Stemming species extinction

Volume 7 Number 3 March 14 - April 10 2011

Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray (left) and Melbourne University Research Fellow Siobhan O’Sullivan with Melbourne Zoo’s tree kangaroos, a species found in the wet tropical areas of Australia and New Guinea, and threatened in the wild by hunting and habitat loss. Photograph courtesy Zoos Victoria.
Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray (left) and Melbourne University Research Fellow Siobhan O’Sullivan with Melbourne Zoo’s tree kangaroos, a species found in the wet tropical areas of Australia and New Guinea, and threatened in the wild by hunting and habitat loss. Photograph courtesy Zoos Victoria.

At a twilight ceremony held early this month in the evocative surroundings of the Melbourne Zoo, the University of Melbourne celebrated the formal launch of its partnership with Zoos Victoria. Gabrielle Murphy details how the research and knowledge flowing from the partnership between these two iconic Melbourne institutions will help save animal species from extinction.

The University of Melbourne and Zoos Victoria have a long history of collaboration. Virtually since their establishment, the University and the cluster of zoos – the Melbourne Zoo located in nearby Parkville, the Werribee Open Range Zoo, and the Healesville Sanctuary – have enjoyed co-operative working relationships, sharing specialist staff, and teaching and research projects. But until recent times this productive interchange was largely limited to traditional faculties like veterinary science, zoology and botany.

“It’s so important that students and behaviouralists working in the zoo industry have access to the latest developments in animal care,” says Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray, “not just for the welfare of animals in captivity, but also for the care of animals involved in wildlife conservation projects. It’s an area that is becoming increasingly important in our industry.”

Now, with the significant growth of human-animal studies and research spreading across a wider field of disciplines, the two organisations have seen the need to formalise their relationship to reflect the widening agenda and the greater number of faculties contributing across the University in areas of relevance to the zoos in Victoria.

The relationship has now been strengthened with a formal launch of the partnership at a ceremony at the Melbourne Zoo early this month and the signing of a memorandum of understanding that provides a strategic framework for greater co-ordination at an interdisciplinary level and support for the development and funding of future joint projects.

Such projects will span research into biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability, veterinary sciences, animal wellbeing, and animal/human interface.

“We’ve had a long relationship with the University of Melbourne that’s resulted in some great collaborative projects over the years,” says Ms Gray, who sits on a University/Zoos collaborative committee chaired by Dean of Veterinary Science Professor Ken Hinchcliff and whose members include cross-campus research and teaching staff, and administrators, vets and medical scientists from Zoos Victoria. “Making this a formal partnership is actually very important because it opens up more opportunities for research projects that are going to progress our combined knowledge of animal care in captivity.”

New collaborations between the University and Zoos Victoria include a range of research projects and a joint lectureship. For example, a $20,000 University of Melbourne collaborative grant will fund initial research into the breeding of threatened species to improve the success of captive breeding and reintroduction programs using mate choice. It will also fund development of a larger Australian Research Council linkage application to be submitted in next year’s funding round.

A joint lectureship position in the Department of Zoology is enabling the study and documentation of how species in the East Gippsland area respond to a range of destructive processes.

“Research is being conducted on the rate at which fitness is lost in captivity over generations,” says Ms Gray, “something that is critical to the success of re-introducing threatened species back into the wild.

“To put it simply, we feel that the research and knowledge that will come from our partnership with the University will help save species from extinction.”

The strength and robustness of the partnership is also exemplified in the growing number of non-traditional, trans-disciplinary research projects being conducted in human-animal studies across the University of Melbourne.

Recently the Faculty of Arts provided seed funding for an interdisciplinary project titled ‘Knowing Animals Past and Present’ to a group of researchers collaborating across the School of Culture and Communication, the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, and the School of Social and Political Science. As Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan says “you would not normally expect collaboration with Zoos Victoria and the Faculty of Arts”.

Dr O’Sullivan is a research fellow in the School of Social and Political Science who specialises in the welfare state but who has an abiding interest in animal welfare legislation, ethics and environmental matters. She sits alongside Jenny Gray on the University of Melbourne and Zoos Victoria Joint Collaboration Committee, and is lead researcher on the Knowing Animals Past and Present project.

“By taking a sociological perspective, and developing a broad historical overview of animal life from the early modern period until the present, we hope to be able to explore the effect that the relative absence of animals from modern lives has on the preservation of animals on the verge of extinction,” says Dr O’Sullivan.

With very few people having immediate exposure to, or first-hand relationships with non-human animals, most people now live in highly urbanised settings which are overwhelmingly human-only spaces.

“At the same time that real animals have been largely removed from our lives, we are bombarded with representations of animals in advertising and other media,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “So what hope do have of knowing, let alone understanding, non-human animals?”

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the problem of how humans can and should relate to animals, and what those relationships mean in terms of animal welfare outcomes and survival potential, the Faculty of Arts researchers hope to provide a more nuanced account of this significant and growing concern.