Role of zoos is conservation, zoo veterinarians say

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The perspective of many zoo veterinarians is that zoos are still relevant within society today, with a role that has pivoted from entertainment to conservation.

While doing fieldwork in Gabon, Dr. Sharon L. Deem took part in a doomed effort to save Kotto, a month-old orphaned elephant. His mother likely was killed for her ivory and meat or in retaliation for crop raiding. Dr. Deem co-wrote "Kotto’s Story" for Wildlife Conservation magazine as a call to protect elephants in the wild. (Courtesy of Dr. Sharon L. Deem)

Among those who share this perspective are Drs. Scott Larsen, president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians; Mike Adkesson, AAZV president-elect; and Sharon L. Deem, president of the American College of Zoological Medicine.

Some people believe wild animals don’t belong in zoos. Dr. Larsen, vice president for veterinary medicine at the Denver Zoo, said, "There’s a lot of public sentiment that for zoos to continue to exist, they need to be involved with conservation. They need to be very focused on animal welfare and enrichment, providing quality lives for these animals as individuals and as ambassadors for their species in the wild, and enlightening people about conservation issues."

Most zoo professionals feel strongly about the message they’re sending and the welfare of the animals, Dr. Larsen said. "It’s not just ‘Are we patching up lacerations or treating illness?’ but ‘Are we really providing the best environment for the animals in our care and then trying to manage them so we’re inspiring caring and conservation with the greater community?’"

He said zoos do a lot of work in the wild conserving habitats and studying health threats and other conservation threats. Zoos also have breeding programs that occasionally result in animals being released to the wild.

Dr. Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield, said breeding programs have brought some animals back from the brink of extinction. The California condor famously went extinct in the wild in 1987 and was down to 27 birds in captivity, but zoo breeding programs have resulted in a wild population of hundreds of birds today.

Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, examines a Humboldt penguin at Brookfield Zoo. He participates in a conservation program in Peru for Humboldt penguins, fur seals, and sea lions. (Courtesy of the Chicago Zoological Society)

"I think there’s been a big realization across conservation that we can save these animals—we have the science, we have the abilities to breed them—but if we don’t have a place in the wild to put them back into, it’s all for naught," he said. "So a lot of the conservation focus has really shifted toward not just protecting the species but protecting the ecosystem and habitat around it."

Certain animals can serve as flagship species for habitat conservation, Dr. Adkesson continued. He participates in a conservation program in Peru for Humboldt penguins, fur seals, and sea lions. He said conservation of the penguins and pinnipeds helps support the entire ecosystem.

He observed that there has been a strong push by animal rights organizations against zoos. He said, "Our animals are incredibly well cared for. We focus not only on their physical health but their overall well-being." Brookfield Zoo has programs to assess welfare, he said, and the care staff is committed to conservation.

Dr. Deem, director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, said the more than 200 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums provide great animal welfare while doing conservation science to ensure the survival of species. She agrees with concerns about roadside zoos, however.

At AZA-accredited zoos, she said, medicine has improved over time alongside nutrition, husbandry, and enrichment. She said, "Collection animals at AZA zoos have a high state of welfare."

Dr. Deem recently attended a high school reunion, and her former classmates asked her questions about zoos. She said the role of zoos in connecting people to caring about nature is often overlooked, with detractors saying zoos are just entertainment centers.

"I don’t mind if my kid goes to a sea lion show at a zoo and falls in love with sea lions," she said. "These animals are happy. They have this amazing enrichment, and you can see how they love what they do in the shows. While folks watch the sea lions do amazing things, we talk about plastics in the ocean and about how each of us can be a conservationist. So if you’re entertaining someone and getting these conservation messages across, I say go for it. I think it’s a wonderful thing.

"I think the one thing zoos haven’t done well but that we are getting better at is really showing the public all the behind-the-scenes conservation work that we do." She believes zoos increasingly are becoming the largest conservation force there is.

Related JAVMA content:

Zoo veterinarians, behind the scenes and in the field (July 15, 2017)

Is it ethical to keep animals in zoos? (Dec. 1, 2002)