Zoo & Aquarium Month
The month of June is a very special month in conservation, as we celebrate some of the most important conservationist close to home; Zoologist, Aquarist, and keepers! June is International Zoo & Aquarium Month! There are many misconceptions about what they do and just how important they are for wildlife everywhere. Whether people think “Zoos and aquariums are the enemy of conservation efforts” or “there is no need for animals to be kept in captivity expect for financial gain"these couldn't be further from the truth.
Research & Conservation
Zoos and aquariums have substantial roles in conservation, rescue, rehabilitation, research and education of the public on endangered species. Much of what we know regarding wild animals comes from the research done at zoos and aquariums. Furthermore, this research is conducted through non-invasive techniques, meaning the animals in facilities are trained to voluntary participate in these research techniques. Conservationists, zoos, and aquariums all have the same mission: Conserve vulnerable species from the numerous threats they face. Here are a few ways people can determine if a zoo or aquarium aligns with this mission:
Mystic Aquarium Research & Conservation Efforts:
Evaluating the process of body stores of iron in northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and how it relates to the iron storage disease called hemochromatosis.
Evaluating beluga reproductive biology to better understand population growth of wild pods.
Researching immune responses to certain environmental stressors like toxins, noise pollution, etc.
Researching indicators of health like general and reproductive behavior to be applied to wild pods.
Sends an expert on African penguins to South Africa every year to participate in the efforts led by SANCOOB - Southern African for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
Animal Rescue Program rescues and rehabilitates marine animals along the N.E. US shoreline since
Roger Williams Zoo research & conservation efforts :
Aiding in the breeding and reintroduction of the threatened New England cottontail rabbit in New England
Provides annual funds for the International Elephant Foundation to support conservation and research projects ($50,000 to-date).
Partners with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants Campaign to raise awareness of the poaching crisis in Africa.
Houses three female African elephants, who participate in research regarding the elephant reproductive cycle. This also allows for a platform to education the public on elephant conservation issues.
Bronx Zoo Research & Conservation Efforts:
Bred and reintroduced Tanzania’s Kihansi spray toad
Aided in the reintroduction of the American bison
Conduct research to better understand zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, and the avian flu
Standards & Considerations
Zoos and aquariums with accreditation from AZA, APHIS, AMMPA, IMATA, ZAA, and many more have to uphold the highest standards for animal husbandry, habitat maintenance and design, training, sustenance, enrichment, veterinary care, and overall operations of the facility.
Animal healthcare and husbandry are of the highest priority at proper zoos and aquariums. When an animal is first born or brought to a facility, some of the first behaviors they will be trained are their healthcare behaviors.
These include but are not limited to: lying flat out in front of their trainer to allow for a full body check, showing their belly-side, lifting flippers, paws, feet for inspection, opening their mouths up for checks and dental hygiene behaviors, receiving eye drops, voluntary injections, voluntary blood draws, voluntary ultrasounds, etc.
Many people ask what it means when animal trainers say behaviors are“voluntary.” Surely we cannot ask for consent from an animal, can we? In a way, that’s exactly what positive reinforcement training is founded on.
Trainers can ask an animal to open their mouth, but an animal can refuse, and that is perfectly ok! If an animal refuses a behavior, that is the trainer’s cue that they are not willing to participate in that particular behavior at the moment, and it is not forced. Instead the trainer will move on to something else the animal will be successful at and maybe try again at a later time.
If a trainer asks a beluga to present their flukes(tail) for a blood draw behavior, the whale can swim off and choose not to, and the trainer will move on from that behavior.
No, animals are not starved if they refuse to participate in certain behaviors. At properly accredited facilities, diets for each animal are carefully calculated by animal care professionals and veterinarians based on the species, size, sex, age, time of year and other extenuating circumstances (pregnancy, health considerations, etc). An animal will always be offered their full diet no matter what. Sometimes animals will not be completely interested in food, just like out in the wild, as they are focused on other interests (social groupings, breeding, pup-care, etc.).
Many arguments against having certain species in human care is that they will be too under-stimulated, caged-in, or depressed. To be accredited by many of the before-mentioned agencies, a facility housing certain species, particularly large mammals, primates, and cetaceans, have to have enrichment programs in place that encourage natural behaviors. For example, primates receive environmental enrichment devices (also known as EEDs or “toys”) that encourage natural behaviors like foraging, playing, climbing, etc. Cetaceans will receive EEDs that encourage cooperative behavior, social interactions, and foraging. Facilities not only provide these items to the animals on a daily basis, but also monitor how the animals respond to each one to ensure that they are stimulated. Training also helps maintain mental and physical stimulation, as behaviors can be trained that are natural to the animal.
Many will also claim that the animals are simply there for entertainment and financial gain. In contrast, most zoos and aquariums have evolved from more the flashy, entertaining style of shows to more education and conservation centered presentations. Also, many of the more “funny” or “flashy” behaviors animals will learn are actually very important to keeping them mentally and physically exercised, keeping within their natural abilities of course.
For example, a dolphin can be trained to do bows (jumping high out of the water) and although very impressive to an audience, it is also a behavior they do quite often out in nature. Belugas can be trained to make several types of vocalizations (clicks, mimicking noises, screeches, chirps, etc).
This is something that guests find very entertaining, but is also a great way to promote their natural form of communication, and teach guests why noise pollution could be a problem for a species that relies so heavily on this form of communication. Financial gain is also not usually something anyone in the animal care field is focused on.
Detractors of zoos and aquariums often worry that the habitats are too small for the species they house. To receive accreditation, a facility must have education, conservation, and research aspects in their program. If a facility is properly accredited, they must undergo very detailed, rigorous habitat planning. The size of the habitat must be approved by the regulating agency (USDA, AZA, etc) and is dependent on the natural history of the species. Habitats must also be naturalistic in design, meaning it will mimic the natural environment of that species to further promote natural behaviors. All parameters of an animal’s habitat are carefully considered by several expert parties and maintained up to accrediting standards.
For example, a Japanese snow monkey habitat will have more rock structures in both high and low places and not many branches, as they are a ground-dwelling monkey that will typically climb to higher elevations and they do not swing from branches like other primate species.
Or a beluga whale habitat will include a lot of uneven ground, to mimic the ocean floor, but also shallow rocky areas that allow for the whale to rub against during molting season.
Look for "AZA accreditation"
kn,mn'lj'l'about 10% of USDA licensed animal exhibitors have obtained AZA accreditation. This certification logon a facility’s website and at front gates. AZA.org also has a list of all accredited zoos and aquariums.
Facilities that are AZA certified are regularly inspected to ensure the highest level of animal care, veterinary care, conservation, education, and overall operations.
Only about 10% of USDA licensed animal exhibitors have obtained AZA accreditation.
This certification logo can be found on a facility’s website and at front gates. AZA.org also has a list of all accredited zoos and aquariums.
Facilities can still uphold the highest level of animal care, even if they aren’t AZA certified.
Here are other regulating agencies you can look for to ensure a facility is maintaining proper animal care and educations standards:
APHIS, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the government agency that oversees the well-being of animals in licensed facilities. APHIS inspects facilities annually to ensure all practices are in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) is another accrediting agency for marine mammal parks, zoos, and research institutions. This agency inspects facilities for the highest level of animal husbandry, training, habitat quality, education and scientific research, as well as proper breeding practices.
AMMPA heavily focuses on promoting the educational and scientific impacts their accredited facilities produce.
IMATA: International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association. This agency focuses on regulating training practices involving marine mammals IMATA works with facilities to ensure the highest quality of training through positive reinforcement is being utilized.
IMATA conferences provide a wealth of information in marine mammal training for the purposes of research, conservation and education that marine parks can share and discuss
It is important to recognize that there are some very bad facilities that house animals that would like to falsely advertise them as zoos. The public has had an inside look into those unfortunate facilities in recent times. Those facilities do not represent all zoos or aquariums, not even majority of them. There are bad actors in all areas of life, and usually they are the loudest, flashiest and most unfortunate. No one should let those bad actors cloud their perception of productive, humane, legitimate facilities.
It's thoughtless to paint all animal care facilities with such a broad brush, as that will significantly limit the resources zoos and aquariums can acquire to propagate conservation efforts. Not only do the trainers typically get paid only a few dollars above minimum wage, but many zoos and aquariums are non-profits. Even for private facilities, much of the profit goes right back into the cost for maintaining animals in human care.
Hopefully this provides some ways you can spot those good facilities and encourage you to support their efforts to conserve wildlife. Visit a zoo or aquarium this month, and give the keepers a big thank you for everything they do!
Soldiers For Wildlife
1. “About Animal Care.” USDA APHIS, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalwelfare/usda-animal-
2. “About AZA Accreditation.” About AZA Accreditation, https://www.aza.org/what-is-accreditation?locale=en.
3. “Who We Are.” AMMPA, www.ammpa.org/about/who-we-are.
4. “Mission & Values - IMATA - International Marine Animal Trainer's Association.” IMATA,
5. “Conservation Programs at Mystic Aquarium.” Mystic Aquarium, 9 Mar. 2021,
6. “Publications.” Mystic Aquarium, 26 July 2019, www.mysticaquarium.org/publications/.
7. “Global Conservation Initiatives.” Roger Williams Park Zoo, www.rwpzoo.org/global-conservation-initiatives.
8. “Saving Wildlife.” Bronx Zoo, bronxzoo.com/animals/saving-wildlife.