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.
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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

Popular Right Now

To The Girl Struggling With Her Body Image

It's not about the size of your jeans, but the size of your heart, soul, and spirit.

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To the girl struggling with her body image,

You are more than the number on the scale. You are more than the number on your jeans and dresses. You are way more than the number of pounds you've gained or lost in whatever amount of time.

Weight is defined as the quantity of matter contained by a body or object. Weight does not define your self-worth, ambition or potential.

So many girls strive for validation through the various numbers associated with body image and it's really so sad seeing such beautiful, incredible women become discouraged over a few numbers that don't measure anything of true significance.

Yes, it is important to live a healthy lifestyle. Yes, it is important to take care of yourself. However, taking care of yourself includes your mental health as well. Neglecting either your mental or physical health will inflict problems on the other. It's very easy to get caught up in the idea that you're too heavy or too thin, which results in you possibly mistreating your body in some way.

Your body is your special, beautiful temple. It harbors all of your thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and ideas. Without it, you wouldn't be you. If you so wish to change it in a healthy way, then, by all means, go ahead. With that being said, don't make changes to impress or please someone else. You are the only person who is in charge of your body. No one else has the right to tell you whether or not your body is good enough. If you don't satisfy their standards, then you don't need that sort of negative influence in your life. That sort of manipulation and control is extremely unhealthy in its own regard.

Do not hold back on things you love or want to do because of how you interpret your body. You are enough. You are more than enough. You are more than your exterior. You are your inner being, your spirit. A smile and confidence are the most beautiful things you can wear.

It's not about the size of your jeans. It's about the size of your mind and heart. Embrace your body, observe and adore every curve, bone and stretch mark. Wear what makes you feel happy and comfortable in your own skin. Do your hair and makeup (or don't do either) to your heart's desire. Wear the crop top you've been eyeing up in that store window. Want a bikini body? Put a bikini on your body, simple.

So, as hard as it may seem sometimes, understand that the number on the scale doesn't measure the amount or significance of your contributions to this world. Just because that dress doesn't fit you like you had hoped doesn't mean that you're any less of a person.

Love your body, and your body will love you right back.

Cover Image Credit: Lauren Margliotti

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Saying You "Don't Take Political Stances" IS A Political Stance

All you're doing by saying this is revealing your privilege to not care politically, and here's why that's a problem.

bethkrat
bethkrat
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I'm sure all of us know at least one person who refuses to engage in political discussions - sure, you can make the argument that there is a time and a place to bring up the political happenings of our world today, but you can't possibly ignore it all the time. You bring up the last ridiculous tweet our president sent or you try to discuss your feelings on the new reproductive regulation bills that are rising throughout the states, and they find any excuse to dip out as quickly as possible. They say I don't talk about politics, or I'm apolitical. Well everyone, I'm here to tell you why that's complete bullsh*t.

Many people don't have the luxury and privilege of ignoring the political climate and sitting complacent while terrible things happen in our country. So many issues remain a constant battle for so many, be it the systematic racism that persists in nearly every aspect of our society, the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water, the thousands of children that have been killed due to gun violence, those drowning in debt from unreasonable medical bills, kids fighting for their rights as citizens while their families are deported and separated from them... you get the point. So many people have to fight every single day because they don't have any other choice. If you have the ability to say that you just don't want to have anything to do with politics, it's because you aren't affected by any failing systems. You have a privilege and it is important to recognize it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

We recognize that bad people exist in this world, and we recognize that they bring forth the systems that fail so many people every single day, but what is even more important to recognize are the silent majority - the people who, by engaging in neutrality, enable and purvey the side of the oppressors by doing nothing for their brothers and sisters on the front lines.

Maybe we think being neutral and not causing conflict is supposed to be about peacekeeping and in some way benefits the political discussion if we don't try to argue. But if we don't call out those who purvey failing systems, even if it's our best friend who says something homophobic, even if it's our representatives who support bills like the abortion ban in Alabama, even if it's our president who denies the fact that climate change is killing our planet faster than we can hope to reverse it, do we not, in essence, by all accounts of technicality side with those pushing the issues forward? If we let our best friend get away with saying something homophobic, will he ever start to change his ways, or will he ever be forced to realize that what he's said isn't something that we can just brush aside? If we let our representatives get away with ratifying abortion bans, how far will the laws go until women have no safe and reasonable control over their own bodily decisions? If we let our president continue to deny climate change, will we not lose our ability to live on this planet by choosing to do nothing?

We cannot pander to people who think that being neutral in times of injustice is a reasonable stance to take. We cannot have sympathy for people who decide they don't want to care about the political climate we're in today. Your attempts at avoiding conflict only make the conflict worse - your silence in this aspect is deafening. You've given ammunition for the oppressors who take your silence and apathy and continue to carry forth their oppression. If you want to be a good person, you need to suck it up and take a stand, or else nothing is going to change. We need to raise the voices of those who struggle to be heard by giving them the support they need to succeed against the opposition.

With all this in mind, just remember for the next time someone tells you that they're apolitical: you know exactly which side they're on.

bethkrat
bethkrat

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