Zoos and Aquariums: The Conservation Debate

By April 10, 2013Ocean News

Sea Turtle in Aquarium

The Giant Pandas have returned to the Toronto Zoo for a visit that will last up to five years. The return of these cute and furry creatures, and the energetic response of the public, reminded me of the importance of zoos and aquariums. Zoos present endless opportunities for species conservation, research, and to raise public awareness. Zoos, said bluntly, are also enclosures: small replicas of the “wild” for the species confined within the zoo walls. I am sure many conservationists, like me, both appreciate the power of zoos and yet wonder why we can’t just appreciate these species from afar.

As an aquatic ecologist I sometimes find myself enjoying the diversity and richness of marine species I can see – in a few hours – in a large zoo or aquarium. But, I also experience a twinge of guilt when I see large majestic marine life confined to (what I assume are) unnaturally small enclosures. Surely Beluga whales, leatherback sea turtles, and even whale sharks are just too big and too transoceanic to be kept in an aquarium? But, are they? My first experience with a whale shark was not, as I had always imagined it would be, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Instead I first observed whale sharks in the Georgia Aquarium.

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(Click the picture to see the Vancouver Aquariums Beluga Cam)

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, USA, maintains 4 whale sharks in an aquarium of 6.3 million gallons. These whale sharks were captured from the wild in Taiwan; the whales were bought from fisherman who captured them (note: there is now a zero catch quota for whale sharks in Taiwan). In the Ocean Voyager exhibit I witnessed 4 juvenile whale sharks swim in the world’s largest aquarium with a host of other sharks, rays, and fish. I was blown away by their size and marveled at their feeding habits. I watched them and pondered the co-existence of so many large, and in some cases, predatory species. The Georgia Aquarium also offers the opportunity to enter the exhibit and swim with the gentle giants. I stopped short of enjoying this adventure believing, one day, I would have the immense luck to do that in the wild.

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(Click the picture to see the Georgia Aquariums Whale Shark cam)

Did I enjoy seeing the whale sharks up close: absolutely! Did I also feel guilty that these large transoceanic animals swam in circles in a tank: again, absolutely. So, what good is coming from keeping whale sharks and other large marine animals in zoos and aquariums?

The Georgia Aquarium, like other zoos, provides an opportunity to raise public awareness and generate public support for the conservation of this species. Many zoos support or lead projects that are directly related to conservation of rare species, both in a zoo setting and in their native environment. Read up on the whale shark conservation projects the Georgia Aquarium supports or participates in here! The Toronto Zoo also participates in local and international outreach and education – read the full list here – such as the Crayfish Project and the Adopt a Pond program, to name a few.

When species become rare in the wild, zoos are often the last hope for those that are critically endangered. For example, rare and interesting species that were captured and sent to zoos all over the world provide a repository of genetic diversity from which we can rebuild wild populations.

Zoos and aquariums also provide arguably the best reproductive and captive breeding research in the world. The Toronto Zoo, for example, will be involved in attempts to promote breeding between the two recently arrived Giant Pandas.

In many instances, wild animals that have been injured are brought to the zoo or aquarium for rehabilitation before they are re-released back into the wild. The most famous rehabilitation-release event I can remember is, Free Willy. The Oregon Coast Aquarium assisted in the rehabilitation of the long-time captive Killer whale, Keiko, known to many as Free Willy. Many zoos around the world also offer rehabilitation programs to all kinds of animals such as dolphins and sea turtles.

In many countries zoos and aquariums are the first, or only, opportunity for youth to see and establish a connection with exotic environments and species. How many early childhood trips to the zoo or aquarium sparked a desire to pursue a career in science and conservation?

Zoos facilitate species conservation, species recovery programs, and public engagement and awareness. If we cannot experience the thrill of seeing an exotic species – how can we be expected to devote our time and resources for their conservation on a long-term basis? Some might say that in the a time of mobile technology, video, and social media we will be able to establish a connection with the people and animals of distant and exotic places in real-time, thereby negating the need for zoos and aquariums.

It is also true that all of the research, conservation, and outreach opportunities created by zoos and aquariums are based on a model of exploitation. Ticket sales provide the funds for the conservation and research. There is no other way to consider the zoo business. There are instances, especially in under-funded zoos, where captive animals die due to lack of proper care or inappropriate enclosures. Even in well funded aquariums animals will die; two male whale sharks brought to the Georgia Aquarium died in 2007.

Does this suggest that the benefits brought by zoos and aquariums are overshadowed the animal rights concerns of those animals trapped within the zoo walls? What do you think?

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