Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Keep death of Harley in properperspective

By Fang Lee-shing 方力行

Harley the koala is dead. His passing was given widespread media coverage in what seemingly is a matter of national mourning. The Taipei Zoo has had to shoulder responsibility for having delayed the announcement of his passing, and Taipei City officials must also share that responsibility for failing in their supervisory duties. If not, they will have failed to manifest social concerns about justice for wild animals, some say.

But is this really right? I think executive power is being confused with marketing and the satisfaction of sympathy and feelings of justice. If this confusion isn't cleared up, misplaced values will make us all unwilling to act on larger concerns.

Animal death is normal. Ideally, they would live in the wild, where the matter of dying is decided by nature itself. But since society needs its zoos and aquariums, and accepts turning wild animals into pets, their lives take place before our eyes. The main point isn't Harley's death, but whether it was caused by human neglect. With specialists and veterinarians around all along, how could this be the case?

Should the zoo director be blamed for delaying the announcement of Harley's death and the funeral? Honesty should of course be the approach of any official. I don't know what law or regulations were violated by delaying the announcement. But since the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, I do know that it is one of the world's largest and most influential non-governmental organizations.

Over 1 billion people annually visit its member zoos and aquariums. Membership can only be obtained through recommendation, review and a vote by all members. The biannual meeting is only attended by zoo and aquarium presidents or someone appointed by them. After five years of hard work, the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium was admitted as a full member this year.

When such an international organization recognizes Taiwan and holds an unprecedented annual meeting here, the success or failure of that meeting will have a deep and far-reaching effect on international audiences. If at this moment one, or a group, of our 3,000 animals of 400 different kinds would die, I feel that -- unless it must be immediately dealt with -- the more reasonable executive assessment and decision should be to prioritize the exceptional meeting over a routine animal death.

But, say some, a koala isn't just any animal -- it is the sweetheart of Taiwan. As far as I know, the koala isn't on any list of endangered species -- nor are penguins, dolphins or whale sharks. They are in fact the "stars" that zoo directors, academics and businesspeople use for marketing.

This raises public awareness about wild animals, enriches the lives of visitors and raises the number of people educated about the natural environment.

The only shortcoming is that we don't know who should tell the whole story if something befalls one of these "stars." We should continue to educate the public, telling them that preservation does not mean caring for these "stars" only, but rather that concerns should include all wild animals, protecting habitats and avoiding environmental destruction. This is the real essence of environmental education.

Taiwan's "star" approach to the preservation of the natural environment has always had its blind spots. There are also inherent contradictions in using marketing to increase educational resources and influence. If we fail to clarify the confusion that necessarily follows from this growth and transformation process, future preservation and education efforts will become more difficult.

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