Imperfect Specimens

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/world/americas/31colombia.html

In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence.  I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center (NMFS)

But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case.  If you have worked  with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage.   Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of  California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards.   It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured.   In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies.  I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.

Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before.   It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.

I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect.  It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching.  Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.

I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.

Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens.  Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons.  They may have studied newly described species  or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

2 thoughts on “Imperfect Specimens

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Shedd Aquarium’s two new sea lions branded? I thought they were branded while still in the wild before being captured and relocated.

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