Recently we had the pleasure of having Dr. Douglas Armstrong, director of animal health at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium at Iowa State to lecture on conservation medicine and managed animals. Zoo animal medicine, as well as conservation medicine, is a topic that I am passionate about, and it’s really where I got my start in this crazy journey to vet school. There are many people out there that are of the opinion that zoos are wrong and that animals should be in the wild. I would like to discuss this controversial topic of zoos, and tell you why I believe zoos are important, and what I have learned from several zoo veterinarians.
The first issue I would like to focus on is the argument that animals belong in the wild. I think that most of us passionate in this area would love nothing more than to see all animals living in their wild habitats, but unfortunately, this isn’t feasible because there is no wild left. On average, every year we lose approximately 13 million hectares of land to deforestation. That’s three times the size of Switzerland—lost every single year! In our seas, we have been losing 40% of our warm water coral reefs since the 1980s, and we have had a 52% decline of species in 40 years, especially in tropical habitats in developing countries. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, degradation, and over-exploitation, we just have nowhere for these animals to go, and the ones who are still living in these wild places, are all managed. Kenya is home to approximately 1,000 rhinos, all of which are managed and protected. In the United States, one of our most wild places, Yellow Stone National Park is a managed area and its wildlife is managed too.
There are also species that have been saved from extinction, which would never have been possible without the help of zoos. The Black-Footed Ferret (BFF) is a story that many are familiar with. The species was thought to be extinct, but one tiny population was found in 1981. After unsuccessful breeding attempts, experts in reproductive biology from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) were consulted. Until the late 1990s, there were several zoos involved in managing the BFF Species Survival Plan. Since then over 8,500 kits have been produced and they have been successfully reintroduced in the United States. Another example is the Przewalski’s horse, native to Mongolia, which was once extinct. With the help of zoos and the Species Survival Plan, they have been reintroduced to a national park in Mongolia. Others include the California Condor, the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle, several species of frogs and toads and more. If you want a feel-good happy story, go ahead and look some of these up!
Not all zoos out there are good, but those accredited by the AZA are held to a higher standard and those are the zoos that are focused on conservation, and the best life and health for the animals in their care.
If you wish to discuss this topic more, please leave me a comment and I would love to talk more!