This year, World Wildlife Day is honoring the big cats - the lion and leopard, tiger and jaguar, snow leopard and (depending on who you ask) cheetah, puma, and clouded leopard.
Even compared to other large predators, big cats have an over-sized hold on our imagination and culture, and zoo life is no exception. Many large zoos possess a nearly full complement of the big cats, whereas few have many species of large canine or bear. Historically, many zoos had an entire house or row devoted to displaying the cats, a trend which has decreased with the rise of geographically-themed exhibit areas. Still, lions tend to anchor African exhibits, tigers dominate Asian exhibits, and Latin American zoo regions are often headlined by jaguars.
The big cats are among the most popular of animals with zoo visitors - everyone wants to know where the lions and tigers are (fun fact: to many zoo visitors, there are only three species of cats: the lion, the tiger, and "the spotted one"). Big cat births are celebrated in the news. Big cat deaths are treated as a communal loss and cause for mourning. Big cats are some of the zoo residents that animal rights' groups target most frequently in their critiques of zoos. Big cat training and enrichment demonstrations are flocked to by visitors. And yes, when a zookeeper is killed by an animal, it is almost always by a big cat.
Over the years, I've had the chance to work with all eight species of big cat. Humans have been keeping cats in zoos for millennia, and they tend to do quite well under human care. Most species breed very well in managed care, and the remaining two - cheetahs and clouded leopards - are slowly giving up their secrets.
The charisma and star power of big cats has enormous potential for conservation. By their nature, big cats occupy large territories, and to preserve them in the wild, you must preserve a lot of land (it's crazy to think that an entirely sustainable zoo population of lions or tigers could be maintained in less space needed than for a single animal in the wild). When you preserve that land, you also preserve the habitats of the prey species that these cats rely on, as well as a host of other species, some quite obscure and far more endangered than the cats themselves.
Likewise, big cats and other top predators regulate the number of their prey species and thereby influence the fate of their ecosystem. By protecting big cats, we can save entire ecosystems. And there are few better places to develop an appreciation for big cats than the zoo.