Zoos and Aquariums Saving Species and Habitats

Zoos and Aquariums love to have visitors, but their number one goal should always be education and conservation. For a message to be effective an audience is needed, but convincing visitors to support the long term stability, and health of animals should always be at the forefront. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have more than 230 institutions that contribute to over 500 Species Survival Plans (SSPs).[1] The main function of every SSP is to help reproduction of each individual species. Each SSP coordinator, and their team, collect data and take appropriate action on each animal in the program. Each SSP has the support of other advisory groups that recommend proper nutrition, exhibit size, and other relevant information covered in a care manual for each species.

Breeding recommendations are made and animals are ranked based on their genetics. The ultimate goal is to breed the most valuable males and females to create the most genetically diverse and healthy offspring. The few examples of successful SSPs are red wolves, California condor, and black-footed ferrets. There are currently 31 species classified as Extinct in the Wild that are being bred in zoos and aquariums.[2] Jennifer Bove emphasizes the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s study stating that “conservation breeding and reintroduction have helped prevent the extinction of six out of 16 critically endangered bird species and nine out of 13 mammal species, including species previously classified as Extinct in the Wild.” Considering that these animals had zero left in the wild, these results are remarkable. Boye credits the work of zoos and aquariums for the success. Without zoos and aquariums willing to provide the space, and proper research, these animals would be extinct.

One of the success stories, red wolves, are housed at Miller Park Zoo. Being an employee of the Zoo, I have witnessed firsthand the amount of detail and planning that each species entails. The wolves once roamed Southeast North America, and in 1980 there were fewer than 20 wolves left in the wild. The wolves were rounded up and placed in institutions for breeding and study. Starting in 1987, red wolves were reintroduced to North Carolina. Today, there are over 50 red wolves in the wild, and over 200 in breeding facilities.[3] In a 2012 reintroduction, two of Miller Park Zoo’s wolves were introduced into the wild. Humans are still the number one threat to the red wolf, and many farmers kill the wolf to keep it from harming cattle or other livestock. While killing of the red wolf is illegal, it looks similar enough to a coyote, which is not currently protected, that they are not prosecuted due to mistaken identity. Zoos are not allowed to train the wolves while in their care. This is an important part of the wolves SSP, so that they can be reintroduced without jeopardizing their natural instincts. The red wolf program is being re-evaluated by the government, with the help of zoo experts, in hopes to making it more successful. Ultimately, we have to find a safe space for the wolves to roam without harming the farmer’s livestock.

Another animal with a great conservation story that is housed at Miller Park Zoo, is the Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo. The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program manages over 194,000 acres of locally owned forest in Papau New Guinea. The area was being devastated by deforestation, and threatening the survival of the tree kangaroo. The Woodland Park Zoo Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, Seattle, Washington, partnered with the Papau New Guinea Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program to create a long term solution. Together, they needed to provide relief to the animals of the area, while giving the locals a way to create income without destroying the animal’s habitat. This is the first time a conservation program has partnered indigenous communities for a shared conservation and sustainable livelihoods agenda.[4] The locals use the land to produce coffee. The coffee is all shade-grown, making it renewable and less damaging to the environment. To date, over $75,000 US dollars have been generated by the local farmers through the sale of the coffee. The program has given local farmers extra income, and made them less reliant on hunting, and using non-renewable resources to create income. The program has created buy-in with the locals, and is a blueprint for future collaboration projects. Not only has the tree kangaroo species been helped, but countless other species in the area have been positively affected.

Sometimes animals are saved by programs that go after the cause of habitat destruction. This is the case with Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Palm Oil Awareness Mission. Palm Oil is used in numerous products, and the habitat destruction has adversely effected orangutans. They have become a world leader in getting the message out about the palm oil crisis, and the long term devastation it will cause. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created an app that can be used to determine if the product you are purchasing contains palm oil. AZA members have also started an initiative to not sale products that contain palm oil in their gift shops, or concession stands. The amount of time and resources that the Zoo has spent on the program shows you the passion, and drive that these organizations have to make the world a better place. Their list of candy that is palm oil safe, has been shared on social media, in one form or another, over 100 million times.[5]


The Director of Miller Park Zoo, Jay Tetzloff, is the head of the snow leopard SSP. This has led me to being able to view a program first hand. There are countless hours spent by each SSP director, and none of them are paid. This is done out of the goodness of their hearts, showing their true passion for conservation, and their love for the animals who are in their care. The yearly breeding recommendations start with a ranking of each snow leopard who is in the care of a zoo or aquarium. With the help of the SSP veterinarian, Tetzloff creates a numbered list of the males and the females, and the institution where they are currently housed. There is a line created, where anyone above the line is considered genetically diverse and brings new or unique DNA to the program. Any animal imported, or brought in from the wild, is automatically placed at the top of the list. The thought is that none of their DNA is currently in the zoo breeding program and will help bring diversity to the group. This is where the real work starts. Ideally, you would like the number 1 male and female to be together. Although, sometimes this is not logistically possible so exceptions are made. Zoos are notified if there snow leopards are to be shipped in or out. For example, if the number 3 male and female snow leopards have been together for numerous years without any successful breeding, they are most likely going to be separated. Animals must be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, and are always given a physical before shipment. If an animal is found to have a medical reason that they cannot reproduce they are removed from the program. They are sent to a holding institution, otherwise known as non-breeding facility. This could be a same sex group, or a group of animals who are too young or too old to breed. The snow leopards who are still in the SSP breeding program, will now be paired with another genetically similarly ranked snow leopard, and moved from institution to institution accordingly.

The detail that goes into the genetic rankings was really fascinating to me.  Miller Park Zoo was the only institution to have successful litters of snow leopards two years in a row. Because of that success, and our female having a sister who is in the breeding program, she actually drops in rankings. All 5 of her cubs were females, meaning there is a lot of her DNA now in the program. I think to the average person this may seem extreme, but if you want to create a sustainable future, the animal’s health has to be top priority. You want genetic diversity so that no health issues can be passed down from generation to generation. In-breeding is a real concern, and you want to keep all genetics as separated as possible.

These are just a few examples of the species that would not be viewable for future generations without zoos and aquariums. There are countless other programs that have saved species from extinction, and in some cases, kept an animal from becoming endangered. While the Humane Society is a great organization, they do not have programs that help save species. They are worried about the here and now. To save animals, and habitats, we need zoos and aquariums. There is no other organization who cares as much about long term health for animals and our planet.

[1] “Species Survival Plan Programs.” 2017. https://www.aza.org/species-survival-plan-programs


[2] Bove, Jennifer. (2017, April 15). The Role of Zoos in Endangered Species Conservation. https://www.thoughtco.com/zoos-and-endangered-species-conservation-1182068

[3] “Red Wolf Recovery.” (2017, May 25). https://www.fws.gov/redwolf/

[4] Equator Initiative. 2016. “Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program.” https://zoo.org/file/conservation-documents/Equator-Initiative-Case-Study-TKCP2016.pdf

[5] Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. 2017. Palm Oil Candy-Orangutan Friendly. http://www.cmzoo.org/index.php/conservation-matters/palm-oil-crisis/po-orangutan-friendly-halloween-guide-2017/


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