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Thursday, May 12, 2016

WildCare Institute

Saint Louis Zoo has long been one of the innovators of the zoo world.  It was a pioneer in public education; it's former director emeritus, Marlin Perkins, was the host of the TV shows Zoo Parade and Wild Kingdom, some of the earliest educational animal programming of television.  It's had many credits to its name, including the first to exhibit some rare species (at the time of my first visit, I was able to photograph the only horned guans in captivity in the US... appropriately, perched on their sign), the first captive breeding of some others.  It's made many advances in the fields of nutrition and reproduction (including the work of Dr. Cheryl Asa), and currently houses the AZA's Contraception Scientific Advisory Group.

Perhaps it's most remarkable accomplishment, however, is one that gets less press and attention than many others - the WildCare Institute.

Visitors to the zoo grounds may see a graphic or two scattered around the grounds, usually at the exhibit of a related species - the Grevy's zebras, the Armenian vipers - but few realize how far (or near) the zoo's commitment to conservation in the wild goes.  The WildCare Institute is a series of twelve projects dedicated to the study and conservation of endangered species in the wild.  Some of the projects have faded out and others have taken their place - some are across the globe on four continents, while some are located in the zoo's home state of Missouri.  And while some are concerned with high-profile species, such as cheetahs and Humboldt penguins, others are focused on obscure but critically endangered animals... including some which the zoo does not have (and probably never will have) in its collection.  Many of these projects are described in great detail (with great wit) in Sailing with Noah, by the zoo's president, Jeffrey Bonner.

Two of the most exciting projects of the Institute have been captive-breeding and reintroduction programs for native Missourians.  The zoo was the first in the world to successfully breed hellbenders in captivity, devising a massive artificial stream in the basement of the zoo's Herpetarium for that purpose.  Secrets learned from North America's largest salamander have been spread to other zoos and other states, aiding reintroduction programs across the range of the species.  An even less-renown species is the American burying beetle, which is exactly what it sounds like - a beetle (from America) that buries food items, such as dead mice or songbirds, to raise its young upon.  Plenty of people are throwing money at gorillas and pandas, but how many people are working to save an endangered beetle in their own backyard?

Many zoos contribute to conservation in whatever form they may, mostly through fundraising.  Very few zoos are able to command the resources, the staffing, and the funding to lead an initiative like the WildCare Institute - off the top of my head, Wildlife Conservation Society and San Diego Zoo Global are the only other two that match this level of involvement.  It's important to remember, however, that every zoo and aquarium can - and must - make whatever contribution to conservation, in whatever way, that it can.

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