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Why zoos should be considered social enterprises

Friday, 27 April 2018 09:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conservation breeding support in zoos has played a part in a quarter of all successful species conservation programmes worldwide.

What goes through your head when you hear the word ‘zoo’? Is it that they are modern day conservation powerhouses? If not, it should be.

With over 700 million visitors a year, zoos and aquariums are the third biggest contributor to field conservation worldwide. We are in a prime position to influence the relationships between people and nature.

Zoos are true social enterprises, contributing to our understanding of animals and their habitats, their care and threats, and are integral to the values of connecting people with animals - particularly in our increasingly urbanized world.

But zoos have their detractors, and I can understand these sentiments. It would be great if we had a healthy happy planet, where all beings live good lives in healthy untouched habitats with optimal biodiversity. This is not the reality.

There is no environment on earth left untouched by humans. We only need to look at footage of the plastic rubbish patches in oceans around the world to see the effect our everyday lives are having on the habitats of wild animals. Those detractors who state ‘let them be free to live in the wild’ misunderstand the situation in the wild habitats of these animals.

In most places, the ‘wild’ does not exist anymore. Some criticise zoos for being unable to replicate the ‘wild’ - that would also mean replicating the suffering, hunger, fear, injury and disease that awaits animals there. Nature does not consider animal welfare.

There are half as many wild animals now as there were only 30 years ago. At least a third of all remaining animal species are on a path to extinction. Conservation breeding support in zoos has played a part in a quarter of all successful species conservation programmes worldwide.

These programmes need to be supported by habitat restoration and ensuring protected areas for these animals. Without zoo breeding the California condor, Arabian oryx and Golden Lion tamarin, to name a few, would be extinct.

At Wellington Zoo we practice what we preach. We are the world’s first carboNZero certified Zoo, limiting our impact on the planet. We contribute to conservation field work around the world, and are involved in breeding and restoration programmes for New Zealand native species.

Our expert veterinary staff at The Nest Te Kōhanga, our award winning hospital, has a case load of over 70% wild native animal patients with 80% returned to their habitats, strengthening our local populations of endangered animals. 80% of our visitors plan to make a conscious effort to help conserve the environment as a result of their visit, with 85% understanding the threats faced by animals in the wild.

We want our visitors, and our communities, to love animals as much as we do, and to feel impelled to help save them and their wild habitats. Working together we can help to protect wild animals and wild places. Zoos are social enterprises that create value for communities by working for a better future. 

Good zoos inspire and collaborate to transform the world we live in for people, animals and the planet. They are often the only glimpse into the world of animals for many people – we need to make sure that glimpse becomes action for the environment because zoos and other conservation agencies can’t do this alone – the animals and their habitats need all humans to change up their behaviours.  

Next time you hear the word ‘zoo’ maybe think again about what it means and why they matter.

Karen Fifield is the Chief Executive of Wellington Zoo