Zoos are more than a fun experience

Read the original article by Liz Sanchez at mercurynews.com here.

Zoos around the United States draw millions of people every year, who come to see and learn about exotic animals like giraffes, elephants, lemurs and jaguars. And while animal rights organizations are critical of the treatment of animals in zoos, professionals who work with those animals have a different point of view.

Two zoos in the Bay Area make efforts to provide their animals with extra care and even work to save endangered species.

The Oakland Zoo, which opened in 1922, has more than 750 animals, including four elephants and at least two giraffes. It’s been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 1988. Oakland Zoo President and CEO Joel Parrott said the zoo monitors the behavior of its animals and provides “enrichment” for animals like elephants to provide them with exercise and keep them interested in their day.

“We give them good food, toys to play with, games to play, a swimming pool and mud baths,” he said.

Another Oakland Zoo resident, a reticulated giraffe named Benghazi, was an artist, creating paintings with a brush he held in his mouth. But the last of his paintings was auctioned on June 15 – World Giraffe Day – following Benghazi’s death in May. The giraffe was euthanized at the zoo after his quality of life declined because of lower back injuries. The average lifespan of a giraffe in the wild is around 25 years, and he was 23.

Benghazi’s death could be seen as supporting the position of animal rights organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which says living in any zoo can be harmful for animals. According to a PETA issues statement, “Even the best artificial environments can’t come close to matching the space, diversity, and freedom that animals want and need.” Instead, PETA recommends people skip the zoos and instead help rescue operations associated with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a non-profit group that provides certification for animal sanctuaries.

However, many zoos, including Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in San Jose and the Oakland Zoo, also lend a hand in saving endangered animals. They do this through their own conservation programs and being involved with others like the Species Survival Plan, started by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 1981, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Reintroduction Program. They also work with other institutions to save these animals.

“Twenty-five precent of the approximated amount of animals we have here are a part of the SSP (Species Survival Program), so we, a credible zoo, reach out to an animal coordinator to get another mate for an animal to repopulate our endangered species,” said Kevin Hertell,  zoo manager at Happy Hollow Park, which houses two jaguars, a red panda, lemurs, meerkats and an American alligator.

Parrott cited the Oakland Zoo’s work with California condors as one of the ways it supports endangered species.

“We worked with the Cal Condor Reintroduction Program and at one point, the Condor species population was down to 22 left — and after 30 years, we helped bring the population up to 400,” he said.

And while these conservation efforts are important to the zoo, it is facing a battle against natural forces. The planet is experiencing the sixth mass extinction, a process that has been going on for thousands of years and is believed to be caused by human activity and climate change. At least 75% of species are expected to become extinct within a geologically short amount of time. Hertell said this has had a big impact on how people look at animals, too.

“Zoos are not what they used to be,” he said. “We are much more conservation-minded. I believe this sixth mass extinction has affected not just zoos, but the broader community as well, which is why we teach and mentor kids of the future to make a difference.”

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