According to the Environmental Literacy Council, approximately 40,000 species appear on the threatened or endangered list. Nearly 16,000 of those species are at risk for extinction. Keeping endangered animals in captivity has continually been a source of debate, as zoos were once considered simply for the public's entertainment. However, these days most zoos and aquariums strive to satisfy many roles, one of which is ensuring the welfare of endangered animals.
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Conservation and Research
One benefit of keeping endangered animals in captivity is to offer scientists the opportunity to study and learn everything possible about the particular species. Often threatened or endangered animals come into captivity as a result of illness or injury. Biologists are able to work with these animals and learn first-hand about what is best for their management, protection and restoration. They are able to explore the reasons an animal may be at risk, work to slow or prevent its loss, and study the overall impact of that species on its habitat. By studying endangered animals, scientists are better able to understand what is needed for conservation and biodiversity.
Educating the public, not simply entertaining them, is a main goal of most zoos and aquariums today. Many zoos and aquariums provide entertaining ways to share the information they have learnt with the millions of people visiting each year. Such facilities strive to make the connection between wildlife and human life concerning sustainability and well-being for everyone. Visitors are able to learn and understand how their own actions may have a positive or negative impact on the bigger picture.
Captive Breeding Programs
Members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums maintain strict guidelines and records of various endangered species under the Species Survival Plan Program, or SPS. The plan addresses long-term goals for the preservation and conservation of threatened and endangered species. Breeding of endangered species is closely monitored and recorded in a stud book as outlined in SPS breeding plans. Some species can be very difficult to successfully breed in captivity, while other species have a higher success rate. This reason for such close scrutiny is to ensure genetic diversity within the species.
The careful breeding process of endangered species not only is an effort to increase the numbers, but also carries the hope of being able to one day reintroduce them to their natural setting. For that to become a possibility, not only must there be a significant increase in overall numbers, but the captive population must also be self-sustaining. Animals bred in captivity have the benefit of early veterinary intervention and preventive care. As a result, typically these animals will fare better than those animals that originally came into captivity as a result of injury or illness. Strict guidelines for reintroduction generally specify a suitable amount of the species' natural habitat to be released into. These guidelines also indicate requirements for post-release monitoring and evaluation to ensure continued success.
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- American Veterinary Medical Association: Is it Ethical to Keep Animals in Zoos?
- University of Michigan: Captive Breeding and Species Reintroduction
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Reintroduction Programs
- Wildlife Conservation Society: About Us
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park: Conservation Biology Institute