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Why Do Zoos Matter?

Updated on March 16, 2016
GailLedford profile image

Gail is a 30 year old animal lover from Georgia who is passionate about wildlife and wild places.

A History Lesson

Although zoos and aquariums have been around for quite awhile, the very first animal collections have not always resembled the state-of-the-art modern facilities that you see and probably visit today. In fact, the very first were actually created by the extremely wealthy who often kept huge menageries to show off just their status. One of the oldest zoological collections was discovered during excavations in Hierakonpolis, Egypt in 2009 with the findings being dated circa 3500 B.C. The animals that were found included Hippos, wildcats, Hartabeest, Baboons, and Elephants. Animal collections also existed in later civilizations as well such as Greece, China, and Rome. It was not really until the 18th century that the idea of the modern zoo as we know it today came into existance.

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history in which science, reason, and logic began to be promoted as ideals to society and government. Those ideals also extended to Zoology. For the first time people wanted to study animals for scientific reasons and not just keep them around for pure entertainment. In order to do this, they had to keep them close so they would have easier access to them, and they also had to keep the animals in places that were as close to their natural habitats as possible. The first so-called "modern zoo" was the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes which opened in Paris, France in 1793. That zoo still exists today.

The Zoo of Today

The zoos of today are a far cry from those early menageries. Today, zoos are more scientifically inclined, gearing more towards not just entertaining the visiting public, but also species conservation as well as public education through a myriad of programs that take place both on and off grounds. Today, many of these facilities are accredited under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums which seeks to ensure that all of its members adhere to strict standards of animal care which are much higher than those that are required by law. Accredited facilities must submit themselves for review every five years in order to make sure that their facility is continuing to adhere to AZA standards so that they can maintain their accreditation. Currently the organization has 230 accredited members.

Eastern Bongo at Zoo Atlanta as part of an SSP.
Eastern Bongo at Zoo Atlanta as part of an SSP.

Species Survival Plan

All of the AZA's accredited members cooperate with each other and work together to save endangered species from becoming extinct. In order to better do this member facilities participate in what is known as the Species Survival Plan program which was developed in 1981 to help ensure the survival of selected species, most of which are endangered or threatened in the wild.

Species Survival Plan programs focus on animals that are threatened or endangered in the wild, when experts believe that captive breeding may be the only chance a species may have to survive. These programs seek to maintain healthy, and genetically diverse populations. AZA accredited facilities work together, participating in cooperative population management as well as conservation efforts that include research, public education, and field conservation projects. Currently, there are 172 species covered by 116 SSP programs in North American zoos.

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Blue-tongued skink during an animal encounter at Zoo Atlanta.
Blue-tongued skink during an animal encounter at Zoo Atlanta.
Blue-tongued skink during an animal encounter at Zoo Atlanta. | Source

Zoos Don't Just Benefit Animals, They Benefit People Too

Zoos provide people with essential connections to the natural world that many people might not be able to have otherwise. In fact, about 180 million people pay a visit to U.S. zoos each year. That's more than the annual attendance of all of the major league sporting events COMBINED. Of that number about 50 million of those visitors were children, making zoos valuable places to go for families to be able to connect with nature as well as each other. And it's not just for families either, about 12 million school children will go on a field trip to a zoo this year, providing them with better opportunities to learn and connect with the natural world.

Many zoos provide both onsite and off site educational programs that may include behind the scenes encounters where zoo visitors can get a more up close and personal look at certain zoo animals, informal on grounds animal encounters where either staff or volunteers bring certain animals out to meet and greets where guests can often touch the animals, overnight programs where zoo guests can actually spend the night at the zoo, home school classes, day camps and more. Many zoos also host teacher workshops throughout the year, supporting proper science curricula with effective teaching materials and hands-opportunities. Last year, AZA accredited zoos helped train more than 400,000 teachers using these methods. They also provide people with ample opportunities to get involved beyond just visiting, but also by volunteering, providing people with more direct ways of being involved with wildlife conservation. According to the AZA, more than 60,000 people invest more than 3 million hours supporting their local communities by volunteering at their local zoo and/or aquarium.

Also, studies have shown that just being in the near proximity of an animal can have calming effects on a person, effectively lowering their blood pressure and stress levels. So a trip to your local zoo can not only be a fun event that supports the conservation of endangered species, it can also be a quite relaxing one too!

Total Number of People Who Attended Major League Sporting Events in The 2014-2015 Season

Animal Enrichment

"But this isn't the wild!" People say, and that's true, it isn't and of course zoos know that, so they try and make it as "wild" as possible for the animals that reside there. In order to do this zoos offer their animals what they like to call enrichment. Enrichment is anything that keeps the animal both mentally and physically stimulated, encouraging them to solve problems and maybe even allow them to exercise all of the natural behaviors they would be doing in the wild. Animals who are foragers may have their food scattered throughout their exhibit enclosure so when it's time for them to eat, they have the chance to forage for it just like they would in the wild. Animals like apes, who are our closest relatives and are therefore extremely intelligent, may receive their favorite treat inside something else such as a series of nested boxes (a box placed inside another box). Some animals may even get even more unconventional enrichment like being taught how to paint (of course they aren't painting in the same way that a human would, but it's enrichment all of the same.)

Another form of enrichment is training. Zookeepers work closely with their animals every single day, often to the point where they probably see the animals that they care for more than they do their own human families and they are very good at their jobs. By doing training, they are not only strengthening the bond that they have with their animals on an almost daily basis, but it gives the animal a great deal of mental and physical stimulation as well, and what makes training so miraculous, is that it often allows the animal to basically participate in its own care. Here's an example: a zookeeper comes into work one morning and notices that one of the female orangutans that she cares for is not using one of their hands the way an orangutan normally would (maybe she's not using to pick up stuff or to grip things when she's climbing or something like that). Instead of having to tranquilize the animal, wait until she falls asleep and then have to transport her to a place where she can be x-rayed which can cause a lot of unnecessary stress on both the animal and her caretaker, zoos have now come up with techniques where that zookeeper could actually train that orangutan to come to a certain area, stick her arm in a cuff-like device (which doesn't hurt) and allow her hand to be x-rayed without having to go through all of the other hassle that was previously mentioned. But how would zoo staff be able to accomplish something like this? Positive reinforcement. By doing the behavior correctly, the animal knows that will get a reward which could be in the form of their favorite treat, favorite toy...etc. And also, everything is entirely voluntary which means the animal gets to choose whether or not it wants to participate in the training. Many zoos will also often do public training demonstrations, giving the public a bit of insight on what goes on behind the scenes (as that is where all of the more serious training that they do every single day takes place), so the next time you visit your local zoo be sure and check the schedule of activities that are going on throughout the day and you might even get to catch one!

Boxes with treats hidden inside make good enrichment for just about any animal. They also apparently make good horn decorations! Don't worry, the rhino was perfectly okay (he was just having too much fun!)
Boxes with treats hidden inside make good enrichment for just about any animal. They also apparently make good horn decorations! Don't worry, the rhino was perfectly okay (he was just having too much fun!) | Source

Zoo Success Stories

Zoo's do a great amount of work to help keep endangered species from going extinct in the wild which extends far beyond just maintaining captive populations. Several institutions also work together to participate in reintroduction programs, where animals who were bred in captivity are eventually relocated back to their natural habitat. Here are a few examples:

1.) The California Condor. In 1987 there were only 22 California Condors in existance. Thanks to intense captive breeding program that was started within zoos there are now approximately 430 birds, half of which are now flying free in parts of California, Baja California, Arizona, and Utah. The birds are protected under the Endangered Species Act as well as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

2.) The Golden Lion Tamarin. Golden Lion Tamarins, or GLTs as they are sometimes called, are small monkeys that are native to Brazil and particularly to the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest. In the early 1980's, it was estimated that there were only about 200 GLTs remaining in the wild. Today, thanks to intense captive breeding programs there are about 2,000 GLTs free ranging in the wild.

3.) The Black Footed Ferret. The Black footed ferret, a native of North America was once thought to be extinct by the early 1980's, but intense breeding programs that have occurred over the last 30 years have managed to bring the population numbers up. Now they stand at about 300.

So if you are interested in helping endangered animals, and you are thinking about what exactly it is that you can do, the solution can be as simple as heading down to your nearest AZA accredited zoo!


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