August 20, 2015

It’s Time to Raise Your Voices. What’s the Big Secret About Animal Conservation?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard the furor over Cecil the lion, saw endangered animals on the side of the Empire State Building and watched a 60 Minutes story giving air-time to an eccentric multi-millionaire saying, “If I could extinguish all zoos over the next 30 years, including my own, I would.” This is on top of an earnings report saying SeaWorld’s financials have continued to take a hit from Blackfish….two years after it originally aired. As someone whose livelihood is inextricably linked to the zoological industry, I’m worried. But, hearing all of this really had me thinking, “where are the zoos?’  and wondering have zoos lost their voice?

Two weeks ago I stood on a New York City street corner with thousands of others gazing up at the Empire State Building to see images of dozens of endangered species projected on 30 stories of the building high in the air. The pictures of whales, frogs, koalas, and Amur leopards were absolutely stunning and captured the crowd. This display, a project of Racing Extinction, was done to raise awareness of the potential loss of dozens of species–a narrative we in the zoo world preach, live, and act on everyday. But yet, I saw no ties to this project and the zoo world, neither at the event nor in subsequent searches online. Did we miss an opportunity?

Then there was the omnipresent story of the death of Cecil. You couldn’t escape news of this magnificent animal’s death or the new hunt for the doctor who killed him.  On CNN in the days that followed, I was struck with a huge disconnect; one interview I saw on this issue had a Hollywood fashion editor commenting inanely on the topic. I wondered again, where are all our insightful, intelligent, and inspirational zoo experts? (Yes, a few zoo people were out there, but others with far less expertise seemed to own the story.)

I know there is incredible work being done across the country and the world by zoos saving species, protecting habitats, and educating millions of guests about their role and impact on a myriad of conservation issues. I see it everywhere I go.

Close to home for us is the Philadelphia Zoo’s long-term investment in the conservation of Rodrigues fruit bats. Across the country the Woodland Park Zoo has been working with tree kangaroos for more than two decades, developing a global network and resulting in the protection of more than 187,000 acres of cloud forest habitat in Papua New Guinea. Smaller zoos boast noteworthy conservation initiatives as well. Knoxville Zoo has had great breeding success with endangered red pandas (more births than any other Western Hemisphere zoo!) and Rosamond Gifford Zoo (Syracuse, NY) has a model captive breeding and research program with native Chittenango ovate amber snails—one of the most endangered animals in the world. Aquariums are also doing meaningful work including North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island hosts the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and in June released two loggerheads.

This is all fantastic work and some of the word is getting out but most people still don’t know all the conservation work happening within the zoo community. Why are we keeping it a secret?

What’s the Answer?

We need to be a bit louder, bolder, and, dare I say it, more forceful about sharing our stories. If we are going to win this, not only in the field but in the minds of the public, we need to raise our collective voices. We need to be out there, owning it. We, as individual zoos and as an industry, need to react quickly and be opportunistic when the next Cecil begins trending. These are our stories to tell. Put the exceptional conservation work that’s happening front and center, lest we be drown out by the naysayers, the extremists, the uninformed.

The more I travel across the country, from San Francisco to Newport to Knoxville, the more I see the need to better communicate the actions and impacts of our conservation initiatives. It’s a recurring tenet in many of the strategic plans Zoo Advisors helps develop – Increase and enhance the awareness of our conservation mission.

Our fight for the animals and the planet is not only going to be fought in the fields and forests but also on Twitter, Facebook, CNN, and whatever new app our 13 year old may be trying out. Innovative marketing campaigns, inventive communication strategies, and creative collaborations will be as essential to saving species as removing threats, passing legislation, eliminating poaching, and restoring habitats.

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