Zoo Tales: Role of Zoos Changing
BY TOM GILLESPIE
Special to The Pilot
The oldest existing zoo, according to records, is the Vienna Zoo in Austria, which was founded in 1753.
But the Chinese were known to have already had at least one zoo as early as 3,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians kept and cared for baboons and lions inside their temples. Serving as a refuge for threatened species, zoos have played a vital role in the preservation and protection of wildlife.
As might be expected, the face of America's zoos has changed greatly over the years, particularly the past 20. The change has been more than the disappearance of small bar and cage exhibits and the emergence of naturalistic habitats.
During that time, zoo administrators began to realize that it was no longer enough to simply house and display animals for visitors.
The public began to assess the care and breeding management that they saw being given to the animals.
Critics reminded zoo administrators that if they were going to profit from the display of these exotic and indigenous animals, they also had the responsibility to save both the species and their wild habitats.
But often, even the most well-meaning conservation plans went wrong. Projects to help protect and sustain the most popular animals draw huge public funds, while those projects aimed at protecting the less glamorous - but sometimes more endangered - animals received little or no funding.
By 1982, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the leading accreditation organization within the zoo community, introduced the Species Survival Plan.
Through the plan, zoos - from the largest to the smallest - were discouraged from simply breeding animals to satisfy the desires of visitors and were encouraged to enter into managed breeding efforts, particularly with endangered species.
Two decades ago, captive breeding of species for reintroduction back into the wild was considered "good enough" by most zoologists and administrators. But today, most animal experts believe that it is no longer enough to simply put endangered species on display - sustain captive populations - and call it conservation.
To compound the situation, of the nearly 2,000 American licensed animal exhibitors, only about 200 of these are accredited by the AZA, making managed breeding efforts even more difficult.
More and more, animals - particularly those endangered - are faced with loss of habitat by human overpopulation and human failure to conserve natural resources. But also, they are now facing increasing threats from manmade disasters and wars.
The events in the Middle East and elsewhere have brought to light the hardships and dangers experienced by animals, both those in war-damaged zoos and the indigenous wildlife and work animals. In some cases, these animals were killed as sport by members of the warring factions within the country.
Another growing threat is the relatively new crisis, the bushmeat trade - the killing and harvesting of protected wild animals for food. This bushmeat, which includes gorillas and chimpanzees, is often considered a delicacy in wild-game markets.
According to the Biosynergy Institute in California, more great apes are killed and eaten each year than are now kept in all the zoos and laboratories of the world. These are only some of the new crises facing today's zoo community.
According to Michael Hutchins, former director of the AZA's conservation and science department, zoos today must go beyond serving as mere animal repositories - and even beyond serving as basic conservation facilitators.
They must provide meaningful public education, conduct scientific research, develop new technologies, launch into conservation planning, conduct nature travel programs, begin or continue captive breeding for reintroduction into the wild, restore ecological systems and raise the funds to underwrite all of these pursuits.
If zoos can accomplish these new tasks and find the funds to support them, Hutchins claims, they stand to become the world's leading conservation force.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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