Thanks A Lot, Zoos. No, Really…Thank You
Amanda discusses the value zoos and aquariums have to conservation – both in-situ and ex-situ.
Editor’s Note: Amanda joins theTurtleRoom’s Team as “Social Media Coordinator”. You can expect to see more from her in this space. The following appeared in her personal blog on March 17, 2016. We are excited to have Amanda join our staff; her background and training will be a fantastic addition to our team. Please welcome Amanda to theTurtleRoom!
One of this week’s biggest news stories regarding animals is the report of the deteriorating health of Tilikum, an orca housed at Sea World Orlando who was, most notably, the subject of the controversial 2013 documentary Blackfish. While browsing the comments on articles covering the story, I was deeply disturbed by the amount of people who were expressing their hatred of all zoos and aquariums. To begin by setting the record straight, Sea World is not an aquarium, and we’re not going to talk about Sea World or the captivity of certain cetaceans. We’re going to talk about why you should be thanking and supporting AZA zoos and aquariums and why they are, in many cases, the greatest conservation tool we have.
I love animals. I love them more than I love anything else on this Earth. I care more about helping them than I do about my own health, social life, and personal needs. I have on many occasions dedicated my only days off to going out and volunteering hours in the field doing research on animals or educating the public at events about animals. I’ve woken up at 3am, drove 3 hours and spent entire freezing mornings in the middle of winter saving sea turtles on beaches. I’ve spent long, hot days baking on a small boat out in the middle of the endless ocean conducting vital research on whales that we hoped would even show up.
I’ve also spent the last almost 2 years working at an aquarium – and I consider this the greatest service I have ever given in my life for animals and the entire planet. It is my life’s greatest work yet. People often ask me; if I love animals, how could I work at a place that imprisons and tortures them? How could I support an industry that uses live animals purely for entertainment? I do neither of those things, because zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) do none of that.
Animals living at these zoos and aquariums are not imprisoned. AZA is strict about which animals are kept and how; if an animal isn’t deemed a good candidate for captivity, they aren’t kept in captivity. The animals that are kept in captivity are given all that they need and more to thrive. The animals I worked with were cared for impeccably. They received the best healthcare possible and caregivers are expected to go above and beyond to provide the best quality of life for each and every animal.
Animals at zoos and aquariums are not there for entertainment. They’re there to serve as ambassadors for their entire species, they’re there for education and they’re there to live a safe life, because I hate to be the one to break this to you – but in this day in age, in the world we currently live in, in many cases an animal is safer in human care than it is in its own natural habitat. It’s sad, and to be honest I wish we didn’t need zoos and aquariums, because like any animal lover, I prefer to see animals in their natural habitats. But the sad truth is that we need them now more than ever.
The public visits zoos and aquariums for their own entertainment, but what they get is much more. They are able to see animals they might not get to see otherwise and connect with them on a deeper level. Anyone can watch a sea turtle on TV but to see one swim powerfully past you is a very different experience. People fall in love with these animals and want to learn more about their lives, and that’s when zoos and aquariums are given the opportunity to tell their stories and speak about conservation.
The planet is in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event. Yes, I say this a lot. I’m making sure you haven’t forgotten…it’s kind of a big deal. Saving species needs to be a priority, and it cannot be done by scientists and institutions alone. It must be a global effort and one of the most effective ways to get people to care is to open their minds and connect them to wildlife. I have on countless occasions had conversations with visitors who had no idea about the issues animals were facing in the wild or that they could help them. I’ve had people tell me to my face that their lives were changed by visiting a zoo or aquarium and seeing a certain animal up close. I certainly know that a major factor in my fervent desire to save animals stems from visiting zoos at a young age.
It is frustrating and sad to be faced with scrutiny by people who believe they are environmentalists when all they do is sit behind a computer and sign petitions. These people clearly have an unrealistic view of animals in their natural habitats and the state of them. Many people believe that the wild is a magical place where animals leap into waves, run through fields of flowers into the sunset, play with their friends, and live with their family. This is called anthropomorphism – giving human qualities to nonhumans. It can make us sympathize with animals, yes, but in the end it is often just no good because it separates animals from how they truly behavior and removes science.
Now, don’t get me wrong – many animals do indeed exhibit complex social behaviors, care for their young and develop relationships with other animals. All of these things, however, are taken into account within accredited institutions. Animals are given companionship, enrichment, and are allowed to care for their young. The most important thing that I want people to know is that the wild isn’t a beautiful, magic place anymore for most animals. Our rainforests are being slashed and burned, animals are being killed for their horns, meat, tusks, and skins, oceans are polluted with trash and plastic, the temperatures are rising and killing off coral reefs, and everything with fins is being fished away to feed the growing hunger and greed of humans worldwide. The 4 whale sharks that currently reside at the Georgia Aquarium? They’d have been made into shark fin soup had GA not purchased them. This is the sad reality that literally all of us hate.
Every single day that I worked at an aquarium with animals like sharks, sea turtles and seals, I felt great about their lives within our walls. They were safe from plastic, fishing, oil spills and we cared for them and met their needs every single day. When there was a brutal snow storm that shut down public transportation and highways citywide, aquarium employees slept under their desks and snowshoed to work. I worked alongside the most passionate, dedicated animal lovers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and I have a plethora of stories to prove it.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that AZA accredited zoos and aquarium are NOT in the business for the money. No one gets rich off a nonprofit aquarium. When you consider how much it costs to feed, house, and care for a large amount of animals every single day, plus the amount of money that is poured into the conservation, education and research departments, zoos and aquariums across the United States would simply cease operation without donations, and a large majority of the work is done by volunteers.
The North Atlantic Right Whale was almost completely hunted to extinction until whaling was finally banned in the U.S, but their population never rebounded. They are susceptible to boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, and the aquarium I worked for has an entire department dedicated to the research and conservation of this species. When they began working with them there were less than 200 North Atlantic Right Whales left. The population now exceeds 500. There are absolutely no North Atlantic Right Whales in captivity. They do not profit off of this endeavor. It isn’t for the people; it’s for the whales.
They spend thousands upon thousands of dollars rescuing and rehabilitating sea turtles; sea turtles that are treated 100% offsite, never to be gawked at by the public. There is absolutely zero profit whatsoever from this endeavor. They’ve established and manage one of the worlds largest marine protected areas, conduct vital research on coral, sharks and lobsters, and help reduce deforestation in the Amazon. Recently our head veterinarian traveled to the Philippines to address a trafficking crisis involving an entire species of critically endangered turtles; his expenses were paid in full by the aquarium so he could donate his expertise to help save the species. Again, no profit for the aquarium. All out-of-pocket contributions to the conservation of animals that need our help.
Consider the elephant. Complex animals with the ability to form strong, lifelong family units. They mourn their lost loved ones and care for their young for many years. Elephants should absolutely not be used to preform tricks in circuses, however you must think about their roles in zoos. Many people would not know the power of looking into the gentle eyes of such a large and powerful creature if they’d not seen one at a zoo. These creatures can absolutely live fulfilled lives given the proper enclosure and care requirements, and it sure beats getting their faces chopped off in the wild. Elephants are being poached so heavily that we could truly see them become extinct in our lifetimes. Zoos around the United States are working tirelessly to not only educate the public about captive elephants and breed them in human care, but also to solve the poaching crisis where they are originally from.
The Guatemalan Beaded Lizard is one of the most endangered lizards in the world- there are only around 150 of them left in the wild. They are critically endangered due to habitat loss and killing by the natives because of myths regarding them and how dangerous they are, even though not a single human has ever been killed by one. Zoo Atlanta not only leads an important breeding project for the lizards, it also works closely with conservation groups in Guatemala conducting vital research on the wild lizards and connecting the native people to these lizards in an attempt to promote conservation through education. As you can imagine, no, they do not profit off of this endeavor.
I could continue to tell you incredibly inspiring tales from the conservation departments of zoos and aquariums around the country, but by now I hope you get the idea. Zoos and aquariums have the resources and the passion to do what most cannot, and to make huge differences for animals that truly need it.
Next time you decide to go off on a tangent about how horrible and greedy zoos and aquariums are make sure you do your research. Perhaps there are some places that are doing things for the wrong reasons, but I can tell you from personal experience that those institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are truly one of the most important forces in conservation the world has.
One of the most important things I learned from working for one of these conservation powerhouses though, is that you don’t need to be a zoo/aquarium/scientist to help animals. All of us can, in our everyday lives, do things to protect them. The first step is making that connection and learning more about them, and one of the best places to do just that is at your local AZA accredited institution.
This post first appeared on Amanda’s personal blog, Amanda Saves Animals.
Featured Image: Amanda giving a talk about sea turtle conservation to hundreds of visitors at the New England Aquarium.