I visit zoological parks with some trepidation. I think there are some species of animal that are ill suited to captivity, and proper maintenance of any zoo is a monumental task. However, I have been luckily enough to have close working relationships with all manner of zoo staff, from keepers to educators to directors. Zoo people are good people and they take ethical quandaries very seriously. It’s no surprise that, over the past 10 years, zoos have been undergoing makeovers and pushing conservation narratives as part of their educational programming. Today my husband and I took a behind the scenes tour of the giraffe and rhino facilities at the ABQ Biopark, our new hometown zoo. We moved to Albuquerque in January and the Biopark was one of our first stops. I especially love the Bugarium.
Behind the scenes tours always have a chance of being a bit depressing. While many zoos have beautiful, natural feeling exhibit spaces, holding areas are often dark, damp, and depressing. They are built for safety and for the ease of keeping animals, not for guests. I put my worries aside and purchased a ticket anyway. Perhaps patting a rhino would be worth it?
We were greeted by friendly staff in the administration office and given large VIP buttons. When we got to the meeting area it had been clear our group was waiting for us (sorry fellow zoo patrons and keeper). The keeper gave us a quick introduction and some ground rules and we set forth back to the rhino holding area. On the wall were neatly arranged brushes for cleaning the rhinos and giving them scratches. The rhinos, Chopper and Bertha were waiting. Our keeper let us know that zoo staff were trying to condition Chopper to present his flank rather than greet people head on through the bars. So, we were encouraged to give good quality scratches when he presented his flank. Right away I noticed that the holding area was well maintained, new, and had more than enough space for the rhinos. Secondly, the Biopark has special rules that allow certain animals access to both their outside exhibits and the inside holding area unless the weather is too cold or otherwise horrible. It was good to know that the holding area was really just a holding area, rather than the main home of Bertha and Chopper. To my delight, both Bertha and Chopper appeared to like having the area behind their ears rubbed.
Our keeper identified them as Southern white rhinos. Their Northern cousins are extinct in the wild. Southern white rhinos almost met a similar fate. A century of conservation has brought their global population from < 100 to over 20,000 individuals. With advances in reproductive technology, scientists are able to maintain “frozen zoos” where they keep viable sperm, eggs, and embryos of species in need. In 2015, the San Diego brought 6 female Southern white rhinos to their zoo to serve as surrogate mothers for Northern white rhino embryos. The potential moms have undergone exams this year to prepare them for surrogacy. Bertha and Chopper help wild rhinos in other ways. The Biopark works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as part of the rhino Species Survival Plan. This means that they work with other AZA accredited institutions to ensure that captive rhinos are properly cared for and that they are genetically diverse. So when you support places like the Biopark, you are helping to maintain a sort of genetic insurance plan for wild animals. Genetically speaking, Noah’s ark doesn’t work very well in practice. Zoos cannot maintain tiny populations of a species and hope to build up a genetically healthy population. Even many zoos with many individuals are at a collective loss if the individuals in questions are too closely related. Species Survival Plans help stop that from happening. And so I was happy to support Chopper and Bertha with my ticket and ear scratches. On a side note, rhinos very much maintain the same body posture of Eeyore, the meloncholy burro from Winnie the Pooh. It’s very hard to get a photo of a rhino where it doesn’t look sullen, no mater how much it is enjoying a scratch.
After wrapping up with the rhinos, we were off to meet the giraffes. The giraffes at the Biopark are also part of their own Species Survival Plan. You might ask yourself why giraffes need a Species Survival Plan. The giraffe keeper at the Biopark had a very good explanation for this. Giraffes have undergone significant population decline. Some conservationists refer to the decline as a “silent extinction” because no one talks about it. To make matters more complicated, scientists are just barely unwinding the secrets of giraffe DNA, revealing several different kinds of giraffes. When giraffes were originally brought into zoos, these different kinds were interbred, making most captive giraffes some kind of mix.
The giraffes we met were reticulated giraffes, with maybe a pinch of something else here and there. The Biopark has a few female giraffes, one young male, and one older male, affectionately known as “Buck” which is short for Buccaneer. Giraffes are highly specialized to browse leaves that grow tall in trees. So, we had the opportunity to feed them leaves still stuck on twigs.
These extra feedings, along with special food hampers that force the giraffes to use their tongues, help them relax and avoid stereotyped licking behaviors. Apparently, and I did not know this, giraffes are very sensitive. If they are stressed or not cared for properly, they can die from nutritional complications. It is very important they ruminate for long enough to properly digest their food. Additionally, keepers try to make sure older giraffes, especially females, are not separated from their established social groups for long periods of time or moved to new zoos. Moving causes loads of stress and is not a first resort when caring for giraffes, so giraffe keepers prefer to avoid it.
Visiting the rhinos and giraffes got me thinking about the role modern zoos play in society. After the documentary, Blackfish, the ethics of keeping certain animals captive for human entertainment has skyrocketed to the forefront of the American public’s minds. As we visited the rest of the Biopark we saw lots of other animals, some of which would arguably be much happier in large open, free, spaces. However, those spaces are disappearing and their wild counterparts suffer at the hands of people. If modern zoos are committed to Species Survival Plans and taking proper care of their animals, maybe it’s worth it to keep healthy populations in zoos? It could be, now that we are living through the 6th extinction, that we have a moral imperative to keep genetically viable populations of wild animals in captivity. Zoological parks and aquariums, especially those with AZA accreditation, do work towards the welfare of their charges. Increasingly, education programs are being measured against their effectiveness at changing human behaviors and knowledge retention. Did you spend more time at an exhibit because of an educational program? Did you remember more? Did going to the zoo inspire you to purchase shade grown coffee? Did you decide to donate to a conservation effort? Maybe you joined a citizen science project with your local zoo?
In my case, I paid a little extra to go on a behind the scenes tour with two species that need our care and our help. Maybe you would like to go too?
P.S. I donate to conservation organizations that work in the field and contribute to citizen science projects. I also allow non-profits to use my photography for free. Helping the local zoo is great, but one has to get off their arse and get dirty in the field once in awhile.