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Derek Smith

TEDCRED 50+

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Do zoos help biodiversity conservation?

Zoos are becoming more aware of the role they can play in preventing species extinction. The California Condor, the black-footed ferret, and the Przewalski’s horse have all been saved from extinction because of zoos. Zoos also aid conservation by inspiring people to learn more about the diversity of life. However for every species saved in a zoo, hundreds if not more will perish outside of zoos. Is the role of the zoo to showcase and educate the public about the organisms they keep in captivity or should they also focus on conservation outside zoo boundaries?

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    Jun 8 2012: Why not do both? It seems to me that most zoos today do try and do their fare share of conservation and captive breeding, but what I want to see is zoos that are doing breeding programs that are solely based on releasing those animals back into the wild. This however is a tricky process, contact with humans and the babying of animals we see in zoos often makes it so animals can never been introduced to their natural habitat. For instance, how could you go about releasing a small pride of lions back into the wild when they have never had to actually hunt for food? I guess the logical answer to that is you would have to let them act as they would in the wild and give them something to hunt. It's like in Jurassic Park when they said "T-Rex doesn't want to be fed. T-Rex wants to hunt." So I think because of this intensive less human friendly approach zoos have little incentive to carry out such programs, which is a real shame.
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      Jun 8 2012: It's hard to strike a median of the two. Do we foster a safe environment for people to learn about the natural environment of the animals or do we simulate their natural habitat in an attempt to reintroduce them? Drawing off your example of the pride of lions, I think rallying up the large mammals that lions eat and simulating a wildlife habitat may be very difficult, if not impossible. Although it sounds nice, I wonder whether we can really have both. There is always the possibility of breeding these animals and reintroducing them as infants to a mother so they can be raised. Two problems with this is that 1) the mother doesn't take to the new offspring and they die or, 2) as Ellen mentioned above, captive breeding doesn't always support genetic diversity among a given sample of specimens. Without genetic diversity, the chances of the sample's survival is slim. The remedy to this, however, could be that we introduce them to a group that we know is genetically different from the sample. Then, in perhaps just a generation or two, a healthy population may establish.
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    Jun 8 2012: I think one of the problems with zoos is that they are dictated by money. Whenever I go to the Oregon zoo for example, I am amazed at the focus on consuming. There are many food vendors and at least one gift shop. This detracts from the impact of the animals and distracts people from learning. While these vendors may be necessary to keep the animals housed, fed, and healthy, I cannot help but think that they would be better off back in the wild and that the visitors are not really paying attention. It seems it would also be less stressful for the animals to live in more seclusion and that there could be more places that do what zoos do with more space, fewer visitors, and more of a focus on education and conservation than popcorn and elephant ears.
  • Jun 8 2012: Although not every species is preserved in a zoo, the ones that are in zoos are generally taken very well care of. I don't think the point of a zoo is to save every single species, but to raise awareness to the general public that the animals that we find so fascinating and enjoy being around are in danger of decline due to our actions. Awareness is one of the key tactics to promoting biodiversity and species preservation. the more people that know about a particular issue, the more likely something is to be done about it.
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    Jun 8 2012: I dislike zoos immensely. I think they could be made better if their practices were not so anthropocentric in theory. Our zoo systems should create more opportunities for education rather than simply displaying animals in boxes, which is largely what my experience with zoos have been all about. Increasing awareness is a great feature of zoos, but they should most definitely put more effort into the education of their visitors in the small amount of time they have with them. Furthermore, I feel conservation efforts can do more when they are not centered around humans - which zoos are very much deployed for the entertainment of human visitors. The money zoos earn, however, when aimed at the right conservational effort, is important.
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    Jun 8 2012: It is certainly the role of any high level or developed zoo to be a focal point for the general public in terms of conservation efforts around the world. It is a logical extension of the services zoos provide to make meaningful contributions to biodiversity conservation efforts.

    One does run into the problem of charismatic prioritization when dealing with zoos, however. It is in a zoo's interest, for instance, to take in and focus efforts on interesting, big, and unique animals instead of looking at merely species that are endangered but may not make a great show.

    In this way zoos may fall short of the purely categorical and scientific approach to analyzing and preserving species based exclusively on their need. Yet zoos are an economically organic/business sustainable channel through which conservation efforts should an are brought to the fore- and important function, even if they may not be the best institution there is for preserving biodiverstity.
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      Jun 8 2012: I think that zoos should focus on getting the knowledge on threatened species and should do a part in helping to keep species from going extinct by providing a safe place for species and maybe even providing young to be introduced into their natural habitat. Due to the costs of taking care of the animals and the zoo so that visitors can learn about the threats to the animals, I do not think they should be out in the natural habitats trying to fund maintaining biodiversity. They should work with other organizations that have funding to work out in the natural habitats directly in order to be informed and to also provide information to the organization that could be helpful. I see the zoo as a tool to get the information to the public or acting as a mouthpiece to groups working to preserve biodiversity.
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    Jun 8 2012: I would definitely agree with you that zoos have a major part in the inspiration of wonders of nature. I remember when i went to a zoo for the fist time, it by far was one of the most amazing experiences that I have had. My two favorite exhibits were the "bat cave" and of course the polar bears. After seeing all of the different types of animals it really inspired me. I don't think that if i hadn't seen all those different types of animals in person, moving around, then I would without a dough not have made a lasting connection with them. It is one thing to see something in a book or magazine and quite another to actually see it alive and moving around that for me gave me much more drive to care for them and not want to let these animals disappear of the Earth. As for zoos actually saving some species from extinction, they are doing a great job. No one is perfect and will succeed at everything they do and with that being sad zoos might not be perfect but at least they are trying to do right thing.
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    Jun 8 2012: Personally, I've always had the perception that zoo's not only care about the animals that they are holding in the exhibits, but they are also aware of the conservation processes that need to happen in order to save the species. To my experience, most individuals who work at a zoo are animals lovers and work to educate society about human threats and risks of extinction.
  • Jun 8 2012: I think one major problem with zoos today is that there is little reason to come back. Most if not all the exhibits are permanent, and animals are generally on daily routines that do not vary much. Unless you have a child who is obsessed with animals, the chances are you have not been to a zoo in a long time. I understand that the infrastructure necessary to house animals and care for them is expensive, but zoos need to find a way to be more dynamic in their exhibits to encourage return trips. Either this or make the community feel more involved with the successes of the zoo by hosting more events that celebrate things like successful in-house breeding or the arrival of a new animal. Zoos could also take an additional step by throwing events to celebrate conservation successes outside of the zoo or even the country, and try to establish themselves as a social gathering places for people who want to promote these causes.
  • Jun 8 2012: I agree with Anders. I think that zoos should simply become more of an intermediate figure support conservation of plants and animals, educating the general public and provide safe areas for declining populations. They have the power to do so, it would be nice to them take advantage of their capabilities.
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    Jun 8 2012: Many zoos are doing both. The Australia Zoo is currently running a conservation program for many species of the Oceania. These are species that have either gone extinct or critically endangered in past years and the zoo is helping to restore populations. I think most zoos should have programs similar to this. A percentage of their profit should be used for conservation of biodiversity. Also, I believe that nature conservancy organizations should join with zoos to increase the conservation methods that much more.
    • Jun 8 2012: I think that you are on to something with the joint effort between zoos and conservation organization. Zoos have the ability to bring in people both educating and entertaining them on the matter of conservation, while the conservation organization can raise funds and deal with the policy making. Ultimately for conservation efforts to truly be successful, everyone will need to work together. So the sooner key organizations come together, the faster progress will occur.
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        Jun 8 2012: I agree, and I think that the entertainment aspect is important. Bringing people closer to environmental issues and showing them how current realities are affecting a species they have met and felt a connection with makes them emotionally invested, which can be very powerful and has the potential to influence more people. The only danger is that it makes animals which should live and thrive in the wild seem tame and that may cause some people to buy exotic pets.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree that this is probably the best way zoos can contribute most meaningfully. Partnering with or creating a conservation organization as a zoo is not only a great way to build a brand image but also to bolster conservation efforts. It all falls in line with the mission of a zoo, and in that way is an appropriate environmentally excellent way to do business.
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    Jun 8 2012: we wont be able to contribute anything to nature or biodiversity by conserving one or two animals of the endagered species inside a zoo. those species should play their part in the enviornment and contribute what they used to, instead of captivating them in a zoo, then only conservation will mean anything to the nature.
    they really should focus on conservation outside zoo boundaries... we cant conserve any species by seperating them from their enviornment, its isolation not conservation.
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    Jun 8 2012: I think this article gives interesting insight to the question at hand:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/science/zoos-bitter-choice-to-save-some-species-letting-others-die.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

    The article is all about how Zoo's breed and conserve some species, and they can do a great job of educating the public about them, but they just do not have the resources to save all the species that need it. It has come to a point where Zoo administrators weigh their options and pick and choose which species will be highlighted.

    It is to be expected that Zoos cannot help all species, it just seems like it might be better if different zoos showcased different species and one Zoo would help different endangered species than other Zoos. It seems like Zoos could help with biological conservation more if they focused more on lesser known species that didn't have as many groups working towards their conservation already.
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    Jun 8 2012: Zoos do educate people about some of the unique organisms this planet has. Furthermore, individuals may take an active role in conserving an organism if they are actually able to see it in person. However, zoos need to focus on conservation outside of the boundaries for a variety of reasons. If the natural population of an organism goes extinct and there are only captive animals remaining, the zoo population will not have the genetic diversity needed to survive in captivity for very long. Therefore, it's important for zoos to educate the public and help conserve the animals they hold in captivity.
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    Jun 8 2012: Zoos do a fantastic job of educating and exposing the public to species that would have otherwise remained a mystery. There are already breeding programs that are being implemented by zoos to help with the number of animals within the zoo, the pandas or hippos for example. I think that the zoos should continue to do what they are doing since that has proven to be very effective and leads to several people wanting to become zoologists or involved with conserving animals.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree! Many zoos have breeding programs that the public does not know about, but alot of the money that goes to the zoo goes into these programs and to other conservation efforts including eductationg about these animals that need to be saved and I couldn't agree more about how it does lead people to want to become things such as biologist or other careers that could one day contribute to animal conservation again.
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      Jun 8 2012: I couldn't agree with you more. The first time I went to the zoo was the first time I knew I wanted to become a biologist :) Things like zoos not only help educate people but do great in motivating as well.
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      Jun 8 2012: I do agree that they exposing certain unknown species, but I can't help but think they they could expose a bit more, especially those that aren't mega-fauna. Granted, people aren't as interested in those, and many places are probably stretched out as it is, what with the economy being the way it is....
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    Jun 8 2012: I wonder what zoo's are started with the mindset of zoology first and turning a profit second? Some zoos seem more notable for exotic entertainment like being able to view rare tigers or being splashed by orca whales. Other zoos seem more about educating the public about our close neighborhood creatures we may not otherwise ever see or experience living an urban 9am to 5pm lifestyle. I believe many animal right groups are against either of these mindsets, but the small price a few animals pay by having smaller living quarters or having to entertain a cheering crowd is worth exposing the public to the wonderful animals living on this planet.

    While it would be great if all zoos could breed and protect endangered species found throughout this planet, at least they provide a cultural ecosystem service by showing what humans have to lose by continuing to live the way are today.
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    Jun 8 2012: A lot of people have been mentioning the idea of zoos more different from each other in what animals they keep, and how it would be probably be a better idea from a conservation standpoint. I think it's worth looking at the idea from a consumer standpoint, too. I've been to four zoos in my time (Portland, Chicago, San Diego, and...some other zoo in California) and various other zoo-like animal parks, and it's kind of disappointing that a lot of animals in each zoo have been the same. It's the few excluive animals that always interest me the most. But if someone's never been to a zoo before and they don't get to see a lion or something, they're probably going to be disappointed, and I really can't see a zoo with only local animals or something like people have suggested thriving. Therefore I think it's best to establish a small list of "critical" animals that most zoo have to have, while devoting the rest of the zoo to unusual and/or local animals. Maybe even divide the zoo into a "big hitters" section, a local section, and a "rarely found in zoos!" section. That way you keep the zoo attractive to both newcomers and to people who have been to other zoos, maybe encourage people on vacation that it's worth going to the local zoo even though they have a bigger zoo back home. And from a "raise awareness" angle, you're drawing people in with animals everyone knows, but exposing them to animals they probably didn't know about while they're there And it helps encourage biodiversity as a consequence, of course. The difficult part is how to balance the number of crucial animals vs. the number of rare animals to maximize consumer interest.
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      Jun 8 2012: It is disappointing seeing the same animals no matter what zoo. It is hard to find a popular zoo without some sort of African savannah area with lions, elephants and giraffes. When I was in like 1st grade we went to the Portland zoo for a field trip and I loved it and have been there several times since. Now when I went to the zoo in D.C. saw very similar animals. Granted the big-hitters do bring in money, and a zoo is a business.
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        Jun 8 2012: Kinda intresting to think as to why those few animals get so much popularity and attention. There's lots of animals I think are way cooler than Lions or Pandas or God forbid Koala's(they sleep like 18 hours a day!). I suppose in the end it mostly comes down to good PR, so to speak. That and people really seem to like big, powerful animals like lions, elephants, crocadiles, and orcas for some reason(ties in with the whole bigger is beter steriotype we have in modern days I suppose) and there are only so many of those still left arround.
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    Jun 8 2012: I think zoos should put a little more emphasis on conserving animals outside. It would be really cool if they could focus less on displaying "exotic" animals and focus more on showing/conserving "exotic because they are endangered" animals. I don't know a lot about zoo regulations, but the showcasing of animals for money seems a little ethically sketchy . Zoos probably need the money to fund conservation and conservation probably requires captive breeding (that can be exhibited for money), so they should combine the two aspects a little better. Showing real conservation practices is probably more educational than creating hokey themed exhibits.
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      Jun 8 2012: I really like the point you are making and I agree with you. It also seems like so many zoos focus on the same species and wherever you go to a zoo you are learning about the same types of animals (lions, tigers, elephants, ect). It would be nice if Zoos could educate the public on lesser known endangered species and animals that do not normally get a lot of attention but play important roles in their ecosystems.
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        Jun 8 2012: They could even take it a step further and exhibit more local threatened and endanged plants and animals. Obviously it would be somewhat illogical to have an entire zoo devoted to this flora and fauna, but I think it's a area that is severly lacking and could be a worthwile exhibit.
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          Jun 8 2012: You could have part of the zoo being the typical enclosure park, but then also providing a more open-range system farther away. Perhaps having a taxi or bus system to get to it. This would also help solve the issues of zoos and their lack of space, since many zoos are located within cities.
  • Jun 8 2012: For some species zoos can act as a safe haven, keeping them from extinction, and for many individuals zoos just mean a life of captivity. However I think the main value of zoos is that they a) create a human-animal relationship that drives people to protect many charismatic species and b) provide that opportunity for a human-animal connection away from areas that need to be conserved and stay untouched. By diverting public attention away from the hot spots we are trying to protect (like the National Park in the United States) we are keeping those areas from being degraded by human visitors.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree with you that zoos are a good way to help people connect to animals outside of natural settings. However, I feel like sometimes zoos can also let people see animals in captivity that they then want to see in their natural environment. Zoos should work to conserve species outside of the zoo because although having rare and endangered species breeding and living in captivity is a good way to educate people and keep an organism present in the world, if species disappear from their natural environment having some left in captivity won't really help that species.
      • Jun 8 2012: I agree, I just wanted to voice some support for zoos, but we definitely need to work on preserving biodiversity from both sides of the issue.
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      Jun 8 2012: I had never thought about the charismatic aspect of zoos to help people want to save the animals. But using the zoo as a conservation tool itself, I don't know about that. I'm not sure how able the animals would be to hunt for their food after relying on human feeding. I don't think the reintroduction of the animals would be very successful, we all know how the Keiko incident turned out..
      • Jun 8 2012: I didn't mean to come off as saying that zoos are a good conservation tool for reintroduction. I think they're a good tool for education but they have such a small gene pool and create such bad unnatural behaviors in their animals that they should not be reintroduced from there.
  • Jun 8 2012: I believe it is the zoo's responsibility to focus on both conservation outside zoo boundaries and educating the public. One way they ensure conservation among endangered species is by allowing them to breed in captivity. Once these species reach sufficient levels, they can be reintroduced into their natural habitats. Also, zoos allow scientists to perform more research, specifically the optimal conditions and environment for a particular species. This information can then be disseminated to educate the public.
    • Jun 8 2012: I agree that zoos can serve this function. Often times the problem is that zoos preserve a gene pool that is too small to keep the species alive or reinvigorate it. This is a possible area of technique and management that needs to be reexamined so that zoos can act as conservation sites successfully.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree with you on both fronts, but don't a lot of zoos' breeding programs just lead to the animals staying in captivity instead of being released?
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree that zoos should focus on both educating the public and conserving the areas outside the zoo. I think if zoos set up more ways that people can see the conservation related in simple terms with lots of pictures and interactive displays they will understand this more and maybe help too. The research that zoos do has helped them improve habitats for animals they house, adapting to things that they have found are necessary in the wild for these animals. I do think that zoos can provide captive breeding while also educating the public about the species and why the breeding is necessary. In this way they could show things we buy that could be causing the animal's home to be destroyed or things we are doing that are destroying the animals native habitat.
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      Jun 8 2012: Genetic degradation is a major concern in many small breeding populations. Dealing with inbreeding depression is one of the many challenges zoos face. I know that some zoos will actually share animals for breeding purposes to preserve genetic diversity and reduce the chance of recessive lethal alleles in their populations. Breeding programs are still relatively new and many of the animals studied (mammals mostly) have low reproductive rates and so far it has been hard to study these effects carefully.
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    Jun 7 2012: A zoo is a zoo, I wouldn't say they should "focus" on conservation outside zoo boundaries. I have no problem with that being the focus of conservation organizations.

    However, I do think that there should be some sort of zoo-oid "conservation easement" program--that is, the mandate that zoos are managed sustainably, and if necessary extraction of some zoo profits to go to environmental organizations that can focus on these extra-zoo issues while the zoos themselves worry about their in-zoo habitat. There should be a thorough analysis of all zoos and these should be graded as health inspectors do for restaurants. People should know whether this is an "A" or a "B" farm.

    In line with the topic of a conversation easement-esque brokerage, zoos should need to equate species capture with species freedom. In other words, if they keep one elephant in a zoo, they must do something that demonstrably helps to keep one elephant free overseas. (This duty can be handed off to a dedicated conservation group.) Similar to an emissions tax in which companies are penalized for every iota of greenhouse gas they emit over the allowable threshold, why not have zoos be penalized when they subvert strict guidelines, the UN's "Universal Rights of Zoo Creatures"?
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      Jun 7 2012: I agree that the focus on conservation should be outside the realm of zoos. There are much more effective measure that can be taken to promote biodiversity such as conservation of biodiversity hotspots. There is so little money going toward this field already we need to be careful where each dollar goes.
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      Jun 7 2012: I like your idea of managing zoos sustainably and to implement some sort of grading scale. There is definitely a large variance in the quality of confinement from one zoo to the next, and higher standards of operation need to be set. But zoos have a unique opportunity to engage in both ex situ and in situ conservation programs where other organizations may not posses the ability. They have acquired a lot of our current knowledge on small population biology, which is critical for aiding in the conservation of endangered species. Zoos also have the ability to financially support other conservation efforts, including habitat restoration and protection, which is a great way of indirectly changing their focus from entertainment to conservation. However, I do not think that zoos should merely retain their role as being a zoo. Exhibiting threatened and endangered species in confinement does nothing to preserve global biodiversity, although it may bring more awareness to the issue at hand. As a "modern" zoo, they need to take a more active role in conservation, whether that be through captive breeding programs with the goal of reintroduction or through financial contributions towards programs directly focused on preserving biodiversity.
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      Jun 8 2012: As far are zoo-managment, I'm pretty sure zoos are strictly managed, one can't just randomly open a zoo or buy a bunch of endangered animals to put up for show. This is why a great deal of zoos are associated with governments, for example, Oregon Zoo. There are many partnerships that zoos are involved in that may not be realized when going to the zoo to gawk at the animals. Zoos are able to have very sophisticated breeding programs that work with other zoos to ensure successful breeding, without genetically deleterious affects. I think zoos play a great part in the conservation of endangered species that is not seen by all. While I agree that it is important to conserve all species, to put more requirements on zoos may be detrimental to their progress.
    • Jun 8 2012: I agree; I don't think that zoos should be required to focus too much on conserving animals in the wild. If that were the main function of a zoo, it would be an environmentalist organization, not a collection of animals. Zoos definitely must work to keep the populations of the animals they have in captivity healthy and genetically diverse, but the primary function of a zoo is to promote interactions between humans and animals and leave people with a connection to the animal kingdom.
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      Jun 8 2012: I disagree completely. Mainly because to NOT invest in conservation efforts is a terrible business decision by any zoo. This is one of those instances where economic and ecological interests are congruent. From the economic perspective of the zoo, its a winning marketing decision. Zoo = exotic animals = efforts to save those animals. Having people associate strong conservation efforts with your zoo is a great thing, and since those efforts are preserving biodiversity, its a win-win. Zoos are certainly not the best at conservation, but any effort is a useful effort.
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      Jun 8 2012: Many zoos are in organizations that have guidelines to join them. So unless your zoo fits all the criteria they cannot join them. One of the most predominant ones here in the is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Not being an certified AZA zoo or in another organization does raise questions into the zoos politics and the animal living conditions. Many of the prominent zoos (and aquariums) in the U.S. are aligned with the AZA.
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    Jun 7 2012: I agree with most of the comments below,especially Stephanie's. Zoos should eventually focus on conservation outside of the zoo boundaries but before they do that they should work on improving their own systems. By creating better habitats and lives for the animals living in the zoo hopefully one day they can create release programs. Making more educational and outreach focused would be a better use of the space and animals rather than having people just come and look.

    I think zoos would attract a lot more attention and support if they were trying to better communities and ecosystems by creating captive breeding programs.
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      Jun 8 2012: Unfortunately I think the most important aspect of a zoo is the human-animal relationship which is a negative attribute when releasing an animal into the wild because the humans would be imprinted on the animals. Also the zoo would have to change their method of feeding so they can learn to hunt on their own instead of relying on humans to bring their food to them.
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    Jun 7 2012: I think zoos need first focus in improving their animal enclosures, education programs, and captive breeding facilities before they begin to engage in conservation work outside their boundaries.
    Immersing natural landscape into the animals' enclosures is one way that could improve the well being of the animals and enrich the visitors' experience. Another way, zoos could improve would be by changing the visitors' focus from being an animal-specific experience to helping people understand how healthy ecosystems work and are maintained, and showing interdependence. This would shift the way zoos are developed by having exhibits have a regional focus in which stories on how species are interconnected are told and conservation issues are expressed.
    • Jun 7 2012: I totally agree that zoos need a change in focus. Instead of simply displaying the animals, more in-depth information should be visible for visitors to learn details about the animals and their natural ecosystems. By making zoos a more informative place, rather than tourist traps, they would have an impact on conservation efforts. This way they would not have to change completely to a conservation-oriented operation but remain a viable business that also helps the larger context of the animal kingdom.
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        Jun 7 2012: I agree with you Nathan, the main role of zoos in conservation should be educational. I think that educating children and adults about how the animals interact with other organisms and their habitat is important but they could also put a conservational spin on all of it so that the Visitors are learning about the animals and it could also be oblivious to them what they an do individually to help.
    • Jun 7 2012: Stephanie, I think you make a great point. Many people in this conversation have acknowledged the potentials zoos have for being greater educational tools for the public than they are currently doing, but they can do so much more. I previously argued that zoos could be used to increase understanding of local animals as well as exotic ones. What I thought was most exciting about the potential use of local organisms was the protection of local plant species that would go along with mimicking their natural habitats, but I did not think about how that would better educate the public on looking at ecosystems as a whole, as you mentioned. Raising this sort of big-picture awareness in the public would hopefully draw further attention and funding towards more ecosystem based conservation efforts. This can only be achieved if zoos begin work on making zoos a better place for the inhabitants.
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      Jun 8 2012: I really like your idea of regional zoos. It would ensure that zoo animals are local, and therefore habitat for those animals is easier to maintain and could be open air rather then having them pent up in small enclosures in a building. It would also help educate people on their local and regional ecosystems and animals and how they are interconnected and how it relates to them as a person. Granted a zoo in Minnesota compared to a Zoo in Florida might not be super exciting but it would give people an idea of what they can do to turn what's outside the zoo facilities into what's inside the zoo facilities by helping to preserve and protect their natural surroundings.
      • Jun 8 2012: Although on one hand, it's a good idea to have regional zoos, with exhibits featuring native animals and ecosystems of the surrounding area, I don't think it would draw nearly as much public support. People go to the zoo to see exotic animals such as tigers and elephants, not (as there would be in an Oregon regional zoo) salmon and squirrels. Zoos such as these would definitely shift the focus from "wow, that 's so cool" to one more oriented to education. I think that parents would be far less likely to take their kids to zoos at which they couldn't see lions, resulting in way less money going into the zoo. Also, one of the main points of a zoo is to provide people who will never get to travel and see certain animals in the wild with the opportunity to see them anyway. Zoos invoke in people awe and wonder for the animals of the world, and I think this will happen to a much lesser degree if the closest zoos to people are ones which have animals they've probably already seen. I think that including a section of exhibits in a zoo showcasing the local fauna would be an effective compromise between giving people a glimpse of nature they may never get to see otherwise and educating them about their own surroundings.
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        Jun 8 2012: Regional zoos do exist, and they are plentiful. An example would be Wildlife Safari in Oregon. Although this zoo has animals that are not regionally indigenous, they do have suitable habitat for restrained animals. This zoo also has many regional species that need care and work with breeding. There are many wildlife preserves as well and local rehabilitation facilities. Here is a great resource for most, if not all, the zoos in the u.s. http://www.officialusa.com/stateguides/zoos/
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        Jun 8 2012: It should not just stop at regional zoos. Zoos should always be working with nearby nature reserves to keep those populations normal and keep breeding diversity high. Maintaining a strong relationship between reserves and zoos is key. The people who become interested from the zoo exhibits can then find programs to help at the reserve possibly.
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      Jun 8 2012: Stephanie brings up a good point about educating the public about ecosystems and the role of every species in them, instead of wholly focusing just on the animals individually. I think that educating the public more on the interactions of ecosystems and the species in them they could come to better understand how the extinction of a certain species can have a catastrophic domino effect. For a lot of people, I think that when they hear that in the near future there could be no more polar bears, it's in one ear out the other; it doesn't really affect them and they don't really care. But I think that if people could actually see how the loss of such a species can actually be extremely detrimental, it might prompt more action and understanding.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree that zoos should change their focus to helping visitors "understand how healthy ecosystems work and are maintained." Zoos could even change their focus more on local species or habitats. Helping people understand the ecosystems that surround them could also catch more peoples attention because they will be able to make more of a connection than they can to some places that are far away. If they camp or travel around the state or area, teaching them about how they can help protect the ecosystems and why this is important would be beneficial. I think one thing that people could use lessons on today is good camping practices, such as the principles behind Leave No Trace, which would help improve the ecosystems that they camp within on a more local level.
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    Jun 7 2012: I believe the importance of zoos to be regional. Growing up in the Midwest, conservation and 'green' anything isn't culturally as big of a deal as it is here on the West Coast (where I am now). So, zoos in my home state play a huge role in exposing people to wildlife. As a child growing up, there just weren't as many wildlife preserves or refuges around. So we went to the zoo for school field trips to learn about nature. Though, if I had been raised in Oregon, I could imagine my exposure to the great outdoors would be much different. So, in some places zoos can act as a powerful learning tool. However, that seems to me where their effectiveness ends. Any role they have in saving species seems more to come from their expertise and funding rather than from them being a zoo in and of itself.
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      Jun 7 2012: I agree with the belief that zoos are an effective learning tool, especially in places where wildlife preserves aren't available; however, the effectiveness continues beyond just a simple zoo visit. The ability to view majestic animals up close and personal is a very powerful image that breeds passion. Learning from textbooks about the importance of polar bears is great, but learning that same knowledge while watching polar bears play in an exhibit is breathtaking, and resonates in the soul. We talk about how we should spread awareness, and zoos do a great job of that, thus helping conservation on the personal level and through funding.
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      Jun 7 2012: Growing up in a suburb of Portland, the zoo was one of my only windows of exposure to wildlife. Sure, there were family car camping trips, but realistically, unless you're part of an outdoorsy family growing up you can easily miss out on learning about natural environments, even right here in Oregon.

      To me, zoos are an excellent place to begin the conversation about nature conservation and environmentalism with a child. The reason being that a visit to a zoo is a hands on learning experience. Growing up in a family of educators, I have witnessed that there is way too much sitting around doing busywork, and frankly, babysitting in our school system, so any opportunity to get kids outside of the classroom setting and excited about asking questions is a going to be beneficial.
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    Jun 7 2012: I agree with Drew Thompson's comment down below. I also live near a wildlife park in Washington state where visitors drive through the park and get to be in direct contact with animals. Certainly this alone is not a very useful act of conservation, but it gives the public a very hands on chance to interact with and learn about animals. Spreading this kind of public connection to wildlife is critical to the success of conservation movements. Additionally, this park provides the animals with a habitat that better mimics their native environments than a traditional zoo would. Because of this, the animals in the park are likely better able to return to their original environment if release efforts were needed/desired.
  • Jun 7 2012: The conversation below regarding the function of zoos as a form of "wildlife preserve-like" has a lot of really good points. Making zoo's similar to preserves is a good idea from a biologist/ecological standpoint because then we can work to create habitats that are function more as soft reintroduction zones. However, I think something that is being lost in this conversation is the fact that the purpose of a zoo is to educate the community and get kids excited about animals. In a preserve-like setting it is very likely that the amount of animal viewing would be minimal (because this generally how animals in the natural habitat are seen). One of the main goals for helping slow down our impact on the ecosystems of the world was education. Zoos largely contribute to that education. By allowing kids to see different animals and gain an understanding of the animals of world, they inherit an appreciation for them. Maybe what zoo's should do to increase their ability to help in the conservation process is simply provide for more interactive learning as individuals pass through each exhibit. In addition, they should emphasize the importance of the species that are being affected by humans most and explain this impact that we have on those animals when they are in the wild.
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      Jun 7 2012: I agree with Molly. We cannot say that zoo's are merely there for the animals sake, in the name of preservation. They are businesses just like anything else. If there was a greater emphasis on how the animals got into the zoo and the changes that are happening to their native habitats due to humans, then they would be more beneficial to the animals themselves. I think too often zoo-goers only think about how the zoos are helping the individual animals in the facility instead of what needs to be done to help their populations in general.
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      Jun 8 2012: I also agree with Molly's viewpoint on zoos. I just recently read 'The Life of Pi', in which the main character is the son of a zookeeper. It is impossible to read this young Indian boys perspective on zoos and feel they are a bad thing. The close proximity to which zoos bring animals to humans inspires an awe that would otherwise be lost on a majority of people. Many citizens of urban cities are not exposed to nature except in a limited context, so bringing the animals to a place where they can see them up close and admire their natural beauty is an essential service that connects these urbanites to the environment. This allows them to develop feelings for animals, and potentially enables them to care about their impact on the environment.
  • Jun 7 2012: Zoos should definitely be heavily involved in conservation both in the zoo and outside. It is hard to believe that zoos can maintain their populations over the long term through strictly in-house breeding, so it is in the zoos' best interest to maintain wild populations to maintain their stocks. In addition, educating the public about animals and sparking interest in conservation. I believe that this mission may have an even greater impact than any conservation work zoos can do on their own, as public interest and awareness about biodiversity issues can divert much more resources than any zoo can.
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      Jun 7 2012: I agree with you, Billy. I think that in order to preserve and enhance genetic diversity, that breeding outside of just the in-house stock is necessary for zoos. Zoos are an excellent starting point for a larger conversation about conservation and biodiversity preservation and they do an excellent job serving this purpose. In most zoos, there are many opportunities for visitors to donate to protect specific species or to general funds that conserve habitats. I think that this is the most effective ways that zoos can help incorporate their visitors into actively helping the types of animals that they came to see. Additionally, since the primary populations that visit zoos are families, and often families with young children, zoos are a fantastic way to get children interested in animals and in biodiversity conservation from a very young, impressionable age.
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      Jun 8 2012: I agree with your point that zoo's need a large natural population source to ensure proper genetic diversity of the organism's they hold. If zoo's don't play an active role in preserving species outside of their boundaries, the health of the captive animals will decline as well due to reduced genetic diversity. Zoos are a great platform for gaining public interest in conservation since the experience of seeing unique animals up close is pretty powerful.
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        Jun 8 2012: This is a good point. If zoos are to play a role in actively conserving species by breeding them in captivity for eventual release, it is vital that the genetic diversity is maintained in the process. I'm not sure how much this is monitored when it comes to captive breeding, but if these animals are to be released into the wild again then they must have the genetic diversity that they would have if they were breeding in the wild. Otherwise, captive breeding could end up doing more harm than good.
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    Jun 7 2012: I agree with Em, in that a new and very effective type of zoo would have very large exhibits. I can see it functioning as a mini ecosystem, showing the numerous ecosystem services and symbioses between species, which would be a great educational tool. Having a mini ecosystem at work would also probably make conservation of species and maintenance easier with the health of the exhibit being basically self sustaining. As for what the zoo's role should be in conservation in the first place, I think that zoos do play a very important role in preserving species as Derek mentioned, but zoos can really only do so much, usually using captive breeding to keep the species' population significant. But the population will need its natural habitat to live in once the species can sustain itself, which takes efforts of preserving whole habitats. This is usually done on a large scale by federal agencies, and it seems a bit of a stretch to expect it of a zoo.
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      Jun 7 2012: If we try to replicate the natural environment for animals that we would keep in a wildlife exhibit, this would include putting predators and their prey in the same secluded area. Zoos are largely for-profit organizations and they happen to be an industry that thrives on souvenir sales and their capacity to market as a family-friendly location for a day trip. I find it very likely that if we eradicated zoos and replaced the current model of secluded species with an integrated, ecosystem-replicate approach, then zoos will lose access to their primary visitor base. It is improbably that two parents would take their young kids to go watch a lion devour a gazelle but it is much more probably that these same parents would take their young kids to go watch a lion hang out on a big rock and watch it roar.

      Supporting entire ecosystems through wildlife preserves should be more of a conservation effort than an alternative to zoos. Both serve an important purpose in society, but the purposes that they serve are not interchangeable.
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        Jun 7 2012: I agree that not all conservation goals can be met through zoos, especially as they function now. I think there is extreme value in having traditional zoos where kids can come learn about animals and begin to develop there own sense of awe with the animal kingdom. However, this should not be at the expense of animal and ecosystem health in the wild. Though zoos may not be able to replicate natural ecosystems, all zoo actions should take into account how removal of wild animals will impact the environment. Additionally, zoos should mimic native environments as closely as possible while still maintaining a visitor-friendly atmosphere. Zoos should not replace conservation reserves, but they should learn from these areas in order to best promote the health of their animals and environments from which they come.
        • Jun 7 2012: Lauren, I completely agree with everything you are saying here. I also think it's important to remember that a large number of animals that end up in zoos, though not all, end up there because they could not be reintroduced back into the wild. Some animals have been injured and spent to long recovering in captivity, or simply require monitoring for health reasons, while others have been illegally made into pets and then abandoned. I would argue that making such animals into pets in the first place should be avoided, but once an animal is in such a situation, zoos or wildlife reserves seem like a great alternative to euthanasia.
  • Jun 7 2012: How could they not, but maybe only for a little time.
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    Jun 7 2012: Zoos probably have a lot on there plate with maintaining the animals that reside in their boundaries and I doubt they have enough funding and/or man-power to work outside their gates. The role of education and showcasing the animals to the public is important, but if zoos could improve on one aspect they could very well improved educational techniques. Offer classroom tours that go into what it means to conserve biodiversity and how it can be achieved. Really emphasize on the importance of zoos and what is going on in the wild. With that said, I do think it would be awesome if zoos could expand and grow into a university type setting. Where students focus on conservation, research, zoo-keeping, education, and other elements of biodiversity.
    • Jun 7 2012: I agree. I think the zoos primary goal should be to educate the public. When it comes to conserving biodiversity their concern should be with educating people on why it is important to conserve biodiversity.

      When the situation arises and it is convenient for a zoo to help save a species, as was the case with the California Condor, they should of course be a part of it. But thinking about zoos as a means of conserving a species is not an effective way to conserve biodiversity, nor is it an efficient use of zoos.
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      Jun 7 2012: I agree with what you both said. Zoos only have a limited amount of resources and i think it should be spent educating the public and maintaining what they already have. Because this alone, already seems like so much work. Of course, it'd be great if they could focus on conserving species both inside and outside their own boundaries, but this would be a lot of work for one organization. This is possible if zoos were able to get more funding though.
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      Jun 7 2012: I really like your idea about shifting some zoos to a more university-like setting. It could almost be a trade-school for biodiversity conservation. Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars attending a four year university, a trade-school could be incredibly cheaper and focus almost entirely on conservation aspects. This might draw a lot more people who are interested in this line of work but never had the grades or the money to attend a standard university. This is grand thinking, but I really like it.
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      Jun 8 2012: Zoos (although maybe not all) do have the potential and resources to contribute to conservation outside of their facilities. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums: "AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have funded nearly 4,000 conservation projects in more than 100 countries and spend nearly $90 million on conservation initiatives annually." Zoos (collectively) are one of the largest financial supporters of both ex situ and in situ conservation efforts, as they should be. It is imperative that zoos act as more than "just a zoo," otherwise I see little benefit in keeping animals on display for people's entertainment. Education is a huge part of increasing the interest in conserving biodiversity, but zoos need to play a larger role than just that. Zoos have the potential to contribute to research on small population dynamics and also function as species banks for captive breeding and reintroduction programs. It would be great to see them move towards a bio-reserve type setting that allows for more species interactions (when appropriate) and incorporates ecological diversity.
      • Jun 8 2012: You bring up a great point. Zoos should play a role in conservation and as you proved I think they are putting their best effort out. Zoos are incredibly important liaisons to the public who may not be aware of conservation issues and they can often provide simple things the public can do to reduce their biological impact.
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      Jun 8 2012: I would definitely like to see universities and zoos working closer together. University labs and the man power interested students would provide would greatly help any zoo. It may also help university students lose the stigma that zoos are just for kids and their parents. If going to the zoo was became something everyone considered on a weekend there would be much for funding. In turn the zoos would be able to continue research and conservation efforts along with educating more of the population about things they can do to help the animals the see in the exhibits.