Guest Post: Captivity and Conservation

by Corey Dolan

I’ve recently read articles and had conversations with different people that expressed a dislike for zoos, stating that animals belong only in the wild, not captivity. As a lifelong animal lover, this bothered me. Is it really wrong to love animals and enjoy going to and supporting zoos? Many zoos and aquariums have a strong focus on conservation, helping to protect endangered species and raising awareness of how human actions can affect the natural world. I think with the state of our world as it is now, it’s even more important to support the efforts of zoos and aquariums. Earlier this year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a journal about the sixth mass extinction period, an extinction that is even more severe than expected (“biological annihilation” according to the journal), an extinction that our world is witnessing now. As more and more species disappear from the planet, the pertinent question becomes how to protect those that are remaining. While zoos and aquariums are not the only answer, they may be one way to preserve species and rehabilitate our natural world.

Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo - Corey Dolan

Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo - Corey Dolan

Here I would like to make a distinction: I am not blinding advocating the support of all zoos. They have come to have a negative reputation for a reason. Most zoos provide inadequate space and improper care to the animals, and many animals die earlier in captivity. However, some zoos provide homes for animals that are unable to live in the wild, such as a sea turtle that can’t dive due to a damaged shell or a bald eagle with a broken wing, and promote conservation and awareness. But how do you know which zoos and aquariums to visit? One way to know if the zoo or aquarium is worthy of your support is to check if it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA evaluates zoos based on many factors that would affects the physical and mental health of the animals at the zoo, including: living situations, social groupings, health, nutrition, and veterinary programs. Additionally, the AZA checks the zoo’s role in conservation, research, and education. Only about 10% of animal exhibitors in the United States are AZA accredited, and the zoos and aquariums that achieved accreditation need to constantly adapt to evolving standards and must go through the accreditation process again every five years to ensure that they still uphold the high standards of animal care demanded by the AZA and animal lovers around the world.

I want to give some examples of the amazing work AZA accredited zoos are doing. As of June 2017, there are 231 accredited zoos. The examples below are just a small sample of the good that these zoos are achieving. To learn more, visit the website of the zoo or aquarium that interests you and look for a conservation tab.

The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minnesota serves as a coordinator for the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for seven different species. The SSP is a cooperative breeding program where species are bred to maintain a genetically diverse, self-sustaining population which may save species from extinction. The seven species in this program at the Minnesota Zoo are: Asian wild horse, tigers, green aracari, Japanese macaques, Lion-tailed macaques, painted stork, and moose.

Lynx at the Minnesota Zoo - Corey Dolan

Lynx at the Minnesota Zoo - Corey Dolan

The ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, New Mexico features a coral propagation program, where coral is grown and shipped to other aquariums and zoos across the country to be used for educational purposes. This prevents coral from being taken from the ocean for these purposes, helping to protect the world’s coral reefs.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia has been actively involved in monitoring the health of the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin. Researches there have led or been involved with the Health and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) project for bottlenose dolphins since 2003, studying over 360 individual dolphins.

The Toronto Zoo in Toronto, Ontario features both breeding and reintroduction programs. In 1982, the zoo began the process of reintroducing Trumpeter Swans to Ontario. Since then, over 60 swans have been born at the zoo, a nesting site since 1996. Due to their efforts, there are now over 1000 free-flying birds in southern Ontario.

The Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, Michigan stopped selling bottled water in 2015, a step towards reducing waste from the zoo. Instead, the zoo has filtered water stations for filling reusable bottles and sells reusable bottles for lower prices than bottled water was previously sold.

These efforts represent a single conservation program from each of these zoos; all of them have multiple programs. Together, these zoos donate to, research, and volunteer their time to many wonderful conservation programs that serve to protect our world. So the next time you’re traveling, consider stopping by a local AZA accredited zoo and supporting all of the conservation work done by these zoos.

If you would like to view a list of currently AZA accredited zoos and aquariums:

If you would like to read the journal about the sixth mass extinction:

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