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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Return of the Native

The Bog is probably the single least popular exhibit at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that many visitors don’t even realize that it is an exhibit – many probably think that the zoo’s been getting a little lax with its weed-eating near the entrance of the Children’s Zoo.  It’s a pity that this space, part of the zoo’s Maryland Wilderness exhibit, is so ignored – it’s devoted to one of the most endangered animals in the state: the bog turtle.

Now, I like The Bog – the recreation of an actual bog, the same sort that might house bog turtles in other parts of the state, is an impressive achievement.  It’s just that tiny turtles don’t really compete very well with chimps, lions, polar bears, and all of the other zoo animals in the eyes of the visitors.  To be fair, Maryland Zoo does try to educate visitors about the bog turtle and its plight. The bog turtle is not the only endangered Marylander that the zoo is involved with – it has also played an active role in the conservation of the Baltimore checkerspot, an especially beautiful butterfly which happens to be the state insect.  

Every zoo and aquarium in the world has its own bog turtle or Baltimore checkerspot – that endangered (or at least threatened) species, perhaps still at large in the surrounding area, perhaps extirpated.  The Texas zoos have their prairie chickens, the Louisiana zoos have their pine snakes, and the western zoos have their black-footed ferrets.  A coalition of Texas zoos has banded together to save their endangered prairie chickens.  Los Angeles and San Diego helped coax the California condor back from the edge of extinction.  Recently, Phoenix Zoo became involved with the Mount Graham red squirrel, a highly endangered subspecies of red squirrel, once thought to be extinct.

I feel that every zoo or aquarium should get involved –directly – with the conservation of at least one endangered species.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a heavy hands-on approach: live captures, super quarantine breeding facilities, reintroductions, etc.  Instead, it can mean fundraising, or perhaps habitat restoration, either on or off zoo grounds. It also mean, at the very least, calling public attention to the species and its plight.  We talk a lot to our visitors about conservation, but how often do we actually give them practical information on how to save an endangered species.  (“Save elephants, don’t buy ivory”… seriously, who among our zoo guests is actually buying ivory?).  The more local an endangered species is, the more likely it is that visitors will be able to make a positive impact on its survival.  

Zoos and aquariums provide a great opportunity for visitors to learn about the amazing animals which share our world.  This shouldn’t, however, blind them to the equally amazing species which share their very own backyards.

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