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Confinement or Conservation? The role zoos play in the conservation movement

The popularity of zoological institutions has been steadily declining in recent years, as public perception and approval of keeping animals in captivity decreases (Whitworth, 2012). This has lead to an evolution in the role of zoos, with many zoos moving away from strictly entertainment based businesses towards a more conservation focused, globally connected industry (Barongi et al., 2015). All members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) are now required to set conservation-relevant goals (Barongi et al., 2015). As anthropogenic threats to biodiversity in natural ecosystems, such as habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, and over-exploitation of natural resources, continue to expand (Miller et al., 2004), virtually all ecosystems are undergoing catastrophic declines in their natural species. This is emphasised in Living Planet Index’s latest report, indicating that vertebrates have declined by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). It is clear that it will not be possible to halt this decline without pursuing a range of conservation approaches. In this, collection-based institutions can play a significant role in the ex-situ conservation of many species worldwide (Bowkett, 2009).


For species whose habitat is severely threatened, ex-situ populations (outside of their natural habitat) can be maintained in zoos, acting as “arks” or reservoir populations (Rabb, 1994). Global captive breeding programs of such populations for reintroduction into their natural habitat have played a key role in the recovery of at least 17 species whose threat level has been reduced in North America, including the black-footed ferret (Howard et al., 2016) and Californian condor (Conde et al., 2011). Furthermore, the global network provided by the WAZA for the transfer of genetic material between zoological institutions assists in maintaining the genetic diversity of otherwise fragmented populations (Bowkett, 2009), retaining maximum heterozygosity and adaptive potential, avoiding inbreeding, and maintaining reproductive health of these populations (Howard et al., 2016) (Ivy, 2016).


Zoos provide unique opportunities for conservation-relevant research, benefitting not only captive populations but also the conservation management of natural populations and ecosystems. Zoos provide easy access to individuals and populations long-term, allowing researchers to attach significant life-history context to data and samples that would be unavailable from wild populations, due to inaccessible environments, cryptic behaviour of some species, and the possible impacts studies pose to animals in the wild (Barongi et al., 2015). Furthermore, the skills and knowledge acquired in terms of small populations management are critical for the protection of threatened populations in their natural ecosystems (Barongi et al., 2015).


Possibly the most important role zoos play in their contribution to conservation is the potential they play for the education and engagement of the public. Human lifestyle choices are driving the current declines seen in populations worldwide, and a revolution of humans’ behaviour is necessary to halt this decline (Barongi et al., 2015). While many people place an innate value on nature, others need to be convinced of the importance of conserving biodiversity. Due to urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities, a statistic that is likely to increase in coming years (Miller et al., 2004). Zoos provide an opportunity to engage urban populations with living organism in a way they would be unable to experience in their day-to-day lives (Rabb, 1994). In fact, more than 700million people visit WAZA affiliated zoos and aquariums yearly, giving zoos a unique opportunity to influence this large audience in pro-environmental and conservation behaviours, to bring about the attitude-shift needed to halt the worldwide decline of species seen today (Barongi et al., 2015). As such, many zoos have incorporated conservation messages in signs, presentations and campaigns situated around their facilities in order to engage visitors, and encourage their support of conservation goals (Barongi et al., 2015).


A wide range of conservation actions are required to halt the ongoing extreme rate of biodiversity decline seen throughout the world today. Here zoological institutions play an important role, providing reservoir populations and allowing for captive breeding programs, while also engaging the public in conservation projects and pro-environmental behaviours. Furthermore, they provide access to individuals for research purposes that may be otherwise unattainable from wild populations.





Barongi, R., Fisken, F.A., Parker, M. & Gusset, M. (eds) (2015). Committing to Conservation: the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Gland, Switzerland: WAZA.


Bowkett, A.E. (2009). Recent Captive-Breeding Proposals and the Return of the Ark Concept to Global Species Conservation. Conservation Biology, Vol 23., no. 3, pp. 773-776.


Conde, D.A., Colchero, F., Jones, O.R., & Scheuerlein, A. (2011). An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science, Vol. 331, no. 6023, pp. 1390-1391.


Howard, J.G., Lynch, C., Santymire, R.M., Marinari, P.E. & Wildt, D.E. (2016). Recovery of gene diversity using long-term cryopreserved spermatozoa and artificial insemination in the endangered black-footed ferret. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 102-111.


Ivy, J.A. (2016). Ameliorating the loss of genetic diversity in captive wildlife populations. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 112-113.


Miller, B., Conway, W., Reading, R.P., Wemmer, C., Wildt, D., Kleiman, D., Monfort, S., Rabinowitz, A., Armstrong, B. & Hutchins, M. (2004). Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museums. Conservation Biology, Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 86-93.


Whitworth, A.W. (2012). An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendance in UK Zoos. PLoS One, Vol. 7, no. 1, e29839.


Rabb, G.B. (1994). The Changing Roles of Zoological Parks in Conserving Biological Diversity. American Zoologist, Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 159-164.


WWF. (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.



The SeaWorld Controversy: Not so Black and White

Looking Into Zoos and Aquariums and the Controversies Behind Them

By Brenda Perez


When I was a little kid, I remember going to the aquarium and being mesmerized by all the different sea creatures. In the sixth grade, I told my friends that I wanted to be a marine biologist so that I would be able to work with sea animals. I distinctly remember my friend teasing me and telling me that I would be one of the people training and doing shows with the dolphins. At age 12, that sounded like a dream. However, ten years later I have achieved my dream of becoming a marine biologist, but have chosen not to pursue the path of being a dolphin trainer. As a child, or even as an adult coming from a non-scientific viewpoint, you don’t tend to think about all the negative aspects that come with not only theme parks with animals, but all zoos and aquariums. As I have gone through life and school, I have a greater understanding of marine biology and conservation which has lead me to consider both advantages and disadvantages of these situations. When thinking about controversies such as SeaWorld, one has to go further and look at the positive and negative aspects of aquariums and zoos in general.

When is it conservation and when is it cruelty: The good, the bad, and the compromise

Zoos and aquariums provide researchers with the ability to study the behavior of animals in their “natural” environment (Ballanthyne et al. 2007). They frequently house the last individuals of the most threatened species around the world (Clarke 2009) and act not as a replacement for saving animals, but as a last resort or “holding area” for endangered species due to the fact that their native habitats are uninhabitable (Conway 2011). Captive breeding is also used in an effort to stabilize the species to a point where they will be able to sustain themselves in the wild (Hutchins et al. 2003).

Additionally, zoos and aquariums help educate the public about several things that they would otherwise not normally be exposed to. By visiting these facilities, people can learn about how global warming affects animals and environments, biodiversity issues facing species (Kawata 2013), and specific issues facing animals in their region (Whitham and Wielebnowski 2013). People get to connect with animals on a

Pamphlet given out at Zoo Atlanta with information about endangered species and conservation efforts. (Zoo Atlanta)

Image 1: Pamphlet given out at Zoo Atlanta with information about endangered species and conservation efforts. (Zoo Atlanta)

personal level and are exposed to not only environmental education, but also conservation strategies (Image 1) and what they can do to help (Patrick et al. 2007). They get emotionally engaged and become more open to communication about conservation both locally and worldwide (Ballantyne et al. 2007). After their visits to aquariums and zoos, people recognized that they could be a part of the solution to environmental problems by taking action in conservation efforts. Visitors believe that zoos and aquariums play an important role in animal care and conservation education and left feeling a stronger connection to nature (Falk et al. 2007; Heimlich et al. 2005). Many people in the central regions of countries would not be exposed to marine issues if it weren’t for aquariums, and they, along with zoos, provide additional insight on issues facing animals and environments globally. However, these are aspects that people do not initially take into account when thinking about zoos and aquariums.


When you ask most children what they think of SeaWorld, their immediate response is excitement about all of the amazing animals they have there. However, when you ask many adults, their first instinct is skepticism and resentment towards the conditions of said animals.

SeaWorld is criticized heavily by the public for several reasons: forcing its animals to put on shows for audiences, keeping them in tanks that are far too small, capturing animals from the wild, and separating families. But the public has been largely swayed by the media, which tends to focus on the negatives, as well as the “documentary” Blackfish, a persuasive piece that looks at only one side of the situation and appeals to human emotions. Granted, Blackfish brings these up as valid points but they do so in a manipulated context (Pierce 2015). In SeaWorld, killer whale calves are kept with their mothers and whales haven’t been captured from the wild in over 35 years. All of the animals that reside in any of their parks are taken care of physically and well treated (Walsh et al. 1994). They are studied for animal research in ways that scientists are unable to achieve in the wild (Falcato 2016). SeaWorld has rescued over 27,000

Children are exposed to and learn about killer whales and the importance of conservation efforts.

Image 2: Children are exposed to and learn about killer whales and the importance of conservation efforts. (SeaWorld)

animals and many of them have been returned to the wild after rehabilitation (Parham 2001). Busch Gardens, a SeaWorld park, has several birds, reptiles, and mammals on display at each location. Busch Gardens Tampa Zoo alone has over 12,000 animals including 250 species, of which more than 30 are threatened or endangered. In a little over ten years, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has given more than $10 million to over 700 projects around the world (Pierce 2015). Additionally, SeaWorld offers camps for children which educate them about all aspects of sea life and gets them involved from an early age (Image 2). While we may not agree with all aspects of SeaWorld, we have to realize that there are a great number of benefits that happen behind the scenes.

Aquariums and Zoos

Zoos and aquariums get criticized for the stress that they may cause to their animals (Morgan and Tromborg 2007). Touch tanks can be found at several aquariums nowadays to provide the possibility of personal interaction for visitors. The argument could be made that by allowing countless individuals to touch these animals that it could cause them stress. However, most animals that are exposed to this experience are more resilient; brittle stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, and horseshoe crabs have tough, rigid exteriors that can tolerate being handled. In addition, these animals are cycled throughout the day in order to limit the amount of time they are exposed (Rowe and Kisiel 2012). In addition to the stress of being handled, zoos and aquariums are criticized for having their animals exposed to artificial lighting, loud or sudden noises, uncomfortable temperatures, modified feeding schedules, and a limited living area. What people fail to realize is that caretakers do not simply haphazardly assign animals to spaces and forget about them. Animal behaviors are studied and recorded in order to provide better care and maintenance for each animal and its habitat. Feeding schedules are developed specifically for animals with their health as a first priority (Morgan and Tromborg 2007). Yes, different locations have different sizes of tanks or enclosures with varying amounts of animals in each of them. What many people tend to focus on is overcrowding within one area or limited space for the larger animals (Heimlich et al. 2005). Sadly, in the United States, about 90% of aquariums and zoos have not been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), meaning that they do not comply with the standards set by the accreditation commissioners (Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2010). The AZA has specific guidelines for all animals and the conditions that they should be kept in. there are approximately 2,100 aquariums and zoos in the US that are not AZA accredited. In many cases, there are financial limitations preventing expansion programs. Occasionally, these conditions can lead to animal conflict, or even deaths (Hutchins 2006), and standards that many would not consider suitable. The New Zealand National Aquarium houses a solitary Hawksbill sea turtle in a tank only seven times as long and two times as wide as it. He has been there for 27 years having being born in captivity. Not having been accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the standards of living for this poor animal are not nearly where they should be (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2005). While one can argue that the educational and conservation benefits of all aquariums and zoos, we cannot ignore that in some instances non-accredited aquariums may have been detrimental.

Pearson Education

Image 3: A condor gets released after rehabilitation. (Pearson Education)

At the same time, aquariums and zoos have great rehabilitation programs for animals, including seals, sea turtles, dolphins, frogs, birds, wolves, monkeys and many more, that work behind the scenes and out of the public eye. These programs have helped nurse countless animals back to health and have successfully returned them back to their homes in the wild (Image 3; Rakes et al. 1999). Breeding programs exist to replenish populations and keep endangered animals from becoming extinct (Hutchins et al. 2003). If it weren’t for the conservation programs affiliated with aquariums and zoos, many of these animals would continue to decrease in the wild. By having programs that inform the public about these issues, there is an increased awareness of these issues and that has lead people to be more proactive in these fields. (Gross 2015).

World Association of Zoos and Aquariums

One of the most prominent members of WAZA is America’s AZA. Established in 1924, AZA’s goals include conserving wild animals, reintroducing endangered species, and restoring habitats. The accreditation commission has strict guidelines for the species they house: each animal’s enclosure or tank must meet living conditions and dimensions that vary with size and amount of individuals. The association has Animal Care Manuals for each species that get updated regularly

One of the many Animal Care Manuals followed by the AZA

Image 4: One of the many Animal Care Manuals followed by the AZA. (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)

and must be followed in order to maintain accreditation (Image 4). For example, a zoo or aquarium cannot keep animals in captivity if they aren’t considered a good candidate (Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2010). The AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction Program is focusing on the following ten endangered species with the goal of engaging the public to promote conservation: African penguins, Asian elephants, black rhinoceros, cheetahs, gorillas, sea turtles, sharks, vaquitas, Western pond turtles, and whooping cranes (Colbert 2016).

Currently, 233 zoos and aquariums have been accredited by AZA in the US. While a small victory, that is sadly only about 10% of all zoos and aquariums in the states. Nevertheless, these institutions hold 750,000 animals representing 6,000 species, of which 1,000 are endangered (Colbert 2016). These animals impact 180 million people annually. Each year, AZA provides $160 million to about 2,700 conservation projects in 115 countries over the world. Last year, they partnered with 575 nonprofit, government, and private organizations for these projects (Colbert 2016).

The AZA is one of 22 association members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Since 1946, WAZA has included several different associations all over the world that follow the same accreditation standards as those enforced by AZA. WAZA includes more than 330 zoos and aquariums over 50 countries. More than 700 million people visit their accredited facilities all over the world annually (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2005). Because of WAZA accredited zoos and aquariums, hundreds of thousands of animals are being properly cared for with appropriate living conditions; all over the world environmental education and conservation efforts are increasing. And that is amazing.


It would be misleading to characterize zoos and aquariums in either a fully positive or negative light. At an emotional level, many of us might want them to not exist and have all the animals be free to live their lives out in the wild. However, the sad truth is that many animals would not be able to survive in the wild without the chance they have had to grow as a population or the care that they are currently given in zoos and aquariums. While there can be no perfect harmony or solution, it appears that the best solution is to strive to have more facilities become accredited by WAZA.



Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (2010). The accreditation standards and related policies.

Ballantyne , R., Packer, J., Hughes, K., & Dierking, L. (2007) Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums, Environmental Education Research, 13(3), 367-383

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