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SOS, Save Our Species: Zoos and Animal Conservation Programs

Dino Cappello September 26, 2019
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For children and adults around the world, a trip to the zoo is an exciting experience unlike any other. While zoos provide unmatched entertainment and enjoyment to their visitors, they also provide important contributions to the fight for wildlife preservation. Zoos and animal conservation now go hand-in-hand, as many zoos have established their own conservation programs and contributions to increase preservation efforts around the world.

History of zoos

The history of zoos dates back much further than many people may realize. Beginning several centuries ago, wealthy kings and prominent members of the elite hosted royal menageries of exotic animals. Emperors and pharaohs alike boasted large collections of unique animals, which included hippopotami, elephants, baboons, and various exotic birds. These animals were often kept in small enclosures and occasionally used in animal fighting exhibitions, as in the case of ancient Roman games. These private collections were solely for display and entertainment purposes for the world’s most prominent figures. The practice of royal menageries continued well into the 18th century and throughout the Enlightenment Era. The oldest zoo still in operation is the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria. It’s located within the Schönbrunn Palace grounds and continues to delight visitors to this day, though its practices and mode of operation shifted with the times; it now places a higher importance on animal health and well-being.

Today, modern zoos have strayed away from exhibits designed purely for entertainment purposes. Gone are the days of barren cages with oppressive metal bars. These harsh cages have since been replaced by larger enclosures designed to replicate the animal’s natural habitat and allow for more natural behaviors. Rather than living in isolation, modern zoos also allow animals to socialize with others of their own species, and on occasion, may even place other animals that reside in their natural habitat in their enclosure. Many zoos have made a shift toward providing educational exhibits to inspire visitors and make them think critically about the world around them. With an ever-increasing interest in zoology and ecology, as well as pressing concerns about climate change and its effect on the earth’s wildlife, zoos and animal conservation now seem to go together. Many zoos around the world have created special programs designed to study and protect animals worldwide. Below are just a few examples of the conservation efforts of zoos around the world and the strides being made to protect our world’s most beautiful creatures.

Wildlife conservation programs in zoos

Captive breeding

The World Wildlife Foundation currently lists 47 species as either endangered or critically endangered, often due to poaching or deforestation in their natural habitat. Several species became extinct in 2018, which includes the Spix’s Macaw that was made famous by the 2011 film Rio. To reduce the risk of more species becoming extinct, many zoos have established captive breeding programs. Also known as conservation breeding, these programs are designed to help regulate breeding of endangered animals to boost population levels in the wild. The Golden Lion Tamarin is one species that has significantly benefitted from captive breeding programs in recent years. As a result of logging and mining in their natural habitat, these small primates were once in severe danger of extinction. Captive breeding programs were established in zoos across the United States and Brazil and placed a focus on research, habitat restoration, and increasing the species’ population. Today, roughly one-third of the species’ wild population originated from Golden Lion Tamarins bred and raised in captivity. The captive breeding programs and conservation efforts of zoos around the world have helped increase the wild Golden Lion Tamarin population significantly, and there are continued programs in place to ensure a further increase in their population.

Rehabilitation and reintroduction programs

Zoos offer a safe space for animals to reside in peace, but for some animals, a zoo is only a temporary residence. Rehabilitation and reintroduction programs established in zoos around the world provide professional care to injured or orphaned animals before releasing them back into their natural habitat. Rehabilitators work with skilled veterinarians to provide the expert care injured or sick animals need before they can go back into the wild, as they may not survive otherwise. The differences between wild and domestic animals can be quite vast, so the rehabilitators must have an extensive knowledge of the animal’s natural habitat, behaviors, and dietary requirements. Following the rehabilitation process, animals are reintroduced into their natural habitat. In instances where the animal is unable to properly integrate with their native population, they may instead be relocated to a nature preserve. These nature preserves allow animals the opportunity to reside in their natural habitat alongside other rehabilitated animals while under the watchful eye of zoologists and rehabilitation experts.

Education programs

The fight for wildlife conservation is a global issue that does not rest solely on the shoulders of scientists and zoologists. To raise awareness about the importance of wildlife preservation, many zoos offer educational programs where children and adults can learn how they can do their part to protect wildlife. Visiting zoos and hearing zookeepers speak about endangered and at-risk species encourages individuals to reconsider their role in current environmental problems and think critically about how their actions affect our earth’s wildlife. These programs provide visitors with valuable information regarding conservation and opportunities to join the fight for wildlife conservation. Many zoos also offer youth-centered education programs to prove you can be a champion for animal conservation regardless of your age.

Local conservation programs

As with many social issues, the fight for wildlife conservation starts in your own backyard. In addition to outreach and preservation programs around the world, many zoos have also established conservation programs within their immediate community. The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, for example, supports several local conservation programs in their community and many conservation efforts worldwide. Among these local programs, the Audubon Zoo has established a survival center which aids in the research, rehabilitation, and reintroduction of Mississippi sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which are North America’s most endangered birds. The Audubon Zoo also supports the Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program. It provides recycling containers for monofilament fishing line, which is a popular line used by fishers in the area and a common contributor to pollution in the Louisiana wetlands. For further information regarding the many conservation programs supported by the Audubon Nature Institute, and how you can help in their fight for animal conservation, you can purchase Audubon zoo tickets to speak directly with one of their highly skilled and knowledgeable conservationists.

SOS, Save Our Species Zoos and Animal Conservation Programs infographic