What Can a Zoo Do? / by Layl McDill

While I was down south this spring I had time to wander around Jackson, Mississippi.  One day I ended up driving down a road with a sign that said ZOO.  It was a beautiful afternoon and I thought- "I really would like to get my own photos of animals to create some pieces I have been thinking about." So I followed the signs to the Jackson Zoo .  

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I was thrilled to discover that the first animal I encountered was a giraffe; this was exactly the animal I was hoping for!  Recently I had been forming an idea for a piece involving a large drawing of a giraffe transferred onto clay.  I was also lucky this giraffe was in the perfect position to capture lots of up close photos, so I snapped away.  

Then I moved on to the mountain lions and I started to think about the controversy surrounding zoos. It was obvious that these three mountain lions had nowhere near the amount of room that a mountain lion in the wild really needed.  But then they started playing around, chasing each other just like domesticated cats; it was so entertaining!  Here I was enjoying them for my own personal enjoyment while knowing all along that mountain lions need many miles to roam to be truly happy.  It's such a tough dilemma because zoos also are super important when it comes to preservation.  This was especially apparent as I moved on through the zoo.

The zoo did a great job on their description panels, explaining the causes for the endangerment to the animals on view and even gave pointers as to what people can do in their daily lives to help.  Then I got to the highlight of the zoo: the white rhino.  This one-ton beast is amazing to view in real life!  I was super lucky that he was also on the move and ready to pose for photos.  There are only around 20,000 southern white rhinos in the world,  so seeing one in real life is a rare experience.  They were even thought to be extinct for awhile.  Northern white rhinos are, sadly, headed for extinction, as the last male died this past March. 



Does a visit to the zoo help us realize how precious and incredible all the animals on this earth are?  I think it does.  For me, as an artist, I can take it a step further by creating art inspired by these animals and share it with the world.  I have since created the giraffe piece I was contemplating the day I took all those photos.  As I worked, I thought a lot about how many amazing animals there are in the world.  There is talk of being able to bring back extinct species with science.  It's not going to be an easy task, or possibly even a good idea.  When I finished my piece I decided to call it "How to Build a Giraffe," as a way of highlighting this topic.  Resurrecting animals is not something we can do (yet), so wouldn't it be better to save what we do have?

I still feel ambivalent about zoos. Years ago I listened to a Stuff You Should Know podcast called "Are Zoos Good or Bad for Animals" which really laid out the pros and cons.  Upon listening to it again, it became evident to me that there are going to be zoos that do it right and those that don't.  There is constant controversy and research on this subject.  One animal at the center of attention right now is the Elephant, possibly my next subject for a piece.  My goal is to create art that not only celebrates the animal kingdom but also encourages people to examine our human relationship with each animal.  In this way I can use art to help keep attention on this important topic. 

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