Updated: Sep 25
Have you ever felt sad for an animal when you’ve been visiting a zoo, seeing a beautiful, exotic animal deprived of the natural environment and experiences it would be enjoying in the wild? Maybe that feeling colors your attitude towards zoos in general. You might be surprised to learn that sometimes zookeepers and other staff members feel that way, too. But knowing that our work as part of the global network of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is necessary for saving animals from extinction steels our resolve to give these animals the best lives possible while under our care. We are proud to serve alongside them to provide not just enriching experiences and conservation education for our visitors, but also a refuge where vulnerable animals are given shelter from any of the numerous perils that threaten wildlife around the world, including drought, floods, fire, habitat degradation, poaching, and war. Without zoos, many species would be lost. They would go extinct and be gone forever from the amazing biodiversity of Earth.
But you would be forgiven for thinking that a zoo is just a place where animals are kept in cages for the whims and amusement of people because there was a time when that was true. Fortunately, over the last century our collective conscience has evolved. The Environmental Movement and a greater regard for animal wellbeing have succeeded in advancing animal rights. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, established in 1924, “is a leader in saving species and your link to helping animals all over the world” and the Pueblo Zoo has been a proud member of this prestigious, conservation organization since 1992.
What is the link between zoos and conservation? For one, the AZA manages several different groups that support best practices for species conservation, including Taxon Advisory Groups (TAG), Species Survival Plans Programs (SSP), Regional Studbooks, Scientific Advisory Groups (SAG), and Dedicated Funds. You can learn more about these programs at AZA Animal Programs.
The Bear TAG serves as an excellent example of a group that supports zoos in maintaining the highest level of welfare for bears in human care. This group includes almost 40 scientists and veterinarians from all over the world with expertise in nutrition, field work, genetics, training and enrichment, conservation breeding, and species survival. Through a careful process, they rate each species to determine how, and whether, zoos can help in the effort to support the species. Through this process, they determined that Sun Bears, who do not reproduce well in human care, will be phased out of the zoo population while continuing to support the species in other ways, including conservation, research, and education. This decision makes even more poignant our recent loss of Barney, our 33-year-old sun bear, knowing he was one of the last of the 37 sun bears currently housed in AZA zoos. This determination also exemplifies the mission of all AZA zoos to serve wildlife if they can by managing populations of species in human care.
Another important program sponsored by AZA is S.A.F.E. which stands for Saving Animals From Extinction. A part of your admission dollars are donated to this important partner in the fight to protect habitats and genetic diversity that avert extinction. SAFE animals at the Pueblo Zoo are African Lions, African Painted Dogs, African Penguins, Chinchillas, and Maned Wolves. Another SAFE species is North American Songbirds. You can participate in this SAFE program at your own home by “reducing bird collisions with glass, reducing free-roaming cat impacts on wildlife, and preserving, enhancing, and building native habitats”. Learn more about the North American Songbird SAFE Action Plan.
Half-Earth Day 2023 will be celebrated this year on October 12. This worldwide effort to preserve half of our land and ocean area for wildlife in order to save 85% of species depends on the contribution of zoos all over the world for their expertise in species preservation. If humans can achieve this goal – what E.O. Wilson, founder of Half-Earth Day called our generation’s “moonshot” – then maybe we can make the world safe for wildlife. Everyone who works at a zoo looks forward to the day when we will finally work ourselves out of a job and half of Earth is preserved for wildlife and there is no need to care for animals in captivity. Until that day, we will continue to put everything we have into our animals’ care and well-being and look forward to sharing our passion for wildlife with you at the Pueblo Zoo.