The Role Of Zoos In An Ever-Changing World

06.29.16 3 years ago 26 Comments

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“If the names are lost, the knowledge also disappears.”

-J.C. Fabricius from Philosophia Entomologica

Every day, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited zoos open their doors to the public, inviting people to witness the animals in their care. Many of the people visiting will be attending with the goal or hope of being entertained. They’d like to spend a fun day outside of their homes. They’d like to tempt their children away from screens and media. They’d like to see unusual sights — creatures they could never hope to see in their own backyards, even if, once upon a time, their backyards would have been the roaming grounds for those very animals.

It’s possible that some of these visitors will think of the zoo as a place built solely for the purpose of their entertainment. They will go into their visit expecting to be distracted from the world in the same way a movie or a theme park or a bowling alley is meant to distract them. It’s not a terrible thing, to want to be entertained. It’s not a terrible thing to be fascinated by animals, or to hope to see them closer. It’s just that those wants and needs are not the sole reason for the existence of the modern, AZA-accredited zoo, and they haven’t been for some time.

Believing you’re visiting a theme park where animals are on display purely for your entertainment does not make it so. Even if you do come away from the visit entertained. In fact, a three-year, nationwide study found that: “Visitors arrive at zoos and aquariums with specific identity-related motivations, and these motivations directly impact how they conduct their visit and what meaning they derive from the experience.”

In other words, each guest’s preconceived notions about what a zoo is or isn’t impacts the way that visitor values the zoo.



In a time in which human thought processes about zoos are rapidly changing, it’s important to clarify what AZA-accredited zoos have as their mission. The modern zoo exists and continues to evolve as a center for conservation, education, and research. Hundreds of years ago, the zoo’s progenitors may have been a way for the royal and the wealthy to exhibit their dominion over the natural world. Today, zoos have more to do with stewardship of a planet in the midst of a sixth mass extinction — offering man-made aid in the face of a man-made crisis — than they do with exhibiting mastery over non-human animals.

Consider the following:

Catalina Island Fox
Scimitar-Horned Oryx
Przewalski’s Horse
Pere David’s Deer
Perdido Key Beach Mouse
Eastern Barred Bandicoot
Blackfooted Ferret
Ozark Hellbender
Timber Rattlesnake
Ploughshare Tortoise
Kihansi Spray Toad
Oregon Spotted Toad
Mountain Chicken
Mauritius Kestrel
Regent Honeyeater
Puerto Rican Parrot
Blue-crowned Laughing Thrush
Micronesian Kingfisher
Guam Rails
Spix’s Macaws
Attwater Prairie Chicken
Bali Mynah
Partula Snail
Lord Howe Stick Insect
White-clawed Crayfish
American Burying Beetle

Can every reader picture each and every animal listed above? Can you see it in your mind’s eye, bring it to life with your imagination, as easily as you can a Sumatran tiger, an African elephant, or a Western lowland gorilla? Are there any animals in the above list that you didn’t recognize? That you’ve perhaps never heard of? Do you know what each of these diverse species have in common?

All of these species continue to exist largely because zoos have been fighting for their survival. Whether or not you knew they existed. Whether or not you knew that they were in danger of blinking out of existence, a network of people, connected by their professions and passions, were endeavoring to save them. These people used, and continue to use, their collective knowledge, their research, and their determination to save critically endangered species, including those that many of us have never spared a thought for. The list provided barely scrapes the surface — it’s a minuscule sample of the important work of zoos that goes largely unnoticed, the work that zoos have been directing their focus toward for years.

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