Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why education and conservation matter

In case you missed it, I'm talking about zoos and BLACKFISH this week. Yesterday was all about why zoos are important for the environment. Today, I'm narrowing that down even further.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that you should look for a zoo that does work with education and conservation if you're looking for a responsible zoo to support.

Public education is one of the best things a zoo can do for itself and the animals in its care. At my zoo, we offer guided tours, interpretive staff, and education programs for school children. We have camps and overnight programs, as well as daily keeper talks and animal presentations. We have signage on all our exhibits and offer online resources through our website. On top of that, each animal area is staffed with knowledgeable employees who are experts on our animals and facility. It's literally as easy as asking to learn. And that is crucial in the fight against extinction.

By fostering public knowledge, we can combat misinformation, including things like the fact that rhino horn isn't medicine (it's actually made up entirely of keratin, the same protein as our fingernails and hair). Or that climate change is really doing a number on animal populations. Or that you can really, truly make a huge difference to local wildlife by following all the rules you learned as a kid: turn off the lights when you leave a room. Recycle. Don't litter. And so forth.

My goal every time I open my mouth and talk to a guest at my zoo is to send them away either having learned something new or caring a little bit more than they did before they spoke to me. Why? Well, aside from wanting to do my job well, I know that the more people care about things, the more likely they are to take action. Whether it's doing any of the little things above, or voting pro-environment in the next election, I want them to hear how they can make a difference. It's so easy to see all of this as someone else's problem. But it's all of ours. It's up to all of us to fix it.

Now, the reason conservation work is important should be glaringly obvious, but you may not realize the extent your local zoo goes to in doing so. Many zoos around the world collaborate with each other to study different habitats and animals. Many zoos even have their own research institutions attached. Including SeaWorld, actually. The goal of these research institutions is to identify why animals and habitats are endangered and find ways to help them.

These facilities, as I mentioned yesterday, are crucial to saving animal species.

The controversial thing I want to say today is this:

That caring that I mentioned earlier? It doesn't happen if people don't have the chance to see these animals. It's really easy to think of the coatimundi, for example, as a South American problem, because most people in the US don't live with coatimundis in their backyards. If you've never heard of these animals, why should you care what happens to them? If you've never seen one in person, it's too simple to say that they don't matter.

Zoo animals do not (if they are living in a responsible zoo) have a bad life. People have this romantic vision of the wild and the "freedom" these animals are missing, but the wild is shrinking every day, and the freedoms out there are more and more often certain death at the hands of humans. Life in a zoo isn't bad. They're treated with the best care we're capable of giving them. It's actually my job to take the best care of my animals that I can. I spend 8 hours a day ensuring their comfort and well-being. In my free time, I educate people.

We need animals in zoos because most people are not going to travel to South America in their lifetime. If they do, they likely won't see or hear of a coatimundi. Same goes for polar bears, and snow leopards, and so on and so forth a hundred thousand times over. The best way we can get people to care about these animals and their plights is to show them why they should care.

Tomorrow: Why ocean animals are a sticky subject