If you’re somebody who likes to visit the Reid Park Zoo, or other reputable zoos and aquariums, chances are you are a little bit more concerned about environmental matters than the average person. That’s great – but why is it happening? Psychologists point out that those positive memories you’re getting by watching the animals in a beautiful environment may be a result of a few things: the experience of seeing a baby elephant imitating her big sister, a pack of wild dogs joyfully running around and jostling one another, or even a rhino enjoying a mud bath can be quite enjoyable and vivid . These sights may even seem familiar and evoke emotions if you imitated your own big sister, jockeyed for position with siblings or friends, or just remember the pleasure of lolling in a cool spot on a hot day. You’re forming pleasant psychological connections with creatures you would probably never encounter in your lifetime, if not for the Zoo.
Familiarity, connection with your own experiences, and even emotion all combine to make a simple moment, like those at the Zoo, significant and memorable. Possibly you’re also sharing this experience with someone else, which only heightens memories. And this sort of wonderful experience is a large part of what the Reid Park Zoo, or any quality zoo or aquarium, hopes you’ll gain from visiting. But there’s something more! Because you have a chance to learn about and experience these animals in person, not just on a video, you’re much more likely to care about them – and you’re open to learning ways to protect them. That’s the mission of the Reid Park Zoo, “to create inspiring memories for all by connecting people and animals to ensure the protection of wild animals and wild places.”
Why Care About Conservation?
We expect organizations like the World Wildlife Federation to remind us that wildlife conservation is important, that all of us depend on biodiversity more than we realize, and that the fates of animals in the wild are inextricably linked to the fates of humans. But you might be surprised that government agencies like FEMA tell us the same things, and international organizations like the United Nations link human sustainability to the preservation of wild places and wildlife as well. All living things on earth are connected, and though we humans may consider ourselves the alpha species on the planet, in many ways we are dependent on something as simple as a blade of grass or a worm or insect underground that’s aerating the soil in which is grows.
Acceptance of the reality of climate change is growing, probably because even skeptics have to agree that temperatures are changing dramatically, as are severe weather events. The good news is that the conversations are happening among individuals, in the media, and in governments. The urgent challenge now is to educate and convince people that our actions may be key to mitigating this crisis. And preserving the wild and its inhabitants is certainly one component of such an effort. But in order for us to want to mitigate climate change or save endangered species, many people might need to first understand all the benefits that a more stable planet confers upon us, and has always done. That’s where government agencies, which are primarily concerned with human welfare, come in.
Not quite ready for a bumper sticker
Have you ever seen a bumper sticker declaring SAVE THE SEA GRASS? Well, probably not, and it’s not very catchy anyway, but let’s step back and consider sea turtles. We’ve all seen those wonderful video clips of the young racing toward the ocean directly after hatching, often with helpful humans nearby to ward off opportunistic predators. But the cuteness factor and attention seem to diminish once they make it to the water, and it’s hoped, to adulthood. Sea turtles spend their lives underwater munching on sea grass. And that sea grass depends on the constant trimming that the turtles and other sea creatures provide. In turn, the sea grass nourishes and provides breeding grounds for many aquatic creatures. So why should we be concerned about the decline in naturally occurring sea grass beds? Well, not only the sea turtles but many species of fish depend on that grass, and three billion people around the world depend on the protein that seafood provides. Also, if you’re concerned about economics, it’s worth knowing that 34 million people worldwide rely on fishing for a living today.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals
That’s one reason that the U.N. has established the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora) guidelines as part of their Sustainable Development Goals, which all benefit humans. These include Goal 14, Life Below Water (for example, sea grass!) Goal 15, Life on Land (e.g. rainforests), and Goal 1, No Poverty. Wait, what? No poverty? How does that relate to conservation?
SDG Goal 1 seeks “the economic advancement of all humankind”, and this inescapably requires the responsible stewardship of wildlife such as fish and reptiles, plants (because so many medicines and other products, like food, are plant based), and timber, which provides shelter and fuel. It also requires the help of wildlife to maintain forests through seed dispersal, pest control, and the alteration of landscapes and maintenance of wildlife corridors.
World Wildlife Day – Getting the Word Out
The United Nations General Assembly has been an advocate for conservation for many years, and established World Wildlife Day in 2013 as a way to bring attention to the importance of biodiversity. On the occasion of the Day in 2020, the World Wildlife Federation compiled six good reasons to care about wildlife conservation, which include
- Protecting against Climate Change. Grazing wildlife can minimize the severity of forest fires, by limiting fuel for their spread. Also, wildlife provides health maintenance for forests by dispersing seeds, limiting potentially damaging insects, and clearing space for germinating trees.
- Wildlife is a critical food source in many parts of the world. In tropical countries, especially, people rely on medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles for protein – millions of tons of meat per year. Losing these critical sources of nutrition would cause an alarming increase in at the least childhood anemia, and at worst starvation.
- Chemicals from plants and especially amphibians are crucial to modern pharmaceuticals. More and more, medications are being developed to treat things like high blood pressure, depression, stroke, and even memory loss – and all using compounds from plants and especially frogs! Even sheep’s wool offers us vitamin D3 and of course lanolin.
- Significance to cultures around the world. Not as easily quantifiable as some of the other reasons, our connection to wildlife and wild places has supported our mental, physical, and in some cases spiritual well being as long as humans have inhabited the planet. Studies now verify the health benefits of being in nature and interacting with animals, even just being in the presence of wildlife. The most studied effects include the reduction of cortisol levels (it’s the stress hormone) and also the lowering of heart rate and blood pressure – in other words, the attainment of tranquility in our increasingly urbanized world.
- Improving soil health and fertility. While it’s not as pleasant to imagine as nature’s tranquility, the digestion and redistribution of plant materials provided by wildlife in natural environments provided nutrients to the soils and even the waters of their habitats, allowing biodiversity to flourish.
- Maintaining ecological health and keeping wildlife corridors open. Large species classified as “Keystone species,” like elephants, alligators, rhinos, and one you may not have heard of, the Bison bonasus, a species of bison living in the Carpathian Mountains, and who are the largest land mammals in Europe, specialize in altering the landscapes where they live in ways beneficial to other species. Their size and strength and natural inclinations also allow them to take the lead in creating wildlife corridors, ways for many species to migrate in search of food or water.
Government agencies, conservation organizations, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The United Nations, and countless individuals are on a mission to preserve the amazing biodiversity of our planet, which inspires a great deal of hope and optimism. If you love animals, the mission becomes more personal to you – but even if you only value humans, it’s clear that our lives are immeasurably enhanced by efforts to preserve the natural world.
So join in with a greater good – and as a start, stop into the Reid Park Zoo, check out the conservation and climate change initiatives that are everywhere on the grounds, and most of all, connect with the animals! You’ll be glad you did; and quite possibly, you’ll realize you can’t wait for the Reid Park Zoo expansion! In the Pathway to Asia, you’ll be able to connect with even more species who need our advocacy. And gain some great memories at the same time.