"... moose, caribou, Dall's sheep, grizzly bears, gray wolves. Alaska had indeed been the Great Land. Then he had realized that wildlife wasn't that rife in Alaska, that Alaska was slim pickings for most critters, that it seemed to be teeming with wildlife only because animal numbers had dropped so sharply in the rest of the United States. Tell a tourist from Kansas - or Ohio - that it hadn't been long ago that her state had more big game than Alaska, and she would laugh at you. But it was true."
- Dave Foreman, The Lobo Outback Funeral Home
For American keepers, the Fourth of July marks Independence Day (and, incidentally, one of the biggest weekends of the year, attendance wise. It means lots of crowds, maybe a little drunken unruly behavior, and the prospect of wondering how your animals will react to fireworks that night.
It's also (for those of us not working) a celebration of country, its heritage, and all of those things which make it great. Which, a lot of people forget, includes our natural heritage.
Our track record with wild America has been, to say, patchy over the last 400 years since Europeans first arrived in the now United States. Some species have been driven to extinction, such as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Some have been driven almost completely from our borders, like the jaguar and thick-billed parrot. And some have been reduced to tiny relict populations.
At the same time, other species have almost shared these fates... but then been brought back from the edge. The American bison won't be roaming in the millions any time soon, but at least it's no longer virtually extinct. Gray wolves howl along the Yellowstone again, and their range is slowly expanding to reclaim additional states. American alligators and bald eagles have made a tremendous rebound, pumas are inching their way back eastward, and the silhouettes of California condors again darken parts of the west.
One of my favorite species, the red wolf, has experienced a cataclysmic fall, a laborious rise... and now seems poised to fall again.
Zoos and aquariums connect visitors with animals from all over the world. It's perhaps even more important to connect them with the ones that share this country. Every zoo or aquarium, I've always felt, should have a display of native wildlife, coupled with the educational messages of how to coexist peacefully with native species and how to (if desirable) attract them to their home. For that matter, zoos should try to create local habitat on their own grounds, using native plants and setting up living spaces for native birds and other wildlife (while at the same time trying to protect their collection animals from native pests and predators).
Every zoo or aquarium should also adopt a local species of conservation concern and work towards the protection of that species. Some facilities, like Oregon Zoo and Phoenix Zoo, work with several, including many with reintroduction efforts underway. True, not ever zoo has a charismatic endangered species in their backyard. But everyone has something. Visiting Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo this year, I was very impressed by the knowledge and passion of the keepers showing me their salt creek tiger beetle breeding program.
Hopefully, such actions will encourage visitors - especially local residents - to get more involved in their conservation initiatives. An American citizen may have somewhat limited ability to impact deforestation in Madagascar, or ivory poaching in Kenya. Their vote, their voice, their tax dollars, and (above all else) their actions, however, can make a big difference in protecting and defending the wildlife heritage of their country.