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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day, Everyday

"Earth First... We'll Trash the Other Planets Later!"
- Bumper Sticker

Since 1970, April 22 has been celebrated as Earth Day, an annual event set aside to celebrate our planet and educate ourselves and each other about what can be done to protect it.  It's a lovely sentiment, but it's the "day" part that I have trouble with sometimes.  "Well, I tossed a can in the recycling bin today, back to the dumpster tomorrow!"  Everyday should be Earth Day.

As wildlife organizations, zoos and aquariums often take a special part in Earth Day, with many institutions (mine included) holding special educational programs in honor of the day.  Conservation is, after all, the main work of a zoo, whether it's through direct action (captive breeding, reintroduction, fundraising, research) or education and building awareness.  Different zoos and aquariums are able to contribute to varying degrees, based on the size of the budget, the available opportunities, and the vision of their staff (as there are plenty of small zoos which do lots for conservation). 

Zoos and aquariums can also have a big conservation impact on a very direct, very local level - by changing how they run their own facilities.  There are a lot of ways to make a difference, from what light bulbs you install to what kind of vehicles your zoo has.  Here, in honor of Earth Day, are some tips on greening up your zoo or aquarium ("your" as in either the one you work at or the one in your community).

Recycle!  It seems like a no-brainer, but so many people don't.  It can be hard to have recycling work properly in public areas - so many visitors don't look where they throw things, and your plastic bottle bin will be filled up with half-eaten hot dogs before you can blink.  Still, with the right signage and the proper placement of bins, you can capture a lot of recyclables that would otherwise go to the dump.  At the very least, make sure you have recycling available in staff areas.  In theory, they should know better...

Compost!  Zoos mean animals, and animals produce a lot of you know what!  Not only is there poop, but there is also hay, soiled bedding, uneaten food, and all of the leaves, pine needles, and other biodegradable debris we clean up daily (granted, some fecal matter is not compostable - primates, for example).  Don't let it go to the landfill, compost it!  Somewhere out there is a farmer who would love to fertilize the crops with your zebra manure.  Maybe you can even sell it - many zoos offer "Zoo Doo" (or something with a name along those lines) for sale to their visitors.

Go Native - Not so much an issue for aquariums, but zoos tend to have a lot of landscaping areas, which can be demanding in terms of water, fertilizer, etc.  Why bother with fancy flowers from around the world?  Grow native plants.  They are specially adapted to your local climate conditions and will thrive with less work.  It also reduces the likelihood of exotic plants becoming established.

Wild Habitats - Sort of a subset of the previous point, create niche habitats for native wildlife in zoo grounds.  Put up bird baths, flowers for hummingbirds and butterflies, "toad abodes", bat boxes, etc.  Set aside a little space for the native wildlife to establish itself.  Granted, there have to be some limits - you don't want to invite the foxes and raccoons to raid your waterfowl ponds.  Still, it's amazing how excited visitors get when a chipmunk, a squirrel, or some other native critter crosses their path.

Build Green - We all have old, dilapidated exhibits that are a pain to maintain and have zero energy efficiency... can't be helped.  What can be helped is how we plan, build, and maintain our new facilities.  For every major building project, strive for LEED certification.  Whenever possible, seek ways to reduce the environmental footprint, whether through alternative energy sources, green building materials, or other options.  

Sell Green - Most of our facilities have gift shops and concession stands, if not actual restaurants.  Those facilities exist 1) for the convenience of visitors and 2) to make money.  Nothing wrong with either of those.  We should, however, add 3) to further our conservation mission.  Items sold in the gift shop and food served in the restaurant should be selected with sustainability at least as a factor.  Those facilities that serve fish, for instance, should pay heed to the Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which helps steer visitors towards environmentally sound seafood choices.  Whenever possible, buy locally produced foods and materials (and have vegetarian options - GOOD vegetarian options - available!).  Consider selling Snareware or other products made by conservation partnerships abroad.

If your institution isn't doing at least some of these things, then maybe you should start asking yourself (and management!) why and seeing what you can do to change this.  If you are doing them, good job... but don't pat yourself on the back too much yet.  Now you need to spread the word so that all of your visitors can understand what it is you're doing and learn how they can also make a difference in their own way.

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