife Festival can be found in the small buildings that are put up on the National Mall each year as part of the festival.

This year, the cultures featured in the Folklife Festival were Basque Country and California. In the Basque section, I watched a dance workshop by Aukeran, viewed paintings by Jesus Mari Lazkano, and perused displays of traditional foods, crafts, and sports. My time in the Sounds of California area included music and dance performances, a talk by Janet Abrams about pets around the world and in immigration stories, and an installation that invited visitors to answer questions about ideas of home and migration on sticky notes.

At the Around the World Cultural Food Festival, area restaurants sold their fare at booths while a single stage showcased cultural performances. I ate Peruvian food, watched Bolivian dance, and caught the tail end of someone on stage speaking about the traditional Romanian ie, which would be celebrated one week later on the Universal Day of the Romanian Blouse.

Morenada Central VA takes to just-in-front-of-the-stage to perform Bolivian dance at the Around the World Cultural Food Festival in June 2016. Stage itself is empty, but dancers in bright dress are performing in a circle in front of the stage on a very bright hot sunny day.

Morenada Central VA takes to just-in-front-of-the-stage to perform Bolivian dance at the Around the World Cultural Food Festival in June 2016

When thinking about the visitor experience at festivals versus museums, the first major difference that occurred to me was perhaps a superficial one: the food tends to be much better at festivals. Trying the cuisine is one of the highlights of the Folklife Festival, and the Around the World Cultural Food Festival has food in its very name. With some exceptions, my experience with museum food is that you grab a tray, pay for your square of pizza or cellophane-wrapped sandwich, and sit down in the cafeteria because eating in the museum café was more convenient than trying to decide on a restaurant.

Beyond the culinary differences between museums and festivals, there is a more profound difference between what the two can offer. Festivals have a jovial, celebratory atmosphere; they are designed to be social and heavily attended. Crowds are expected. Museums can be those things, but can also be somber, quiet, and downright depressing as they educate visitors about some of the darkest moments in history. Consider the word festive in contrast to muse.

This is not to say that festivals never touch on serious topics. On the Sounds of California stage, the group FandangObon mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima during their demonstrations of Buddhist drumming and dance. Nevertheless, the speaker saw fit to include a disclaimer that the song they were about to perform was controversial, and while it included the Japanese word for bomb, I felt it had an uplifting tone of peace and hope.

These festivals took place in June and July and are now long gone from the National Mall, while the surrounding museums and monuments still stand. Wynn remarks that “the impermanence of festivals is a feature, not a flaw.” The festivals strive to have a lasting positive impact, while giving visitors something to look forward to next summer.

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Photos: The Animals in the Living Collections

The majority of my five most recent posts did not have any photos, because the majority were about places I have not actually visited. But I did see the same kinds of animals today at the National Zoo:

Four goats at the National Zoo's Kids' Farm

Goats at the National Zoo

Gorilla at the National Zoo

Gorilla at the National Zoo

Two American bison at the National Zoo

American bison at the National Zoo

Hornbill in the National Zoo's Bird House

Bird (hornbill) at the National Zoo

Barely visible alligator at the National Zoo

Barely visible alligator at the National Zoo

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The Alligators in the Amusement Park

This post is the last in a series of five that I write this summer about negative events involving animals in living collections. I wasn’t sure whether to write about this particular occurrence since I do not consider a theme park and resort an informal learning environment. But the story of Lane Graves, the two-year-old who died after being attacked by alligators at Disney World’s Seven Seas Lagoon in June, has been in the news and in people’s minds, and I would feel remiss leaving it out.  My heart goes out to the memory of Lane and to the Graves family.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, several alligators were killed in an effort to eliminate the danger, and Lane’s father revealed to the media that it was not one, but two, alligators that attacked Lane.

What separates a place like Disney World from the amorphous category of museums and similar sites? Museum and amusement park both have that “muse” root in their names, after all.

In an email/essay from 1995, Robert A. Baron writes:

In the theme park we are offered historyless reenactments of those events and times that define our national and social moral fiber. Unlike museums, theme parks do not attempt to recreate history, but, rather, offer us a perpetual or timeless version of the ever-present past….

In the theme park it is by virtue of the act of imitation that we are drawn into the center of our existence. It is by virtue of our placing ourselves in mock jeopardy, and by passing through the emotions of pity and fear that we undergo our Americo-Aristotelian catharsis….

The museum and the theme park have opposite mandates. That being said, I do not think that museums should compete with mass entertainments, for to succeed in this effort will probably mean that the historical, social, educational or aesthetic mission of the museum will come to be abandoned. On the other hand museums have a lot to learn from theme parks about how to make their prizes accessible to those who venture their way.

On a couple of occasions in my museum work, I joined coworkers in resentment when we received orders from above to “Disnify” our programming. While I understood that Disney has its appeal, I felt that our institutions, as museums, should focus on what museums have to offer, without trying to emulate a whole other category of visitor attraction.

Disney parks are billed as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” There is no reason that museums, which collectively deal with content eliciting the full range of human emotions, should try to be “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

With all that said, there are some things that amusement parks and museums have in common. For example, neither is a place where visitors should be in physical danger. And since both are visitor destinations that may attract people from around the country and world, these institutions must keep in mind that folks might not have any familiarity with the local climate and wildlife. The “mock” in Baron’s description of “mock jeopardy” above is key.

While I did not delve deeply into the website for Disney World, I did not see anything on its front page or the front page of its blog relating to the tragedy, nor did any statement come up when I searched both for the word “alligator.” In fact, the top result on the blog was this 2015 post that I might remove, if I were Disney, in light of recent events.  (While one article mentioned that Disney had put a statement on its blog homepage, I have not been able to find any such post. I checked in late June, in July, and again in August.)

Disney is now making efforts to put up signage specifically warning of the danger of alligators on its property. There have been many reports that Disney was repeatedly warned and questioned (including by employees of Disney and/or companies contracting with Disney) about the precariousness of having guests so close to gators long before the death of Lane Graves. While Lane Graves’s death is already one too many, I hope it is the last alligator-related death at Disney World.

In 1991, my family took a trip south to visit both Disney World (our one and only trip there) and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (our first of a great many trips there). My grandparents had just moved to Hilton Head to live out the rest of their years. They lived in a community where man-made lagoons were everywhere, including in their backyard, and alligators lived in these waters. The youngest of us kids was three years old at the time. I have a newfound appreciation for how nerve-wracking this must have been for my parents.

To end this post on a lighter note, here is a 1991 photo of Goofy with three goofy children. I am the tallest and goofiest.

Three kids (the blogger and her siblings) with Goofy at Disney World in 1991.

Disney World, 1991. Photo by a parent or grandparent.

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The Birds in the Refuge

In some of our country’s first collective excitement of 2016, a gaggle of armed rightwing individuals took up roost in a federal government building at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The people themselves were not from Oregon but rather had flocked to the state from Nevada in this episode of venting about an ongoing grievance against the government in general and the Bureau of Land Management in particular. Though the standoff ended after 40 days, when the last four of the militants surrendered and flew the coop, the ramifications are still developing six months later.

A writer at the Washington Post grappled with what term we should call the nest of militants, and many readers were swift to parrot the writer’s position that the term terrorist should be used (if it walks like a duck…). As the news stories continued to crop up, an increasing number of people began to chat and tweet about the takeover. Some pun-loving people came up with the nicknames Vanilla ISIS and Y’all Quaeda.

Meanwhile, I was wondering what the museum world was to make of the situation. (And apparently I never figured it out, since I am only now getting around to revisiting the rough draft of a blog post that I started writing.)

I won’t go into all the details of the conflict from which this protest arose, since they can be read elsewhere, but the gist of it is that some ranchers in Nevada were continuing to snipe and grouse and crow about the Bureau of Land Management robbin’ them of their land. In this particular event, the militants’ feathers were ruffled by the jail sentences handed down to two ranchers. These two ranchers themselves, however, did not support the takeover of Malheur.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a place primarily for wildlife – for the birds, based on the photos and descriptions I have most frequently seen online. But it is also a visitor destination for humans, with a museum and a visitor center on site, and vast nature to explore and enjoy. (The visitor center and museum have been closed since the occupation began, however, while some portions of the refuge are now open.) I learned from the website that the refuge, under normal circumstances, offers on-site education programs, exhibits, audio tours, wildlife viewing and photography, and hunting and fishing (hunting and fishing are permitted during certain times of year, in limited areas, and within regulations).

The Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon) issued a statement on January 3, 2016 condemning the then-fledgling occupation. “The occupiers have used the flimsiest of pretexts to justify their actions—the conviction of two local ranchers in a case involving arson and poaching on public lands. Notably, neither the local community or the individuals convicted have requested or endorsed the occupation or the assistance of militia groups,” reads the statement. “…We hope for a safe, expeditious end to this armed occupation so that the myriad of local and non-local stakeholders can continue to work together to restore Malheur in ways that are supportive of both the local ecology and the local economy—the occupiers are serving nobody’s interests except their own.”

A post on from January 5, 2016, is full of barbs on behalf of the birding community, demonstrating their fury at an armed insurrection at a wildlife refuge – and arguing that the birders’ skills in observation, stealth, and braving the perils of nature give them an advantage in their quest to #takebackmalheur: “We are watching you and our years of birding photography have made us endlessly  patient and determined.”

In a more somber turn of events, on January 26, 2016, the only death to emerge from the occupation occurred. LaVoy Finicum was killed in a standoff with law enforcement while driving away from the refuge.

The takeover is still having its effects on the community in which the refuge is located. In June 2016, a special recall election against Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who took a hard line against the insurgents, was seen by Grasty himself “as a referendum on the county’s handling of the crisis.”  The recall efforts lost by a landslide.

In perhaps the ultimate irony in a protest against purported government encroachment on one’s land, the occupiers not only chose to comb through sacred Native American artifacts that were part of the refuge museum’s collection, but also used the Paiute tribe’s burial grounds as their personal restroom. Additionally, they left their mark on the site by leaving behind everything from rotten food to weapons.

So, many months after the fact, I am now again trying to figure out what the museum world is to make of this sequence of events. Certainly, museum exhibits often celebrate the accomplishments of protests from the past, and civil disobedience is meant to be disruptive. Whether I understand or agree with a particular protest’s stance is irrelevant.

But should the museum world really support an occupation of this scale, an occupation that involves closing a taxpayer-funded visitor center to the public for seven months and counting, keeping its staff from working during all that time, defending the incursion with weapons, and literally shitting all over the collection? (Please excuse the foul language.) Seeing such events happen at a museum is hard to swallow. Though I am not a birdwatcher, as a museum-lover, I too can appreciate the birders as they rail against the shutdown of and damage to a museum all about birds.

And while I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to test whether sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, it does stretch the imagination to believe that a group of protesters of a different demographic makeup would have been able to carry on an armed occupation of government property for so long and with only one fatality.

The little stint of armed incursion at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has sung its swan song and ended, but the on-site museum and the local community are still feeling its effects. Though the militants and their ravin’ retain some public support, collective opinion generally sees Finicum’s death as sad and unfortunate, but overall views the group as loons and terrorists. In the midst of a presidential campaign cycle and a seemingly endless string of violent news stories around the nation and world, we hardly hear anything about these occupiers anymore, and perhaps they will be considered a fly-by-night group who will flicker in the public consciousness again the next time they hatch a scheme that makes the news. Whether such an event will happen at a museum remains to be seen.

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The Bison in the Park

A couple of months ago at my Sunday morning activity, the platform talk included a heartwarming story of a baby bunny in front of a car that was happily moved to a neighborhood park. With a focus on nurturing our own inner-baby-bunny-rescuer, the address included a reference to, as I understood it, the important part being our own roles as baby bunny rescuers more so than on how the baby bunny is doing now.

I do agree that we all need to nurture the nurturing parts of ourselves. At the same time, if we want to have an actual positive impact on baby bunnies, it would behoove us to learn what is good or bad for baby bunnies and whether we are actually helping them. (The same goes for anyone we are trying to help, and in the case of people, involves listening to what the person or group of people needs.)

By no means am I an expert on baby bunnies, but based on what I have seen of baby bunnies from growing up in suburbia, I imagine that this particular baby bunny is currently hopping around a park where it will grow up, breed like rabbits, and have baby bunnies of its own – a happy ending for the baby bunny story.

My congregation seemed to love the baby bunny story, but being the cynic I am, all I could think of was the baby bison story. The tale of the Canadian tourists who found a baby bison in Yellowstone National Park earlier this year and put it in their SUV because “it looked cold” initially read like an example of humans bumbling around, interfering in the animal world, and thus causing the animal’s unnecessary death (and my plan was to write about it that way, as a story very similar to the gorilla story I recently explored). I could only imagine that the people in the baby bunny story and the people in the baby bison story had equally good intentions when they tried to rescue the respective baby critters.

The Yellowstone visitors brought the bison calf (which was a member of the species recently designated the United States national mammal, American bison) to a park ranger. As the story was first reported, the rangers tried to reintroduce the calf to the herd, and it was rejected by the mother because it now had the smell of humans on it. The public outcry against the park visitors was swift and harsh.

Then these tourists spoke up, along with a photographer who frequents Yellowstone and had seen the bison calf before. The new information presented indicates that the baby bison had already been separated from its mother and herd when the tourists found it, not just looking cold, but shivering in a parking lot alone and standing near cars to try to get some warmth. It was not, as previously suggested, rejected after the fact due to the human scent.

So why did the bison calf have to be euthanized, rather than brought to an animal sanctuary somewhere to be cared for in the absence of its bison mother?

In a comment on one of its own Facebook posts, Yellowstone National Park wrote:

In order to ship the calf out of the park, it would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis. No approved quarantine facilities exist at this time, and we don’t have the capacity to care for a calf that’s too young to forage on its own. Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals: our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone. Even though humans were involved in this case, it is not uncommon for bison, especially young mothers, to lose or abandon their calves. Those animals typically die of starvation or predation.

Many comments on other news articles mentioned the possibility that the bison calf’s mother had deliberately abandoned her offspring because she knew it was sick or weak, so that she could thus focus her resources on ensuring the survival of her fittest. The comment from Yellowstone above is the most that I have been able to find, from any official source, corroborating the possibility that a mother bison would abandon her calf before – rather than because of – human involvement.

People became more sympathetic to the misguided tourists after reading these new developments, but some still blamed the visitors for interfering with the ecosystem of Yellowstone. Had nature taken its course, the lone bison calf would have been food for the wolves or coyotes that also make up part of the park’s living collection.

Yellowstone is concerned not about individual organisms (“Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals”) but about the ecosystem as a whole and has had to cull the bison herds (i.e. kill some bison) at times in order to maintain a stable bison population in the park.   (In news more recent than the baby bison story, the animals are at the center of a lawsuit just filed by three wildlife protection groups against the Department of the Interior and United States Fish and Wildlife Service for allegedly failing to protect Yellowstone bison in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.)

Although I would love to visit Yellowstone National Park someday, I really do not know if I could handle seeing an abandoned bison calf shivering alone, or being descended upon by predators. It would break my bleeding, animal-loving heart. It makes sense that at an evolutionary level, genes are paramount (hence, the possibility of a mother abandoning a calf she knows won’t survive so that she can focus her attention on other offspring) and that at an ecological level, ecosystems are paramount (hence, the National Park Service allowing a natural ecosystem to thrive, with members of one species serving as food for another species). My ideal would be for individual sentient beings to be paramount, but I don’t make the rules.

Religious thought has addressed this question, to the extent it has done so at all, in different ways. Biblical references to a future peaceable kingdom, in which no animal needs to kill another animal in order to survive, are the inspiration for the famous painting by Edward Hicks who was not only a painter but also a Quaker preacher. I found a number of webpages by Young Earth Creationists, such as this one, pronouncing that there was also a past peaceable kingdom, and it was only after Adam and Eve’s sin that any animals became carnivorous. In a column on a website devoted to the teachings of Kriya Yoga, the question “Why do animals suffer?” is answered, in part:

When animals experience pain, usually it’s simply nature taking its course: the animal has an accident or gets attacked by another animal. Neither ego nor karma nor torture is involved; instinct rules the animal world, and they are locked into a fixed progression of expanding consciousness….they are not as attached to their bodies as humans are, so they do not suffer as much as humans do when bad things happen to them.

The baby bison story would not have had a happy ending for the baby bison, whether the Canadian tourists had involved themselves or not. The circle of life, the food chain, ecosystems – whatever you want to call it – is one of the content areas a park like Yellowstone can help visitors learn about, but it is an admittedly difficult one for me to wrap my head around.

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The Gorilla in the Zoo

By now, probably everyone has heard about the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo , recently euthanized after a small boy (the many news articles I read variously cited his age as either 3 or 4 years old) deliberately entered his enclosure. The child told his mother that he was going to go into the gorilla’s habitat; the mother said no; the next thing anyone knew, the child was next to the gorilla. Harambe soon began dragging the boy around, causing a concussion in what some say was protective behavior and others say was aggressive, but was certainly dangerous for the child whatever the gorilla’s motivation.

Amid the crowd’s screams, zoo staff tried calling the gorillas out of the outside part of their enclosure and away from the child. Two female gorillas obeyed the call, but Harambe did not. Zoo staff then made the decision to euthanize the gorilla, later explaining that a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and would have agitated the gorilla in the meantime, thus putting the preschool-aged boy in more danger.

Online, everyone had an opinion or even an often dubious degree of expertise. (Yes, I know, here I am writing a blog post.) Some people not only judged the parents but wanted them held criminally responsible, which unleashed a round of other people speaking out against judging parents for what they believe could have happened to anyone in a split second of looking away. Some of the comments I have read about the parents were blatantly racist, and the racial aspect of reactions to the story has been discussed in still other articles such as this one. For their part, the parents are urging their supporters to make donations to the Cincinnati Zoo in Harambe’s memory rather than donating to the family.

The zoo was widely blamed as well, with people questioning the quality of the barriers surrounding the enclosure, which reportedly meet Association of Zoo and Aquarium standards. Meanwhile, the debates about the value of one human life versus one of some 175,765 gorilla lives left in the world emerged in many comments sections.

Jane Goodall, along with the man who came up with the name for Harambe, the man who raised Harambe as a young gorilla, and a former zookeeper all offered their angles on the story. The incident was used as the premise of articles questioning why zoos exist at all.       Writers with some degree of primate knowledge have taken different stances on whether Harambe was trying to hurt the boy or protect him.

Harambe’s death was lamented in part because of the loss of an individual and of his genes to his endangered species, but as it turns out, his sperm has been preserved and can still be used to help propagate new gorillas.  In another article, we learned of the deaths of Harambe’s gorilla family members in another zoo tragedy (a 2002 chlorine gas leak at Texas’s Gladys Porter Zoo).

Having read dozens of articles on the subject, and too many comments for anyone’s good, I can only conclude that what happened was no one’s fault – a rarely occurring but tragic event in which a decision had to be made instantaneously to preserve human life. I am not wondering what the zoo staff or the mother could have done differently in that terrifying moment. But I am wondering if anything could be done differently, at a societal or field-wide level, to decrease the already low chances of such an outcome.

Newborn babies are swaddled in blankets and dressed in onesies covered with adorable, pastel-colored, smiling, anthropomorphized animals. Certainly I have bought these kinds of gift items myself, along with cute-animal-themed giftwrap, for friends who are having babies. Young children learn about letters and numbers, kindness and taking turns, from books and cartoons about wild animals that look like stuffed toys. At the same time, children also learn that real animals are often large and very often dangerous to human beings, and there are reasons that you can’t pet the lions or even (with some exceptions in the form of exhibits specifically designated as petting zoos) the herbivorous megafauna when you visit the zoo.

If children being wheeled through the zoo entrance in teddy bear strollers are made aware of the dangers that the animals pose to people, how aware are people, in turn, of the danger that people pose to animals? I recently finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which describes the havoc humans are wreaking on ecosystems through phenomena such as habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, ocean acidification, and climate change. Do zoo visitors understand that zoos exist not just for a fun afternoon of cotton candy and looking at the animals, but also to try to build arks and breed and preserve species that are at risk of extinction due to human activities? Certainly, a job that zoos have is to bring people in the door and educate them about this reality.

When I led birthday parties at the National Zoo, some for children as young as the boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, my fellow Birthday Safari Guides (yes, that was my job title) and I were required to set some ground rules before heading out on our tours. We told the children that the animals have their own diets and it would not be healthy for them to eat human food, so the juice boxes and crackers would stay in the party room. The habitats are the animals’ homes, and we would therefore not tap on their glass, just as it would be rude for someone to come and bang on our own windows at home. When we visited the great apes, we told the children to show their friendliness and non-aggression by turning their backs, closing their mouths (that is, no bared teeth), and looking over their shoulders at the animals. The hope is that we were not only preventing an immediate catastrophe when we set these rules, but also that we were instilling a sort of respect for the animals and their needs.

Worldwide, the Cincinnati Zoo incident was one of a few, in a short period of time, in which humans entered zoo animal enclosures with tragic results. The motivations/explanations for some recent forays into zoo animal habitats include suicidality, drunkenness, and the desire to take selfies with a walrus.

Still, what happened to Harambe is not part of some little-boys-falling-into-gorilla-enclosures epidemic. Arguably, it is part of a humans-encroaching-on-animal-populations epidemic. What if there were better fences, better education, and better tranquilizer darts? (If there is demand for weapons that can instantaneously kill, why doesn’t the human race have the motivation to develop something that can instantaneously tranquilize? I am no expert so perhaps this idea is a scientific impossibility, but if not, I can only imagine how transformative such an invention would be.) Would there then be better outcomes for animals like Harambe?

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The Goats in the Arboretum

Educators at informal learning environments with living collections hope that their living specimens will provide opportunities for engagement with human visitors. Some recent news stories of human-animal engagement gone awry have been running through my head for weeks, making me wonder to what extent such occurrences can be prevented and mitigated by the museum/park/other learning environment and to what extent they are an inevitable risk of human forays into the non-human world.

In what appears to be nothing more than a clear-cut case of animal cruelty this past spring, Mervyn Jay Downes III trespassed onto the grounds of Maryland’s Adkins Arboretum after hours and slit the throats of three goats (on two separate occasions), killing two and maiming the other. He has been charged with several crimes associated with these actions.

Adkins Arboretum, located within Tuckahoe State Park, has a plant-focused name (arboretum being derived from the word arbor) and mission (including phrases like “focuses solely on plants native to the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain”), but arboreta are also places to see animals that live among the plants.

On the arboretum’s Facebook page, some of the fauna included in photos are butterflies, leopard frogs, ducks, herons, and turtles. One photo of a birder is captioned, “Annual Spring Bird Migration Walk with Wayne Bell. Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak and flock of Myrtle, Yellow-Rumped or Butterbutt Warblers! A great day to start my own list!”

The goats are on-site for the purpose of natural week control, as described on a page of the arboretum’s website. Five years ago, Adkins won an award for piloting this program.

This award was given by Shared Earth Foundation, whose mission statement includes the belief that “today’s human beings have the responsibility to share Earth’s resources with other creatures and future generations by limiting their adverse impact on the planet, and by enriching and protecting Earth’s wild life and the places they inhabit.” This blog post is the first in a series I am writing on recent interactions that ended badly between human beings and other creatures at places where human beings can go to see and learn about such other creatures.

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