The Importance of Zoos and Aquariums

The Importance of Zoos and Aquariums

How responsible, accredited, zoological facilities are imperative to the well-being of our society and the conservation of wildlife and wild places.

In light of recent events at the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society, and previous fatal events at SeaWorld, Zoo Knoxville, and other zoological facilities in recent history, the integrity of zoos are often called into question. Animal right's activists and "arm chair" activists alike fervently declare that all zoos and aquariums should be shut down and all the wildlife in human care released into the species' natural habitats or to sanctuaries. However, zoological facilities such as zoos and aquariums are important resources for the general public, the wildlife in human care, researchers and behaviorists, as well as the wildlife and wild places represented by the institution.

There is no doubt that zoos have a dark, not-so-distant past. In addition to wildlife, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, humans were often displayed. Such exhibitions were called "ethnological expositions" with intent of drawing a deep line between the "civilized" European societies and "primitive" African and Southeast Asian societies.

(Ota Benga, a human exhibit. Source: Wikipedia)

Up until the mid 19th century, zoos were private, meant only for the eyes of the rich and powerful. As interest in the natural world began to expand and science entered a new era of naturalism and ethology (the study of animal behavior), zoological facilities began to bring in exotic wildlife from all over the world to urban areas. Less about education and conservation, early zoos were centered around the idea of getting the public as close to these animals as possible. Non-human animals were considered little more than props placed down by a creator to serve the needs, whims and aesthetic pleasure of the curators and the general public. This resulted in small, barren cages, where animals could be fed and pet through the bars.

(Source: belfastzoo.co.uk)

Zoos have since come a long way. As research began to exemplify the intelligence of the animals in their care and the idea that human beings could in fact cause significant damage to wildlife populations (an idea previously widely dismissed), the perception of non-human animals began to change, as did the way and reason for which we exhibit them. Due to such research, both on animals in their natural habitat as well as those in human care, zoological institutions are vastly different than they were 116 years ago at the turn of the 20th century. Small metal cages and bars have been replaced by enclosures that represent and replicate a natural environment and provide daily enrichment for the animals they house. The animals themselves are no longer mere playthings or trophies picked and chosen for aesthetics, but ambassadors for their species.

(A male African Lion [Panthera leo leo] roaring in the middle of his carefully-cultivated habitat, meant to simulate a plains environment at the Bronx Zoo in Bronx, NY. Source: Brooke Dolega.)

In the United States, since the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 and according to the document, facilities wishing to use non-human animals "in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers" must comply with a set of federal standards for animal care to ensure welfare of the animals. As our understanding of the cognitive and emotional capabilities of non-human animals has grown since it's legislation, the document has been reviewed, edited, and adjusted in accordance with new moral and ethical standards. As well as complying with the Animal Welfare Act, zoos in the United States must also be inspected and licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Additional inspection, certifications and licensure may also be required depending on the species exhibited, including the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Act. Such thorough documentation is necessary for both the health and well being of the animals and the safety of their caretakers.

(A grizzly bear [Ursus arctos] at the Bronx Zoo in Bronx, NY, surveys its habitat from a raised rock plateau. Source: Brooke Dolega)

In North America, zoos and aquaria can also submit for accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (commonly referred to as the AZA). The Association of Zoos and Aquariums was founded in 1924. Since then, it has become the leading source of accreditation that a zoo or aquarium in North America can hold. For the past 92 years, the organization has been a leader in advancing the quality and purpose of zoos and aquariums through promotion of education, conservation, scientific research, and public interaction and engagement. They exemplify the standard of environment for wildlife in human care. To go to an AZA accredited facility is to be sure you are visiting an ethical, informative, and compassionate facility.

(Digital stamp of accreditation by the AZA that can be found on websites of accredited zoo and aquaria. Source: aza.org)

There are high standards and strict stipulations that an institution must comply with to be certified by the AZA. Each of these stipulations represents an essential component that benefits society, wildlife, and wild places as a whole.

First and foremost, the care and well being of the animals at the institution must be top-notch. The animals exhibited at zoos and aquariums are not simply there for aesthetics. Each and every animal is an ambassador for its entire species, as well as its natural environment. The animals are treated as such. Their exhibits are expertly cultivated to simulate the landscape which their wild counterparts inhabit, and are provided with environmental enrichment daily to ensure the physical, cognitive, social, and sensory stimulation that their wild habitats supply-minus the major stressors incorporated with everyday life in "the wild" such as unstable food supply and disease. Each animal receives a wholesome, nutritious diet and expert medical care. Their caretakers are well-educated and dedicated individuals whose main job is to work for the animals, not just with the animals.

("Polar Frontier" Exhibit at the Columbus Zoo provides both a terrestrial and aquatic environment for its polar bears, which are considered "Marine Mammals" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Source: nassal.com)

Humans are tactile creatures with an amazing propensity for compassion. However, that compassion is often not founded from textbooks or television shows. Most find it difficult to care about a species halfway around the world or to worry about the destruction of land they have never stepped foot on. Zoos and aquariums facilitate a connection between those who may never leave their country, or even their home state. Keepers, caretakers, trainers, and educators at these institutions provide insight into the wild world, as well as inform the general public on actions that can be taken at home to help preserve the wild counterparts of the zoo's ambassadors. A popular saying amongst conservationists, naturalists, and other scientists alike is one by Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum: In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand what we are taught. Making a connection with an animal enacts compassion. That compassion for a species you might not have otherwise ever known about until the news headline reads that it has gone extinct, compels you to care about what happens to the animals' wild counterparts and more willing to work toward conserving wild places.

(A Siamang, [Symphalangus syndactylus] at the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society in West Palm Beach, FL, sits on a log in its exhibit, looking for insects to snack on. Source: Brooke Dolega)

Research is also an essential part of a zoo or aquarium's institution as a whole. Many animal rights' groups may suggest that any research done in a zoological facility is not valid, because the environment is controlled. However, field research can be extremely difficult to conduct. The environment may not be suited to long term study, behaviors may be missed, or there might not be enough animals for verification of observations made. A zoo or aquarium environment allows for both the observation and verification of behaviors, as well as to view and experiment with behaviors that might not naturally be seen (such as recognition in mirrors). The information gathered from these observations and experiments benefit both the livelihood of the animals in human care, as well as their wild counterparts. Such research has lead to the better understanding of non-human animal cognition and sentience. This leads to both better care for the animals in human care as well as the advancement of societal views on the natural world.


(An Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin [Tursiops truncates] undergoes a test of object permanence at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, FL. Learn more here. Source: dolphins.org.)

Conservation is at the heart of zoos and aquariums. Though education and research are important components, population management and environmental protection is key. Many zoos contribute to global efforts. Examples include the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society. The WCS, which oversees the Bronx, Prospect Park, Queens, and Central Park Zoo as well as the New York Aquarium, also has "satellite" organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the world's oceans. The Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society works with projects in Bolivia and Malaysia.

In addition to global conservation projects, members of the AZA also contribute to the Species Survival Plan, or "SSP". The SSP was established to create genetically strong populations of at-risk, threatened, and endangered wildlife.

(The logo for an animal species in a SSP program. Source: rosamondgiffordzoo.org)

Habitat loss is a leading cause of loss of species and diversity and many species currently live in greatly reduced or fragmented habitats. In case of human-related destruction or a natural disaster, there are populations in human care that could be used to reintroduce and reestablish wild populations when the environment is restored.

(A Malayan Tiger [Panthera tigris jacksoni] exhibiting claw-marking behavior on a log in his exhibit. With only 250 - 300 individuals in the wild, Malayan Tigers have an SSP with 64 individuals in the program in the United States. Source: Brooke Dolega)

Zoos and aquariums are critical to society, to wildlife conservation, and to wildlife research. Unlike many animal right's activists may try to convince others, zoological facilities are not the problem, but a solution. With wild places shrinking by an estimated 18 million acres per year, poaching and black market trade of wildlife parts still rampant despite the broadening legislation to combat it, and illegal pet trade and collection, zoos and aquariums are not a "prison" as some animal right's activists may suggest, but a haven for the animal ambassadors, for behavioral and physiological research, conservation of species, and preservation of natural habitat.

There are "bad" zoos out there. Roadside attractions, circuses, and "backyard zoos" or "backyard menageries" are akin to the zoos of the turn of the century. They contribute nothing to wildlife conservation, research, or education. Rather they focus on entertainment, fiscal gain, and greed. Such facilities should not be encouraged or supported.

To ensure one's entrance fee is going to conservation, education, and research, make sure you are visiting an AZA-Accredited or Affiliated institution. This information can be found on the institution's website, or you can check out the AZA's complete list of accredited facilities as well as a complete list of certified related facilities in North America. For international facilities, look for AZA-allied accreditations.

Cover Image Credit: Brooke Dolega

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Don't Take Winter Break For Granted

Enjoy each other's company while you're in the same area code.

Something I've heard since the start of my first semester at college was that I would be dying to go back to school by the end of winter break.

This prediction mostly came from professors, family members, and older college students. While I am excited to see my friends from school again, I still don't quite understand what everyone was talking about. I've talked to people who say the last two weeks of break are dreadful and they would do anything to go back earlier. I can't say that I feel the same.

I love my friends at school, I'm excited for my classes next semester, I get along great with my roommates, and the food is pretty good, but that doesn't mean I'm going to brush off the amazing month I get to spend with my friends and family at home.

The most difficult part of going to school in the fall was saying goodbye to my friends at home. I think this was because I knew not much would change between my family and I, and I knew I would love school, but you can never predict how your relationships with friends will change when you go away.

This uncertainty terrified me. When you're in high school, you take your friends for granted. You don't have to wonder when you'll see each other again, and you always know how they're doing. Once you're in college that all changes. Going into the spring semester, I realized that I wont see some of my friends for another five or six months.

This realization showed me how important winter break is, and how grateful I am that I got to spend a month with my home-friends.

I don't know what changes after the first winter break that makes people so eager to go back to school. This was only my first break, so it's safe to say there are plenty of people who know better than I do, but I can't imagine getting to a point where I am ready to leave my friends again after a week or two.

I love that instead of having to plan ahead just to make a phone call I can just text them and within twenty minutes we're doing something together. Even if we're just relaxing in someone's living room, every bit of time we get together is special because we realize that soon we have to head our separate ways again.

So before you run back to campus, turn around and look at what you're running away from. Within the next few years life is going to change dramatically. People are going to get internships that might be in a different city, or someone's parents might decide to pick up and move to a state fourteen hours away. So spend time with your friends, go to your favorite restaurants, watch your favorite movies, and just enjoy each other's company while you're still in the same area code.

Cover Image Credit: Liz Holmes

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Don’t Ever Travel In The Snow

Traveling during a massive snow storm is never a good idea.

This statement above may seem obvious to many people, but I was one of the few people who traveled during the bomb cyclone. I had a good reason though. My final destination was to go Houston to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey as a service trip with my college, I just had to get to my college first.

I got a train ticket that was supposed to leave the New Rochelle Train Station at 1:19 pm, since the roads were bad I got an Uber at around 11:30 to pick me up. I live about 30 minutes from the train station on a normal day. I budgeted over an hour for this uber ride, so I could make my train on time.

The drive to the train station was horrendous because of the roads, but my Uber driver knew what he was doing and I felt incredibly secure as a passenger in that car. It was my train that was the problem.

My train kept on getting delayed more and more as the minutes went on. The first delay said it would come in at around 1:35 p.m. and that was understandable because of the snow and they were being cautious. It was the fact that they kept on adding more and more delays to this train that made me freak out.

I was not sure if I was going to make it to Delaware, and as the train kept on getting more and more delayed, I began to freak out. I was dead set positive that this train was going to get canceled because of the inclement weather. All of the other trains after had been canceled.

I began to have this full blown out panic attack. I asked people that worked at the train station, my mom, and even called up Amtrak to find out where this train was and if there was a possibility of it getting canceled. The lady on the phone said to me that there was a mechanical error on the train and that’s why it was so delayed.

After the nice lady on the phone told me this, I began to freak out even more. THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE TRAIN THAT IS SUPPOSED TO GET ME FROM POINT A TO POINT B DURING A SNOW HURRICANE! To me freaking out was the only natural option because I was set to go on a broken train.

As I called my mom with this news, the train kept on getting delayed more and more. My anxiety rose through the roof, and I was on the verge of tears. I felt like I was never going to make it to Delaware to go on this trip that would mark the first time I had ever left the East Coast.

In addition, this trip, in general, is a big deal. It’s about giving back and this is the first time that I’ve had an opportunity to give back directly to a community. Especially a community that is still in need for help from a massive Hurricane.

Hurricane Harvey affected so many lives and caused massive flooding in Houston. Floods destroyed a lot of people’s homes and these people lost things that are irreplaceable. When I found out about this trip, I knew I had to go and make a difference because my goal in life is to change the world.

A big reason why Houston was heavily flooded after the hurricane was because Houston is in a floodplain, which means that waters from wherever the main body of water is, overflow. Cities were never supposed to be built in floodplains, but they were.

To compensate, the government provides flood insurance, and in short, the system is corrupt and needs to be reworked.

As a result, a lot of people cannot afford to rebuild their homes, and that’s where my trip comes in. What I’m doing on this trip is basically helping these homes for these people slowly become re-livable. I’m volunteering as a member of the Blue Hen Leadership Program, and getting accepted to go on this trip was such an honor because so many people wanted to go.

My flight to Houston was January 5th early in the morning, from Baltimore. The faculty advisor of the trip said that we should all meet on campus at 5 am on January 5th. That meant that I had to get to campus the night before and stay with someone.

That’s why I was traveling during the snow hurricane and the reason to why I had to keep my hopes high during my train being constantly delayed. My train ended up being over 2 1/2 hours late. In addition, it took my train an extra twenty minutes to pull into the station.

I was positive one of my feet had gotten frostbite. I had a spare pair of socks and as soon I got onto the train, I changed the socks on my right foot. For some reason, my left foot wasn’t that cold, but my right foot was so cold that it hurt.

I spent the first twenty minutes of my train ride looking like a weirdo because I was rubbing my foot. To be fair, my foot was on the verge of freezing off.

My train was going at a snail's pace, and all of the other trains were operating just fine. I asked the people around me about the mechanical delay, and it turns out that the train had a frozen engine. WHAT?

The train that I relied on getting me from point A to point B had a frozen engine. They had to fix it and apparently, it took over an hour TO REPLACE AN ENGINE. How does an engine freeze?

Oh yeah because of the frigid temperatures that were tormenting the northeast at the time, and the snowstorm put moisture on it somehow, and caused it to freeze.

I didn’t end up getting to the house I was staying at around 7:00 p.m., and the rest of the night was fun.

Overall, I spent over 10 hours traveling that day when it really should’ve taken me five. Also, I only got five hours of sleep. It was a great day.

Moral of the story: never travel during a snowstorm.

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

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