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Why Zoos and Aquariums Are Beneficial

By Karlyn Marcy
min read

Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited (AZA) facilities are beneficial because of the high standards they exemplify in animal welfare, conservation, research, education, and recreation. All AZA-accredited facilities must meet the Association’s rigorous, scientifically based, and publicly-available standards that cover a facility’s entire operation, including animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, education, guest experiences, and more.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)Red List of Threatened Species is the most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus, and plant species. Visitors to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums can see many species listed on the IUCN Red List as threatened with extinction, some of which are being managed under AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs.

How Do Zoos and Aquariums Aid In Animal Conservation?

In 2019, AZA and its members spent more than $230 million on field conservation work in 127 countries, focusing on population biology and monitoring, reintroduction, conservation education, and more.

AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, the Association’s flagship conservation program, brings AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums together to focus their collective expertise and leverage their massive audiences to save species like sea turtles and American red wolves. There are currently 28 SAFE species engaging more than 300 partner organizations in the work of saving species.  

Engaging zoo and aquarium visitors is a key part of SAFE species programs and other AZA education programming like Party for the Planet™: Spring into Action. In 2019, Party for the Planet™: Spring into Action supported members in offering inclusive family-friendly volunteer opportunities with a direct impact on the planet. Members offered events like pollinator garden plantings, invasive species removal, and beach clean-ups.

Zoos and Aquariums Protect Endangered Species

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums help reintroduce animals into the wild. In 1982, California condors were on the brink of extinction with only 22 birds remaining in the wild. In 1985, only nine birds remained. In 1987, the California Condor Recovery Program was established as a collaborative program with the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif. Condors were bred and the young then raised by people wearing hand puppets that mimicked adult birds to avoid young condors imprinting on their caregivers. In 1992, the first condors bred in managed care were released into the wild in California. The population of California condors has now grown to more than 400 birds, including 240 condors living in the wild. Conservation success stories like this and many others are only possible with the help of zoos and aquariums.

AZA, its members, and other partners work together to maintain healthy populations of species in managed care through SSP programs and Global Species Management Plans. These programs strive to professionally and cooperatively manage populations among AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums through breeding and transfer recommendations. SSP programs identify population management goals and assure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied population. 

Repairing Ecosystems

AZA-accredited facilities restore habitats to support reintroduction and rehabilitation programs for a variety of species, including critically endangered orangutans. Orangutans are threatened by habitat loss due to unsustainably grown palm oil. The AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction orangutan program was launched in 2018 to focus on these threats to assist in the recovery of the species.  CREATE (Corridor Restoration for Animals Threatened and Endangered), a project started by the Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., and in partnership with APE Malaysia, is an example of one partnership supported by the AZA SAFE orangutan program. By hiring local community members to plant, maintain, and grow trees to connect wildlife corridors, CREATE supports the local economy and repairs ecosystems. In November 2018, a team of AZA experts from four AZA-accredited zoos traveled to Northeast Borneo to help with habitat restoration efforts and offer training to enhance animal welfare at a local zoo.

Rehabilitation

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums frequently work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to help rescue, rehabilitate, and care for wild animals like sea turtles, manatees, and sea otters until they can be released back into the wild. 

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, EPCOT's Living Seas, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, SeaWorld Orlando, and SeaWorld San Diego partner on the USFWS Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. These facilities provide critical care to injured and cold-stunned manatees and assist partners in their release.

Are Zoos and Aquariums Educational?

In 2019, 138 AZA-accredited facilities delivered 2,500 education programs covering topics like habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. Forty percent of guests reached by education programming participated in activities like nature play spaces and discovery carts or were engaged by exhibits interpreters. 

Changing consumer behavior can be a powerful tool in the conservation arsenal.  AZA members, like Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Spring, Colo., and Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., have developed smartphone applications that help consumers make educated choices about sustainable palm oil and sustainable seafood choices. Palm oil is used in many everyday products and when used from sustainable sources can provide real economic benefits. When it comes from unsustainable sources it is a key cause of deforestation, impacting many species like orangutans and tigers.  Likewise, consuming sustainable seafood provides a valuable source of food for people and helps promote sustainable jobs.  When fishing is unsustainable, it can cause real damage to ocean environments, lead to dramatic collapses in populations of aquatic species, and damage or eliminate once-healthy fisheries.   

When COVID-19 caused many members to shut down, AZA-accredited members moved their educational programming online. You can find many of these educational resources on AZA’s website.

AZA and its members also offer a variety of citizen science projects that allows the public to contribute to scientific research in their community. 

How Do Zoos and Aquariums Aid in Animal Research?<

AZA’s Annual Report of Conservation and Science documents the field conservation efforts, education programs, green (sustainable) business practices, and research projects at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and certified related facilities. 

In 2019, AZA-accredited facilities invested over $26 million on research and studied over 560 species and subspecies. Animal care, health, and welfare (45%) are the AZA community’s most common focus of research followed by basic biology (21%). Together, these two disciplines comprised nearly two-thirds of the AZA community’s research. 

Other research explored species and habitat conservation (focused primarily on populations in the wild or those being prepared for reintroduction into the wild; 12%), sustainable animal collections (focused primarily on populations held in human care; 10%), and conservation education and public engagement (6%).

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums conduct or facilitate research in both in situ and ex situ settings that advance scientific knowledge of the animals in their care, enhances the conservation of wild populations, and engages and inspires the visiting public.

Ecology

AZA members have access to diverse animal populations and research their behaviors and their biological, physiological, and psychological needs. This increases our understanding of the animals’ roles and needs in the wild and in managed care. AZA’s Research and Technology Committee, Wildlife Conservation Committee and Scientific Advisory Groups bring together professionals with the expertise to help drive animal care, conservation, research, and best practices in zoos and aquariums. By studying how species in their care and species in the wild interact with other species and their environments, AZA members are able to use ecology research to address species conservation problems and preserve ecosystem health and biodiversity. 

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center develops new and advanced analytical tools to study and model how ecosystems and species interact with their environment and how these systems respond to global changes. One example of ecology research that has aided in species reintroduction is the swift fox program, in which swift foxes have been reintroduced to the grasslands of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana after an absence of more than 50 years.

Educating the public on the ecological niche these animals occupy and about the wild habitats they inhabit creates a strong connection with guests and enables zoos and aquariums to share the conservation story.

Biodiversity

Research and conservation projects conducted by AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums improve biodiversity. AZA members are contributing to scientific discoveries about how animals in their care are vulnerable to climate change, habitat loss, and other threats. AZA members understand that work to save one species often protects many others in an ecosystem. Many AZA-accredited facilities, like the Wildlife Conservation Society and San Diego Zoo, as well as the Disney Conservation Fund, work with global conservation efforts to research and promote biodiversity.

How You Can Help a Zoo or Aquarium Near You

Visit the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Currently Accredited Zoos and Aquariums page to find an AZA-accredited facility near you. Follow your favorite zoos and aquariums on social media to keep up with their animals and their conservation efforts. You can also join your local facility as a member, or donate to help zoos and aquariums feed their animals, pay their staff, and continue their conservation work.

Photo Credit: © Julie Larsen Maher, WCS

KARLYN MARCY IS THE COMMUNICATIONS PROGRAM ASSISTANT AT THE ASSOCIATION OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS.

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