The Role of Zoos and Aquaria in the 21st Century
LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT, ANDREW ROWAN, April 2019
In 1995, I was a coauthor with Bob Hoage (then a Public Affairs Officer for the National Zoo in Washington) on the changing animal protection movement and on the evolution and role of zoos and aquaria. Bob contributed the section on zoo evolution and he identified three periods in the development from 1865-1900 (zoos as expressions of colonial reach and power); 1900-1950 (zoos as expressions of civic pride and “stamp” collections of species) and 1950-1995 (zoos as conservation centers with a focus on captive breeding of endangered species and appropriate husbandry). We are now in the fourth phase of the evolution of zoos and aquaria that includes a strong emphasis on conservation education as well as a focus on animal well-being (really starting around 2005). Many more institutions are now also engaged in situ conservation projects (but such projects amount to only around 3% of overall budgets except for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a handful of others) and a few are now beginning to move beyond education programs and engage in active public advocacy and outreach. Detroit Zoo and Zoos Victoria in Melbourne, Australia are early adopters of this trend.
According to a survey sponsored by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria, over 700 million people visited zoos across the world in 2008 (this was around 10% of the global population at the time). The survey also estimated that the members of the twelve zoo associations participating together spent around $350 million annually on wildlife conservation. In other words, the 400 members of WAZA around the world have tremendous opportunities to engage the public in conservation outreach and advocacy.
Hundreds of millions of people love animals as the 700 million-plus visitors to zoos around the world indicate. Imagine what might be possible if the major zoos and aquaria teamed up in constructive, focused campaigns with environmental and animal protection NGOs to back specific projects. Recently, the problem of ocean plastic has become a huge concern. Perhaps we could all combine forces to stop the flow of plastic into the oceans in the next five years. Zoos and aquaria have already started down this road. At the October 2018 meeting of the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria in Thailand, a decision was made to move plastics to the forefront of public campaigns.