Just like the animals they exhibit…zoos have been adapting to a changing environment ever since the first animal was captured and locked in a cage. As WFPL’s Kristin Espeland reports…zoos may now be facing one of the biggest changes in their history.
Zoos have been displaying exotic animals for hundreds of years to entertain their curious publics. But a few decades ago…zoos began to put conservation first, entertainment second. To exhibit animals in landscapes resembling their natural habitats…not ours. And they began to acknowledge that human activity threatened many of those habitats.
“20 years ago we saw a lot of zoos putting in tropical rain forest exhibits because the rain forests in South America and Africa and Asia were coming down at such a rapid pace.”
That’s the National Zoo’s Don Moore. He’s an animal behavior expert….and he advises the conservation organization Polar Bears International. Moore says now it’s global warming that’s driving many zoos to create new exhibits or update older ones.
“It trumps everything else. It trumps habitat destruction, it trumps carnivore persecution, because it affects every area of the globe. And the most affected areas of the earth happen to be the poles. And it’s the most dramatic effect.”
Dramatic because last year NASA scientists recorded the biggest loss of arctic sea ice on record. Less ice means less opportunity for polar bears to hunt and den. Their home is literally melting away. From the Toledo Zoo, Randi Meyerson coordinates the polar bear survival plan for the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She says at least a dozen zoos are revamping or building new arctic-themed exhibits.
“Up until probably about 5 years ago, actually a lot of zoos had gotten out of exhibiting polar bears. They’re very intelligent animals, they have a lot of requirements, so they actually require a lot of resources. But now that global warming has come to the forefront, there’s been a really large renewed interest in building new exhibits and housing and exhibiting polar bears.”
The Louisville Zoo is building a new, 25-million-dollar arctic exhibit called Glacier Run. Zoo director John Walczak says the exhibit will be able to house multiple polar bears….as well as other arctic species. He says the exhibit will help tell the story of global warming through signage and live…satellite hook-ups with scientists working in the arctic. But Walczak says he wants to be careful not to alienate visitors who may still be skeptical about global warming.
“Our goals are to present objective, scientific information, and welcome all crowds of all opinions and all backgrounds to receive that information. And as we present that, we certainly don’t want to offend people, we want to welcome people.”
Walczak says the hope is that peering into a seal’s big eyes or standing as close as glass will let a human get to a majestic polar bear will tug at the heart strings…and turn a passive visitor into an active conservationist. But zoos are poised to play an even more active role in polar bears’ and other species future. The National Zoo’s Don Moore.
“Zoos have expertise in animal husbandry and the management of small endangered populations. We have excellence in genetics management and demographic management of those populations. And we can recreate their naturalist habitats and environmental conditions.”
Moore says he prefers to focus on saving species’ habitat to keep them in the wild. But as polar bear habitat, for example, continues to dwindle…zoos have already established what they call an “assurance” population…with good genetic diversity and balance of males and females. Moore says reintroducing that population into the wild would not be so feasible…but keeping the bears from going extinct would. So zoos are playing this behind-the-scenes role in species conservation. But it’s on stage… in front of visitors…where many zookeepers hope to make the biggest impact. Again…Don Moore.
“You know, 140 million people are not going to get to the arctic…or the Antarctic. But they are going to get to their local zoo or aquarium in the united states alone. So we can educate and inspire all of those people by having these animals in exhibits.”