We must remain on the side of zoos

The message below from Endangered Wolf Center Executive Director Virginia Busch appears in the Center’s Summer 2016 Magazine.

Dear Friends of the Endangered Wolf Center,

In recent months, I’ve watched the zoological community struggle with the concept of relevance, and how it relates to conservation, animal care and their mission. With so much of the wild in a state of crisis and our planet in the midst of its sixth extinction cycle inarguably brought on by humans, the great irony and tragedy is that the very institutions capable of affecting positive change for wildlife and wild places may themselves be on a path to extinction.

Over the last several years, animal rights extremists have devised powerful social media campaigns, in conjunction with agenda-based films positioned as documentaries, that have led many people to question how they feel about animals in zoological facilities.VB

It’s not hard to convince a cynical society that most any corporation or institution is the bad guy, especially when the accuser operates under the auspices of an advocate. But by zoos attempting to take the high road and not enter into a fight with the playground bully, the bullies are winning. And in the end, without zoos and aquariums to inspire a connection to wildlife and wild places, it’s the animals who will lose. And us, who will lose wild animals – those irreplaceable wonders who share our planet.

Zoological facilities are so much more than just the display of animals. They are institutions that:
• aid in species research, especially behavioral research that can be difficult if not impossible in the wild.
• inspire millions of guests each year to become environmental stewards, not just for the animals within the zoo but for the planet as a whole.
• provide boots-on-the-ground conservation, with specialized staff, veterinarian skills or funding.
• manage and breed endangered species for introduction back to the wild.
• provide enrichment activities to help keep the animals mentally and emotionally stimulated.

A nationwide study including more than 5,500 visitors from 12 AZA-accredited institutions found that visits to zoos and aquariums prompt individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and see themselves as part of the solution.

We cannot let a loud, ill-informed minority opinion manipulated by extremists create long-lasting policy changes, such as shutting down zoos. Yes, that is a strong statement but one that I truly believe can happen at an accelerated pace with the way social media can influence and drive decisions.

The Endangered Wolf Center is just one of many zoological institutions that directly interfaces with conservation in the wild. Our Mexican and red wolves are active candidates for release to the wild. Would the very same animal rights groups that are so against zoos want to shut us down? Absolutely. There is no gray area for groups like these.

Zoos and facilities such as ours have a responsibility to remain relevant. With 143 million combined visitors each year, no one else can replace their ability to engage, inspire and educate guests through up close connections with animals. No one else has the expertise to research, breed toward species survival, study and advocate for animals through firsthand knowledge like zoos. We must remain on their side. Our living planet and her amazing animals are counting on us all.