Zoo Officials Forced to Reenact Sophie's Choice With Endangered Species

Don't get too attached to the lemurs in this photo.

With their numbers diminishing in the wild, zoos are doing their best to promote breeding and prevent extinction. Unfortunately, the lion-tailed macaques in captivity at the St. Louis zoo just won't get it on. And that's why — grab your tissues — "American zoos are on the verge of giving up on trying to save them."

I know. It's almost too much to bear. But the more animals near extinction, the more zoos are being asked to take in. And sometimes the resources just aren't there, especially when the species in question span mammals, fish, birds, and even insects.

Unfortunately, the "save the cutest species" plan isn't valid. Instead, some tough choices are made.

To conserve animals effectively, however, zoo officials have concluded that they must winnow species in their care and devote more resources to a chosen few. The result is that zookeepers, usually animal lovers to the core, are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save.

Lest you think my "Sophie's Choice" analogy is unfair, I'll direct you to this questionable line from the New York Times story: "Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list." (As an animal-lover and a Jew, I'm not sure how to feel.)

For some scientists, tough times mean zoos should adapt faster — instead of merely providing people with entertainment, they should be upping their conservation efforts. Dr. Steven L. Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, believes that the old zoo model is fundamentally flawed.

That's why zoos need to be working harder, Monfort says.

I am comfortable with raising the standards for zoos so that eventually it will be harder and harder to be accredited unless you are doing that. If you can't keep up, then you probably need to be dropped off the bottom.

The "putting on a show" aspect becomes secondary to preserving species. I think that's a sacrifice we can all make, right?

In the meantime, somebody please save those lemurs. This is really stressing me out.

[Image via Shutterstock]