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Original article: Letter to the Editor: San Antonio Zoo Response

My name is Tim Morrow, and I’m the CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. You may be asking yourself why the San Antonio Zoo is submitting an article to The University Star. Well, the reasons are important and species survival is at stake. To allow misinformation to go unchecked is not only dangerous, but would be irresponsible to our planet and to the mission of the San Antonio Zoo and all other accredited zoos and aquariums.

Recently a student article titled “Zoo Animals Do Not Belong in Captivity” was published in this paper. The author stated, “when we take an organism and restrict its entire world to an unsuitably small space we essentially strip the creature of its right to a true chance at life.” This statement not only misrepresents modern zoos, but also, ironically, underscores the importance of zoos in today’s world in giving animals a true chance at life. While once zoos were a place to display a menagerie of animals for entertainment, times have changed and so, too, has the mission and focus of zoos like ours. Today’s zoos, in many cases, are the last best hope for many species’ survival and serve as important centers of education, conservation and research.

To imply that having animals in the care of man and increasing the educational opportunities of millions of visitors is “asinine” is not only short sighted, it is dangerous. On the educational front, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have more visitors annually than all the major U.S. sports leagues combined. The San Antonio Zoo hosts more than 1.2 million visitors annually including hundreds of thousands of children. When visitors come to zoos they do more than have fun, they learn. We teach them about the species in our care, we teach them about these species’ plight in the wild, and we offer ways for them to assist conservation efforts that we lead, fund or participate in as a 501(c)3 dedicated to our mission of saving species. Even if a guest leaves with no more knowledge than they walked in with, which is highly unlikely, by just visiting an accredited zoo they are helping to fund important conservation efforts and, therefore, making a positive difference.

In the internet age with so many online “sources”, it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. When doing research, it is important to ensure the “facts” are coming from credible, knowledgeable sources. The article in question uses sources which at best would be considered not credible. A quick glance at shows that this is a tabloid site with no zoological background or education. The article quotes an anti-zoo group (a group whose entire mission is to bring high impact lawsuits, not support animal care, conservation or education) that contends the substrate is hard and that there is little to no shelter for Lucky, one of our Asian elephants. A quick visit to the San Antonio Zoo, however, would show the article’s author otherwise as the yard consists of sand, soil and grass, and that beyond the trees and 30-foot cliff walls there are multiple shade structures within the habitat.

It’s important to recognize that man has effectively taken a majority of the planet for our own needs. The “wild” as people imagine it is a very romantic notion, but sadly most of it is gone. What we are left with are small fragments of natural spaces. Spaces that are being encroached on every minute as the human population and consumption grows while animal populations dwindle. We are in the midst of the 6th extinction on our planet. But here’s the alarming fact: the extinction we are currently seeing is 1,000 times the natural background rate with literally dozens of species going extinct every day, and this one is being caused by humans. Where there are wild animals there is human/wildlife conflict, there is deforestation, and there is poaching. On this planet, there are only 3 northern white rhinos left. Ninety-six African elephants are slaughtered each and every day – 30% of the entire population has been wiped out in last 7 years. There are less than 40,000 Asian elephants left, less than 5,000 reticulated giraffes left, the western lowland gorilla is critically endangered, and the list goes on and on…and on.

In your lifetime many of these species could be gone from our planet, and the only place your children might see an elephant could be at a museum. Scientists estimate up to 200 mammal species become extinct every day, and that since 1970 we have lost over half of the animals that were once here.

Given the current extinction rates and man’s propensity to take habitat, to poach for financial gain (a rhino horn can bring over $100,000 on the open market) and the overall effect we are causing on the climate, zoos like ours are more important now than ever. Managing species in captivity, breeding them for sustainability or re-release whenever possible is critical, and we must do this for as many species as possible.

Recently, the San Antonio Zoo and our conservation partners (Calgary Zoo, International Crane Foundation, Audubon Nature Institute) received national recognition for saving the Whooping Crane from extinction. Without having this bird in captivity, studying its behaviors and successfully breeding it, this bird would be gone. In the next few weeks we will ship thousands of Puerto Rican Crested Toad tadpoles born at our zoo back to Puerto Rico to try and save this species from extinction, and we have a Conservation and Research Department working to breed endangered aquifer species for re-introduction in case of extinction of those species. The San Antonio Zoo leads conservation projects in China, Japan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, the United States and we are funding or participate in conservation efforts on almost every continent. All of this is made possible by a visit to the San Antonio Zoo. Now, multiply that by all of the accredited zoos in the country and around the world, and we comprise one of the planet’s largest conservation efforts.

In her last message, the author of the article in question speaks to being honest about the way we choose to treat our fellow earth dwellers. Zoos provide these animals with a life free from poaching and habitat destruction, and ensures they receive world-class, round-the-clock veterinary care, enrichment and the chance to be ambassadors for their species through education, awareness and scientific study. Look at the pictures of life in the “wild” for the animals of our planet and decide for yourself if zoos are important and need to continue efforts to save these creatures from extinction.

Zoos are evolving and are no longer what they were just 10 to 20 years ago. Dig a little deeper on your next visit to the zoo, read the signage, talk to the keepers and volunteers, and most importantly find out how YOU can get involved to help save species. We cannot be the generation that lets these magnificent creatures disappear from our planet. How would we explain that to our children?

I leave you with this quote by renowned environmentalist Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”