Although National Zoo Lovers Day falls on April 8th every year, I don’t restrict myself to one day a year for showing love and appreciation for my local zoological parks and aquariums. In fact, every time I visit a new city, I add a trip to the local zoo to my agenda! I’ll admit it…I do have favorites. I have lived near and worked for the world famous San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park). I have conducted animal behavior research at the Oakland Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Sacramento Zoo, and the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, to name a few. I was proud to contribute to the SSP, Species Survival Plan, for the cheetah with my research on their feeding behavior and psychological well-being. I guess you could say that I am a zoo connoisseur. I enjoy big zoos and small zoos, though I prefer the ones that are AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) certified. AZA certification is awarded to facilities that strive for and maintain higher standards in animal care, scientific research, and conservation efforts. The San Diego Zoo, for example, maintains an ark, or frozen zoo, where biological samples from existing and extinct species reside for research purposes and to aid captive breeding programs for species survival. There are over 10,000 zoos worldwide, and in the United States, we have 212 zoos and aquariums that are members of the AZA.
The first zoo in the United States was the Central Park Zoo in New York, which opened its gates in 1874. The San Diego Zoo followed the guidelines established by the Central Park Zoo when they opened their gates to visitors in 1916. More than 3.2 million people visit the San Diego Zoo each year and it remains in the top 15 zoos in the world. In fact, 9 of the top 15 zoos in the world are in the United States! In addition to the Central Park Zoo and San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium are considered to be premier facilities for visitors and scientists alike.
While many people think of zoos as being “just for kids,” they are, in fact, the perfect destination for animal lovers of any age. Your stress will melt away as you reach your daily step count exploring all that your local zoo has to offer. If your favorite zoo has a animal petting area, head on in. Petting those animals will make you smile and lower your blood pressure. Stop and speak to the docents and animal care workers. They have amazing knowledge of their animal populations and fun stories to share about their favorite exhibits. Many zoos are the home for rare and endangered plant species as well, which should keep the botanists in your family entertained and engaged too. It is often the case that visitors will try to see everything a zoo has to offer in just one day. While you may be able to explore an entire zoo in one day, you certainly won’t be able to truly appreciate what you are seeing. Larger zoos are best explored over a couple of days time to allow for a more engaging, interactive experience. If you really want to understand an animal and learn more about their behavior, you have to spend some time watching them. Plop down on a bench. Spread out a beach towel. Bring along a portable chair and observe. Early in the morning is a great time for observing animals, as is late in the day before closing. Animal feeding times are fun and rainy days are often the best days to observe animals as there are fewer guests in the zoo and thus even some of the shier animals will make an appearance.
When I first began my zoo-based research, I met many a detractor who told me that zoos were terrible places where animals were mistreated and kept in conditions that were completely dissimilar to their native habitats. While I agree that not all zoos are created equal, I do wholeheartedly believe that most zoos are doing everything in their power to bring the wonder and joy of animals to a wider audience, and by doing so encouraging wildlife conservation. As wild habitats dwindle due to human population expansion and global warming, zoos are becoming even more important to the survival of many animal species. While I, too, prefer the thought of polar bears living in the Arctic Circle, I also know that it is naive to believe that they will survive for future generations if this is the only place they can be found. It is my heartfelt wish that my colleagues working in zoos will continue to do everything that they can to insure that species diversity on our planet is not a lost cause.
So, dig out your walking shoes, grab a day pack, and head out to your local zoo. For the price of admission you can help support the survival of threatened animal and plant species. And while you are there, post your photos and stories on your social media using #NationalZooLoversDay.