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Five Questions Lesley Stahl Didn’t Ask the “Frozen Zoo”

Animal Tourism Blog Test Tube Wooly Mammoths

Last night on 60 Minutes Lesley Stahl went to see the Frozen Zoo, the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center. The center is doing fascinating. historic, ground-breaking work storing the DNA of threatened species and even producing clones of endangered African wildcats. What was missing from the story, however, was a closer look at the context in which the center operates. If Stahl and 60 Minutes had asked the following questions, the piece might not have been as much of an inane exercise.

Who’s paying for all this?
The nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute grew out of a once ailing, old New Orleans institution. They’re not related to the Audubon Club. ANI runs a zoo, insectarium and Imax theatre. So are they supporting the whole $43 million operation (including the $2.5 million it costs to save endangered species) by creeping out kids with bugs and selling zoo T-shirts? If so, that would be quite a feat and worth knowing. Too bad Stahl didn’t ask.

The issue is important because in 2007 the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott pointed out ANI’s ties to big oil, raising the possibility it used Chevron money to make a lame Katrina Imax movie that doesn’t mention oil’s role in destroying wetlands. (No way, say the film-maker and Audubon: Chevron was just ordered by a court to funnel cash to an environmental cause and they chose this one.)

According to finances posted online, the operation just about breaks even (a loss of $187,000 in 2008, the latest year available). Unless you count capital expenses. Which the center curiously doesn’t. And they’re huge: $41 million, most of which went to insectarium. The center is supported by its own foundation, which was worth $30 million in 2007, according to Guidestar. It got some federal money from helping save the whooping crane and a little bug money Terminix. And it pays longtime New Orleans politician Ron Forman about $500,000 a year (as of their latest filings)–though that’s down from the $700,000 he got in 2000.

Frankly, the work is so important I might not mind if the center raised money by selling zoo T-shirt to strippers who entice people to gamble, smoke and drink candy-flavored liquor. But I’d want to know.

What about the Thylacine? Who cares about Wooly Mammoths? When are you going to bring us a a Thylacine?

The Thylacine is the emblem of a species that was allowed to go extinct in modern times. So why are we talking about the wooly mammoth?

The Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, was an Australian striped marsupial went extinct so recently (1933) there’s video of it on YouTube. Some Australians debate whether some might still exist on Tasmania. Meanwhile, the Australian Museum has been working on bringing it back from extinction for years using the same idea Audubon is talking about: taking DNA from museum specimens. So why aren’t these two working together?

Is this part of some international movement to make a library of animal DNA?

Because the Animal Gene Storage Resource Center of Australia seems to be doing the same exact thing. And Advanced Cell Technology also bred an endangered Javan Bentang in a cow. None of that takes away from the great stuff ANI is doing, but I’d like to hear where they fit in.

Why skin cells?

Why is ANI concentrating on skins cells instead of blood or gametes? Is skin better? Or are they really gearing up for using skin from old museum cells?

Why don’t those guys burying seeds in the arctic give you some storage space?

The Global Crop Diversity Trust runs an arctic bunker for seeds, which 60 Minutes covered in 2008. And it’s way better funded and advanced with a bunker set to survive disaster. Wouldn’t that be a safer place to put endnagered DNA than New Orleans? Aren’t animals more important?

Instead we get these questions:

So it’s really more like an ark than a zoo?

Stahl points out. Brilliant observation. Like it was in the BBC’s 2005 headline on the place. Those canisters of liquid nitrogen wouldn’t be much fun to look.

After bringing up the way distant possibility of rewriting DNA to meet our criteria, Stahl then asks, with great surprise, if they could possibly CLONE the extinct or endangered species.

Ok, cloning is like photo-copying. It already exists. It’s no longer science fiction. It’s here. So why be shocked? And why throw in this idea of editing DNA, which still is science fiction, and not be shocked? If she’s going to ask questions like this, they may as well send Andy Rooney out on science stories.

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