When I mention to people that I’ve studied zoology, I often get asked all sorts of questions about the nature of zoos. Now, zoology is not the study of zoos as some people tend to assume; it is of course the study of animals, as zoo (more properly zoological institution or park) and zoology both come from the same root word meaning animal. However, this often leads to a discussion about zoos and their various merits, which is a subject that is near and dear to me. As a child, my parents were members of both Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, and I loved our frequent visits to see the animals. In fact, the love of animals that my parents instilled in me is what has led me to pursue zoology as a career, as well as to travel the world whenever I can to seek out exotic wildlife. Therefore, when people ask me what I think of zoos, I am happy to share my knowledge and opinions.
One thing I often hear people comment is “oh, I don’t like zoos, I hate seeing animals in captivity”. While I of course appreciate this sentiment, I think in the vast majority of cases (in modern zoos at least), this noble sentiment is misguided. A lot of people seem to still have the image of Victorian-era zoos in their heads, where animals were brought from around the world to be housed in bare, tiny, dirty cages to be gawked at solely for the amusement of humans. If that is the case, then I don’t like zoos any more than the next person. However, modern-day zoological institutions have advanced far beyond these primitive beginnings. Zoos are certainly still a place for people to come and look at animals, of course, but this is not their only purpose. Education is now a major focus of any decent (and certainly any accredited) zoo. This means that the keepers and administrators of the zoo make massive efforts to provide educational material about the animals they house, and to present it in a way that is engaging to casual visitors as well as students of biology. And with this education comes inspiration: the inspiration to conserve a beautiful, fascinating creature that you may otherwise have known nothing about. Think about it: most people will never have the opportunity to travel to all corners of the globe and seek out (or even stumble across) most of the animals that you can see within the span of a few hours at your local zoo. And if an animal is unknown to the general public, they will never care about aiding in conservation efforts, or protecting endangered habitat. Even pictures in a book or on the internet do not have the same impact as actually seeing the animal in person, and being able to observe its behaviors in a naturalistic habitat. For of course, these days animals are not kept in bare cages behind bars. Millions of dollars go into creating extremely realistic habitats for animals so that they will look, feel, and act as if they are truly in the wild.
Earlier I mentioned accredited zoos. For those who don’t know about zoo accreditation, I shall explain briefly. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, or AZA, is the major accreditation institution in the US (and in about 100 other countries as well). In order to be listed as an accredited zoo or aquarium, the institution is held up to rigorous standards of animal care, exhibit maintenance, quality, and safety, to name just a few. The AZA also conducts periodic inspections of all the accredited institutions, which can lose their accreditation status if they fail to maintain the standards. Zoos gain a lot of benefits from being accredited, and not just the recognition for being held up to such a high standard. They are also more eligible for grants, and exempt from certain governmental requirements. AZA-accredited institutions are also able to participate in the Species Survival Plan, an important conservation program that is overseen by the AZA. This means that zoos participate in breeding and conservation programs for many different endangered species. Individuals of a certain species can be traded from one zoo to another within a group that participates in the Species Survival Plan for that particular animal, to improve breeding success and broaden the genetic pool. This brings me to the other major benefit of modern, accredited zoos: active conservation efforts.
The AZA oversees a couple different types of active conservation programs, most importantly field conservation and reintroduction programs. Now, what I often get asked when I tell people that zoos are instrumental in species conservation is: what are some examples of animals that have been saved from extinction by zoos? I’ll provide some of the best examples directly from the AZA website. Probably some of the best-known species that have successfully bred and reintroduced to their natural habitat include the black-footed ferret, the California condor, the golden lion tamarin, and the red wolf. These species were all critically endangered in the wild before being captured by biologists and established in breeding populations in various AZA-accredited zoos across the US (I’ve linked to their pages on the IUCN Red List, and as you can see all are listed as Endangered or Critically endangered, but the population trend increasing; each page has more detail about that particular species). For example, only 18 of the black-footed ferrets were left by the time they were placed into a captive breeding program, but now over 700 individuals have been reintroduced to their native range. Some lesser known (but just as important) species that have been successfully bred and reintroduced include Oregon spotted frogs, freshwater mussels, Karner blue butterflies, Palila Hawaiian songbirds, and Wyoming toads. That last one was once thought to be extinct in the wild, until a single population was discovered, bred, and reintroduced. Unfortunately it seems that this new wild population may have succumbed to chytrid fungus, which is a rapidly spreading amphibian pandemic. However, all these species and more would certainly have gone extinct in the wild if not for the intervention of zoos and their captive breeding programs. The AZA also has very specific scientific guidelines for the breeding and reintroduction of endangered species to ensure that viable populations are re-formed in the safest and most appropriate habitat possible. The AZA also supports conservation directly in the field, as opposed to capturing and breeding animals in zoos. This is probably more applicable in situations where a species or population is endangered, but not so critically that the few remaining individuals must all be protected in captivity and bred. However, it is no less important. Ascertaining the long-term survival of species (and habitats) is critical to maintaining biodiversity and the balance of delicate ecosystems.
So there you have it, in a nutshell: zoos save many species from extinction. I could probably write a book about all the species that have been bred in Species Survival Plans, and all the conservation programs that have been undertaken in the wild. However, I’ll just leave you with this thought: probably any zoo or aquarium that you have visited, and certainly any zoo or aquarium worth the price of its admission, is supporting conservation programs and scientific research dedicated to preventing many species from going extinct. Not only that, but they are making massive effort people about the beauty and frailty of our fellow creatures. When you visit a zoo, don’t you feel as if you are being transported to a foreign land? Do you marvel at the incredible creatures that you would never otherwise see in real life, and maybe never even have heard of? The way modern zoos are designed is to not make you feel as if you are important lessons, but simply to amaze and inspire you so that you will care about the future of these animals, great and small. And this, people, is why I love zoos.
If anyone has any questions or comments, I would love to hear them! Is there something I left out? Something I should have explained better or included more detail on? Have a cool example you want to share? Please let me know, I love to discuss this!