Analysis: Animals can help tackle nature deficit

Making a wish on your birthday is pretty standard, so as we mark the 100th birthday of the zoo today, I’m taking the liberty on behalf of the grand old lady herself to make a wish for the zoo and its future.

Four-year-old Freya Goodard helps usher in Edinburgh Zoo's 100th anniversary. Picture: Esme Allen

I’ve talked in these pages previously about my hope for the zoo to be seen not only as a great visitor attraction, but as a conservation centre for threatened and endangered species.

I have another, equally as important wish however, and that is for the zoo to be a place that addresses the growing problem of nature deficit disorder.

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What is it? Well, nature deficit disorder is a hypothesis by Richard Louv which suggests that due to the increasing urbanisation of children’s lives and their spending less time outdoors, children are displaying a wide range of behavioural problems which will become even more problematic in the future. Louv believes this is due to parental concerns about letting children run free for fear of dangerous people and due to increasing urbanisation over the last 40 to 50 years.

It’s fair to say that the memories that many of us may hold dear where we climbed trees, went pond dipping and explored natural spaces as children may not be the memories that people now seeking nature-based experiences on their doorstep will be able to create even if they wanted to, given the changing landscape and lifestyles we now currently have.

However, there are alternatives and there is hope. Of course I am going to say that I think the zoo and our sister park, Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore, can make a difference, but I believe they do. Through opportunities to get up close to animals of all shapes and sizes, taking part in events such as our summer schools and science schools, our annual “Bioblitz” event where we go pond dipping, moth trapping and bird counting and the act of simply “being” within the beautiful grounds of both our sites, whether in the middle of a city of in the heart of the Cairngorms; it allows for the start of a connection with nature to be made.

Granted, ours is not a completely natural environment but if we accept that for many, particularly those who live in towns and cities, we might be the closest many will get, then we are very much a door to the wild.

Our parks may become the positive nature-based memories for future generations of adults and if the conservation movement has learned anything over the years, it is that if people don’t know or don’t care, then it just doesn’t work.

If we don’t start addressing nature deficit disorder, then there are ramifications on a personal, local and global level.

We have plans for facilitating even greater access to nature and will announce them over the next few months. For now however, let’s enjoy the fact that for hundreds of thousands of visitors, we are giving them the chance to enjoy some of the best that nature has to offer.

• Chris West is chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland