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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Resolutions at the Zoo

There's something about the start of the New Year which makes people want to improve themselves... I guess people could start resolutions on, say, the 14th of July or something, but January 1st just seems so much neater.  I'm a sucker for New Year's Resolutions myself, though most of them peter out by mid-March every year.  Every year, a lot of those resolutions pertain to my job; namely, coming up with ways of being a better keeper.  

That got me thinking.  What if zoos made New Year's Resolutions?  Not just the staff members making their own, but the entire institution, setting annual goals to improve itself?  Sure, most zoos develop grand, sweeping master plans, but what about the basic self-improvements?

Here are a few ideas...

1.) More Enrichment.  Most human New Year's Resolutions pertain to weight loss and exercise, so why shouldn't the same be true of the animals?  Offering enrichment to the animals is a great way to promote natural behaviors, prevent stereotypic ones, and keep animals happy and healthy.  It is also very educational for visitors and can greatly improve their experience (providing the animals use it, of course).

2.) Home Improvement.  There's a time and a place for master planning, tremendous, grandiose plans that cost millions and make order out of disorder (after making it even more disorderly at first).  That's all well beyond the pay-grade of most keepers.  What is not, however, is completely redoing existing habitats at the zoo, especially smaller ones.  New furniture.  New substrate.  New shelters.  New toys and enrichment.  Maybe even do a swap, switching which animals live in which enclosure for variety.  This is much easier for smaller exhibits for birds, reptiles, and small mammals, but almost every exhibit can be freshened up considerably for surprisingly little work.

3.) Go Green(er).  Kansas City Zoo made news this year by going Palm Oil free.  More zoos should do the same.  Likewise, more zoos should work on reducing their carbon footprint, recycling and composting more, and otherwise being more environmentally responsible.

4.) Act Local.  No zoo is completely saturated with animal exhibits.  There's usually plenty of open space between and around the enclosures.  Use it.  Not for more exhibits or visitor areas - use it to develop wildlife habitat. Plant native plants.  Put up bird baths and bat boxes.  Also, become a champion for a local threatened species.  It's a rare zoo that doesn't have some endangered animal in their backyard.  It probably isn't anything super-glamorous like a condor or a wolf.  It's probably a butterfly, a mussel, or a freshwater fish.  Most of your visitors have probably never even heard of it.  Do something about that.  Take up the cause and promote its conservation, getting involved directly if you can.

Zoos and aquariums are in a constantly changing world.  The challenges facing endangered species are growing and becoming more complicated.  Fewer and fewer people are directly experiencing nature, making zoos one of the only direct links they have to live animals.  Our critics are getting louder.  

It's a changing world, and zoos and aquariums can't afford not to change.  The challenges are too great for us not to.

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