Response to Op-Eds in the Las Vegas Review Concerning the Role of Zoos and their Impact on Wildlife Conservation

Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photos by Doug Lindstrand)
Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photos by Doug Lindstrand)

On February 4th, 2017, Delcianna Winders, an Academic Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Program penned a response to American Humane Association’s President and CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert's, op-ed endorsing the work of zoos and their global impact on wildlife conservation.

In the original article, an op-ed entitled “COMMENTARY: Zoos and Aquariums have a Large Role in Improving the Lot of Animals”, Dr. Ganzert commended the conservation breeding programs of reputable zoos, including most notably AZA- accredited facilities. She mentioned reintroduction programs for the Arabian oryx, red wolf, black-footed ferret, Louisiana pine snake, and the California condor, as just a few beneficiaries of zoo based propagation breeding programs and comeback stories.

I’ve paid a tribute to zoos on numerous occasions in celebration of these monumental comeback stories for species once imperiled. The Nat Geo’s digital editorial news posts, include the black-footed ferret, black-footed ferret, as does the Arabian oryx.

As curator of animals, and later as Director of Conservation Programs at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, I was privileged to work with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and federal biologists as part of a two decade-long recovery program for wood bison.

There is literally and perhaps figuratively no bigger wildlife icon in North America than the bison. And again, if it wasn’t for zoos, and specifically the Wildlife Conservation Society’s flagship zoological facility— the Bronx Zoo—plains bison would probably not be roaming the Lower 48 today.

These megaherbivores were nearly extirpated from the United States and essentially rendered functionally extinct. In essence, they wouldn’t be able to sustain their own numbers as a genetically healthy population of ‘wild cattle’, assuming their habitat requirements were met, which in North America, is obviously still possible.

At the best, they might only exist in intensively managed ‘conservation herds’ to thwart potential inbreeding depression, a consequence of low numbers. And the fate of the European bison (aka wisent) is similar Read here.

In the next to worst case scenario---which is functional extinction, they might only be managed in very small herds in human care through the provisions of zoos. But when available and appropriate habitat exists, zoos are poised to do more than just maintain animal ambassadors, they are equipped to recover wild populations with healthy genetics carefully curated through complex and coordinated breeding programs.

Zoos, which distinguish themselves from conventional sanctuaries and rescue centers, through their commitment to conservation, in addition to animal welfare, have the capacity to coordinate breeding efforts through highly regulated and often complex stud book management programs. I’ve worked with and for sanctuaries both in the US and internationally and and I commend the work of these organizations, but sanctuaries often lack the resources to hire veterinarians much less a full staff of reproductive physiologists, geneticists, nutritionists, etc.

The public many be aware that the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in North America and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums dedicate staff to coordinate complex joint breeding programs. For all intents and purposes, these initiatives were launched back in 1907 by the New York Zoological Association (later named the Wildlife Conservation Society). With guidance from the Bison Specialist Group of the the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission plains bison and wood bison are being restored to available habitat.

The historic recovery efforts for the two subspecies of American bison, the largest terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere have been made possible in part by funding from WCS. Thanks largely to the Bronx Zoo, which serves as the flagship campus, for the WCS American bison are roaming in wild places.

According to Dr. Ganzert it is through successful reintroduction efforts that “ Modern zoos and aquariums are leading global efforts to protect the lives of wild animals at a time when they’re more vulnerable than ever before.”

In her retort entitled “LETTER: Recent Commentary in Favor of Zoos was Grossly Misleading”, Ms. Winders claimed that Dr. Ganzert intentionally mislead the readership by overstating the impact of zoos on restoration efforts for endangered wildlife species.

In another article, published in Utah’s Deseret News, I contend that Ms. Winders seems to be shortsighted and “grossly” misinformed and shares some ‘misplaced compassion’.

Zoos are critical of themselves, but in a constructive way that enhances the quality of life for the animals in their care. They aren’t perfect, but they contribute to scientific knowledge that advances animal welfare, whereas activists (including ethicists), may actually impede progress to the detriment of animal welfare.

Saint Louis Zoo
Saint Louis Zoo

Although successful programs under the auspices of zoological parks dedicated to the reintroduction of endangered species have certainly been fewer than hoped, through their participation in sorta situ (combine captive and free-ranging) conservation initiatives, zoos have contributed significantly to wildlife conservation.

Ms. Winders failed to acknowledge the significance of the species that have been restored to nature and in many cases, are represented by healthy or thriving populations in the wild today. A multitude of species in zoos, including some that have been successfully introduced to the wild are both flagship umbrella species and/or keystone species and their restoration has a profound influence on ecosystems and other less conspicuous species in peril. Not all species are created equal and a vast number of species managed in captivity are disproportionately deemed important.

Not only are zoos considered living natural history laboratories, but they are critical players in the field of conservation, returning important species to the landscape and curbing a possible Sixth Extinction. In terms of their role as educational institutions, they serve as venues, which encourage an interest in both the extrinsic and intrinsic value of wildlife species.

Polar bear at the Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Society)
Polar bear at the Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Society)

A flagship species as defined by the World Wildlife Fund is “a species selected to act as an ambassador, icon or symbol for a defined habitat, issue, campaign or environmental cause. “ Hence, these ambassadors in human care not only ignite a spark of interest for zoo patrons in regard to wildlife conservation, but through educational opportunities, they help stimulate an interest in the the preservation of entire ecosystems.

A science jorurnalist reporting on studies examining the intrinsic value of wildlife said, “Researchers have barely scratched the surface to understand how notions of intrinsic value should affect public attitudes toward conservation, the authors add. Rather than being a “flimsy notion” that distracts from the development of sound conservation measures, they conclude, the intrinsic value of nature provides a robust and necessary basis for developing a conservation-based relationship with nature.” Here is the article.

Besides her assertion that an apparent paucity of zoo sponsored reintroduction efforts exists, Ms. Winders asserts that the funding required to care for certain species in captivity would be better spent on habitat preservation. She said, “If zoos and aquariums want to “have a large role in improving the lot of animals,” they’d be wise to shift their focus away from spending millions to breed and confine animals that will never step foot in the wild and to instead direct more resources toward in situ conservation and providing homes for the many dangerous wild animals in need discarded by the exotic “pet” industry.”

Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo

However, a species commonly used to illustratrate this point such as the giant panda, happens to also be flagship umbrella species. Although, recently downlisted from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable“, this most symbolic and emblematic animal draws significant attention to the plight of a single iconic species. In addition, through “conservation marketing” the giant panda generates a substantial amount of public support for the protection of China’s mountainous bamboo forests, which are inhabited by other vanishing, but more inconspicuous species.

Some flagship umbrella species displayed in zoos may also be a keystone species, which are critical to the function of ecosystems and ecological processes. If conserved with the help of zoo managed reserve populations, these species upon reintroduction can prevent an ecological cascade effect, which can lead to secondary extinctions. American bison may serve as just one example of a flagship umbrella species that is also a keystone species. Note that this effort to restore plains bison is similar to the wood bison restoration effort largely administered by staff at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). The international wood bison recovery effort is discussed below, and Rewilding Europe’s European wisent reintroduction effort, which was launched after the wood bison program was underway is discussed in this piece I posted in National Geographic’s online publication.

In a June 2016 contribution to Time Magazine, Dr. Ganzert discussed in more detail the benefits zoos confer to the long-term survival of imperiled species. In the article, she cited examples of species that zoos have brought back from the brink of extinction, including the Arabian oryx, which has been removed from the “Endangered” category in the IUCN Red List.

For a featured article on the Pheonix Zoo’s Operation Oryx for National Geographic’s editorial news publication, I wrote that ”Jordan has been trying to restore functionally extinct species to the Middle East for over forty years. The iconic species of the region, the Arabian or white oryx represents a come-back story for a beautiful antelope species that was extirpated as a result of over-hunting.” The Phoenix Zoo, in collaboration with Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, truly saved an iconic species from vanishing.

Smithsonian National Zoo
Smithsonian National Zoo

Although zoos aim to advance restoration efforts for species in their assurance populations, their primary priority is the welfare of the animal ambassadors in their care. To support welfare initiatives, the American Humane Association, under the direction of Dr. Ganzert, introduced a certification program which augments existing accreditation criteria to help zoos optimize the welfare of animals in human care. Specifically their conservation program “Certifies institutions that meet its rigorous, evidence-based standards of comprehensive animal welfare, which are developed by an independent Scientific Advisory Committee of world-renowned leaders in the fields of animal science, animal behavior, animal ethics, and conservation.”

In addition, through their role in the intensive management of animals in captivity, zoo personnel have cultivated a level of expertise, which permits their increasing involvement in the management, healthcare and welfare of free-ranging populations, including conservation-sensitive species subjected to anthropogenic or human-induced stressors. A decade ago, Saint Louis Zoo’s epidemiologist Dr. Sharon Deem, addressed the role of zoo veterinarians in the emerging discipline of conservation medicine in a review article for the peer reviewed publication International Zoo Yearbook. More recently, I shared in a Huffington Post article, how the Dr. Deem and the Saint Louis Zoo has advanced One Health initiatives by demonstrating that visiting zoological parks confers benefits to human health.

Although Ms. Winders is correct that many species bred in zoo-based conservation breeding programs may not be destined for repatriation and rewilding efforts in the immediate future, they serve collectively as both important ambassador and assurance populations.

Ms Winders, further argues that zoos have limited potential to educate the public. She said, “Nor is there much support for the assertion that zoos help protect wild animals as centers of public education. Study after study, including numerous studies by the zoo industry, have failed to document any conservation value derived from captive animal displays. Increasingly, studies are even showing that such displays can undermine conservation efforts.”

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0034505
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0034505
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916503254746
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916503254746

I strongly disagree with Ms. Winder’s sentiment. Albeit anecdotal, I’ve discovered during my career that many people with the resources to travel on vacation to destinations considered popular for a marginal demographic of dedicated ecotourists, rarely do so. Furthermore, although the suggestion that viewing wildlife and learning about natural history via television documentaries may seem practical, advances in competing technology dictate that fewer and fewer people are likely to dedicate hours to watching these programs. But don’t listen to me! Just a cursory review of recent literature suggests zoos do educate.

And in consideration of competing technology, largely including smart phones, I suspect most people in the developing world do not dedicate much time to watching documentary footage on mobile phones. As I suggest in this Huffington Post article. Hence, zoological parks are still likely the most poised recreational venue to serve in an educational capacities for the populous. The study below indicates that technology at the zoo actually facilitates learning.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10645578.2012.660839
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10645578.2012.660839

In the article, I said, “Today’s zoological parks inundate visitors daily with rich and dynamic nature content in conjunction with immersive live animal displays. Most accredited zoos offer informal nature education, which serves to supplement the conventional school science curricula taught to younger patrons.”

When I was animal curator at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, I penned several articles on the wood bison restoration program as mentioned above. This like most reintroduction programs, was a collaborative effort among federal and state agencies and namely the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here is the inaugural article, which discusses in detail much of the process involved in the propagation of a reintroduction population of bison. The signature project for the AWCC over a decade-long period was the restoration of the largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere back into the United States after they were extirpated from Alaska well over a century ago.

For that particular article, I asked my esteemed colleague and curator at San Diego Zoo Global Carmi Penny to comment.

“The extirpation of wood bison from Alaska removed the ecological functions performed by bison herds interacting with the Alaskan landscape....
In an eloquent narrative he further described the ecological impact of wood bison: “The extirpation of wood bison from Alaska removed the ecological functions performed by bison herds interacting with the Alaskan landscape....
The physical and mechanical impact of bison on landscape ecology is most significant. The tilling of the soil by the bison herds aided in fertilization of the earth, as the waste from these giants replenished vital ingredients for natural processes....
Essentially the bison provided a tree sapling removal service that helped keep grasslands as grasslands. As they wallowed in the substrate the depressions created microhabitats for a variety of plant and animal species. And of course their grazing helped maintain healthy grassland diversity....
In their absence, a functional grassland ecosystem balance reached over millennia of evolution and adaptation had been disrupted.”

So although efforts are underway to reintroduce more species back into the wild where diminishing available habitat exists zoo animals provide and invaluable natural resource and are dignified and treat with utmost respect in human care as wonderful ambassadors for their species.

Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul pictured here with two orphaned grizzly bears
Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul pictured here with two orphaned grizzly bears

(Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul pictured here with two subadult orphaned Kodiak brown bears/grizzly bears that he raised and began training to voluntarily participate in a visual acuity and color discrimination. The study was based on work from a colleague at Zoo Atlanta who conducted a similar study on giant pandas)

Dr. Jordan Schaul welcomes you to contact him on his public Facebook page or email him.

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