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Zoos connect us to the natural world

The scene of Little Joe, the curious young gorilla out of his zoo exhibit wandering through Franklin Park, certainly sold papers last month. But less well covered was the very real success that our nation's best zoos have had in nurturing the animals who live within their walls.

At the turn of the last century, gorillas - these strange, human-like creatures from ``darkest Africa'' - still flourished in the wild and thoroughly captivated the American public. But once relocated from their jungle habitat, gorillas languished. Zoos found it impossible to keep the animals alive for more than a few weeks since little was known about the natural history of gorillas. Even as late as the 1960s and '70s, most zoo gorillas were kept singly or in pairs in small, sterile concrete and tile cages and fed inappropriate foods. But things began to change as information from field and zoo biologists brought more understanding of both the physiological and psychological needs of these remarkable creatures.

Gorillas in today's zoos are typically kept in large, naturalistic exhibits, maintained in appropriate social groupings, fed nutritionally appropriate diets, and provided with excellent veterinary care. The result is that zoo gorillas exhibit behavior similar to their wild counterparts, reproduce consistently, and live longer on average than they do in nature.

In fact, recent advances in exhibit design, animal nutrition, genetic management, and veterinary medicine have revolutionized animal welfare and care in our zoos. Today, more than 90 percent of mammals housed in accredited facilities were born in zoos and not taken from the wild. They are under the charge of animal curators and caretakers who are trained professionals, with both academic and practical experience. Furthermore, accredited zoos have become ``learning organizations'' that constantly strive to improve the lives and health of the animals in their care.

So why should we have gorillas or any other wild animals in zoos today? Before speculating about the role of these institutions in contemporary society, I must first draw a distinction between accredited zoos and other kinds of facilities that keep wild animals for public display. All of my statements are focused exclusively on the 213 facilities accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. AZA members undergo a detailed peer-review process, which is more comprehensive than existing local, state, or federal regulations.

At a time when children learn more about the world around them from television and computers than from personal experience, modern zoos - and aquariums, for that matter - offer fun, safe opportunities to view living wild animals up close and personal. In 2002, over 140 million people visited AZA zoos and aquariums, more than attended all professional baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey games combined. Modern zoological parks provide us a wonderful opportunity to build awareness and appreciation of wildlife in an increasingly urbanized populace - a group that is becoming progressively disconnected from the natural world.

Only a small percentage of our nation's citizens can afford to travel to exotic locations to view wild tigers, elephants, or giant pandas or to dive with sharks or moray eels. Zoos provide exhilarating experiences that can't be replicated on two-dimensional television or computer screens. Seeing, smelling, and in some cases even touching real, live animals is a powerful experience.

The best zoos include conservation, education, and science among their core missions, and the animals in their collections can be viewed as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild. Many species are endangered or threatened and would have little chance of survival without human intervention. Increasingly, zoos are playing an important role in those efforts. Last year alone, AZA member institutions supported 1,400-field conservation and associated educational and scientific projects in over 80 countries worldwide. These ranged from restoring habitat for endangered Karner blue butterflies in Ohio to attempting to curb the illegal, commercial harvest of wildlife for meat in Africa to rehabilitating injured marine mammals and sea turtles and returning them to the sea.

Some critics have characterized zoos and aquariums as ``exploiting'' animals for personal financial gain, but that's not true of the professionals I know. As a curatorial intern at New York's Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society in the late 1980s, I went on rounds with the staff veterinarians as they cared for sick and injured animals. They worked long hours for comparatively little pay, and their dedication was inspiring. I also witnessed animal keepers weeping over the loss of their favorite animals and spending their own money to attend training programs to improve their knowledge and skills.

In my opinion, a society that values wildlife and nature should support our best zoos and aquariums. Habitat conservation is the key to saving endangered species, and professionally managed zoos and aquariums and their expert, dedicated staffs play a vital role by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts and by encouraging people to care for and learn about wildlife and nature.

Zoos and aquariums are reinventing themselves, but while many are in the process of rebuilding their aging infrastructures, still others retain vestiges of the past or have been hit hard by recent state or local budget cuts. Good zoos and aquariums are invaluable community assets, and they deserve our attention and enthusiastic support.

Michael Hutchins is director of the Department of Conservation and Science at the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.

book group

"Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy"
By Matthew Scully
Increasing concern about troubling trends in animal mistreatment, from genetic cloning and experimentation to factory farming, has heightened the moral imperative to examine how humans use and treat animals. el.5l

"A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future"
By David Hancocks
In this engrossing history of zoos, the author explains their origins and their role in society: Humans revere nature yet seek to dominate and control it, a doomed endeavor that has caused widespread environmental degradation. el.5l

"The Last Animals at The Zoo: How Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped"
By Colin Tudge
Zoos play an essential role in modern conservation strategy. Their most important task is the breeding of endangered species for return to the wild.

"New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century"
Edited by R.J. Hoage and William A. Deiss
An in-depth look at zoos during the 19th century, focusing on the transition from royal menageries to public facilities dedicated to education and wildlife conservation.

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