Column: The role of your zoo has changed over the yearsOver time, the mission of zoos in America has transformed from being a venue of entertainment to finding deeper purpose by taking on conservation-minded responsibilities.
By: Maice Sykes, For the Budgeteer News
Over time, the mission of zoos in America has transformed from being a venue of entertainment to finding deeper purpose by taking on conservation-minded responsibilities.
Nevertheless, the Lake Superior Zoo still values the fun and entertainment we can provide for families everywhere. We even offer scheduled opportunities for our visitors to see unique interactions with our animals and keepers through our Oh Fur Fun schedule. We have also recently redesigned the barnyard to become a petting zoo for hands-on, guest-animals interactions, opening this spring.
But what else does your zoo do? How do we fulfill our mission of inspiring connections to wildlife and action toward conservation in our region and around the world?
A key role zoos need to promote is education. We have the ability to support the connection between children and animals. Making animals relatable to children will help them see the deeper purpose we all play in an ecosystem. During our public bat breakfasts, we often emphasize to families how a single little brown bat in Minnesota can eat more than 1000 mosquitoes in an hour. So, while many visitors may not like the thought of bats living in their backyard, they can appreciate the impact even a single bat can have.
In our classroom, we offer educational opportunities for kids in preschool to seniors in high school. Our educators excel at making age-appropriate learning activities, including live-animal encounters with zoo critters. In fact, many of our classes support Minnesota State Science Standards ensuring that students are learning about topics that will help them excel in school.
Animals in captivity are ambassadors for their wild relatives. One way we as a zoo can promote conservation is by participating in a Species Survival Plan (SSP). The purpose of an SSP is to “cooperatively manage specific, and typically threatened or endangered, species population(s) within AZA-accredited Zoos …”
This is why our polar bear Berlin is at the Kansas City Zoo. After her move to Como Zoo due to flood damage, the coordinator from the Polar bear SSP decided that Berlin’s genetics would make her a valued mother amongst the captive polar bear population. This is the same reason why our snow leopard Harry was sent to Zoo New England, in hopes that he will become a proud papa. Though we miss them, we understand the greater role they are undertaking.
On a more local level, our zoo is incorporating more sustainable practices. In addition to our garden, apple trees, compost and recycling, our Safari Café is undergoing a menu change. Starting this summer, families can enjoy freshly made salads, sandwiches, wraps, and pizzas. Many of the ingredients in our new menu items come from Minnesota-based companies, supporting our state economy. Our Tiger Paw gift shop continues to offer items that support and fund various reputable conservation organizations with items made from renewable resources or labeled as “certified fair trade,” offering living wages to the individual who made them.
This last year we had an incredible chance to aid a near-threatened species, the Pallas cat. The Lake Superior Zoo houses three of the 45 Pallas cats in zoos across North America. Two of our females were chosen for artificial insemination by Dr. Bill Swanson of the Cincinnati Zoo, a lead researcher in Pallas cat conservation. Though our females did not become pregnant, the opportunity to participate in this project allowed us to rub shoulders with lead researchers, make the connection between captive and wild populations, and broaden the possibilities of what our “little” zoo can do for a species halfway around the world. We look forward to contributing to future research endeavors in any way we can.
Through these roles of education, conservation, research, and entertainment, we strive to uphold our mission. I encourage you to visit your zoo. The connection between animals and people is an important one. We work hard at making sure our captive animals are presented for what they are ambassadors bridging the gap between people and the wild.
Maice Sykes is lead zookeeper at the Lake Superior Zoo.