no small conundrum…

This week we took a trip with friends to the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Ma.  The park is huge and gorgeous, with giant, mature trees lining the avenue which bends its way from the huge, front gate to the Zoo at the far end of the park. There are numerous playgrounds, and picnic areas complete with shade, tables and grilling areas. A plethora of tennis courts and an ice cream shack round out the grounds, which are nicely manicured, but manage to feel welcoming at the same time. Parking is bountiful and there are large sidewalks lined with shrubs and flowers to encourage you to take your time getting to your chosen destination. A small parking fee allows access to the whole shebang; except a nominal entrance fee for the zoo area. In short, you can spend the entire day in this beautiful garden park, without setting foot into the zoo. We explored a bit, and decided to give the zoo a try, and that was the only lackluster part of the day, I am sorry to report.

The zoo is small, and evidently operates at a depressingly low budget, as is evidenced by the size and quality of the enclosures. It has been many years since we have been to a zoo that still uses cages, not counting bird enclosures. Many of the animal habitats were garden-variety gazebos lined with metal caging. The animals were in suitable, but small and uninspired housing. Large zoos often have generous financial backing, as well as numerous fund-raising opportunities each year, increasing their ability to accommodate animals in high quality areas. This zoo was small, with a cheap entrance fee, at the end of a sprawling park reminiscent of Golden Gate Park in San Fran. The town of Springfield is not known for their high income earners, and this shows in the zoo itself and the general attitude and comments of those exploring the habitats.

This was not a case of abuse, or even overt cruelty on the part of the zoo. The keepers were working happily and constantly, but the volunteers were all young and under-trained, in my humble opinion. Lack of funds was obvious in the condition of the habitats, as well as the pathways and fencing. More of a petting zoo, there were many birds, goats, donkeys and even a few camels, but only one bear, chewing away at the metal bars, and a lone lion cub, panting in the sun. This type of zoo makes me rethink my position of the institutions as a whole.

In contrast, the Mystic Aquarium is an expensive and small place that specializes in rescue and rehabilitation of marine life. There offer many high-quality programs, which translate into many dollars for the aquarium to work with. It is still captivity, no mistaking that, but the quality of life there seems to be of a much higher caliber than in the little Forest Park Zoo. I do not like the idea of keeping wild creatures caged, but when you rescue an animal, and release is not a viable option; I believe you become responsible for that animal, until the end of its days. I believe that zoos and aquariums generally do more good than harm, educating the public on issues that we are not aware of in our daily lives. These institutions give children a chance to see something bigger than themselves and hopefully nurture a sense of responsibility to creatures in the wild. Statistically, children who spend a good deal of time in nature and in zoological parks tend to feel more responsible toward wildlife, and this translates into a compassion for their animals, their zoos, and their world. This is nothing but a good thing.

There are many organizations that could flourish with greater funding, better educational programs, and a larger staff of dedicated volunteers. I feel that the Forest Park Zoo is one of these organizations. I cannot commit time to this organization, as we live much too far for us to visit with any regularity. I do not choose to commit any of our limited budget to them either, as I feel our money can be better spent supporting other organizations.  But this will not stop me from sending a one-time donation, in the hopes that my meager support will work miracles when combined with other funds. I hope that this will allow these beautiful animals, who literally have no where else to go, to have an improved quality of life, and the keepers and administrators will see that what they are trying to accomplish may indeed, one day, come to fruition.

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