Once upon a time, zoos imported animals from around the globe and locked them in cages, and onlookers came in droves to marvel at the majesty of nature’s most exotic creatures.
All of that has changed.
Today’s zoos no longer have the luxury of plucking elephants out of Africa or Asia. Populations worldwide are dwindling, some to the point of extinction.
And among enlightened zoos, claustrophobic cages have given way to habitats resembling the animals’ native lands.
But where are the animals coming from to roam these new environments? Believe it or not, from the zoos themselves.
Elite zoos from around the world have become involved in conservation.
And that means matchmaking — in order to preserve the world’s disappearing animals.
Think of it as match.com for the animal population. Through a combination of science and software, the right animals are paired up to create strong genetic profiles and save species.
The Audubon Zoo is one of 215 accredited members (out of 2,200 facilities licensed to exhibit wildlife) of the strictly regulated Association of Zoos and Aquariums allowed to engage in the complex species survival program that ensures that appropriate animals procreate.
“Right now we have 500 species survival programs, and over 600,000 animals under the care of the AZA, which could be potential mates for any of the other animals in zoos across the U.S. and even internationally," said Rob Vernon, senior vice president of communications for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“Breeding and transfer plans dictate the future of any given species, and with our ability to match animals to assure genetic diversity, we can sustain populations so that future generations will be able to see these awesome animals.”
An army of volunteers enters important data into computers under the guidance of population biologists at breeding ground central, The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
So if one of the male orangutans at the Audubon Zoo isn’t exactly enamored with the female in his enclosure, no problem.
“We are in the process of rebuilding our orangutan population,” explained Joel Hamilton, vice president and general curator at the Audubon Zoo.
“Our former male and female behaviorally were not getting along," zoo-speak for not mating.
"We shipped Burani to the Denver Zoo, where he has now sired an offspring. The real core is following genetics, so the coordinators look at all animals under care and identify the family trees."
Each species survival program has a committee of stud-book keepers, tracking the animals and their genetic profiles.
Less than two weeks ago, in fact, an orangutan named Jambi packed his bags in Hanover, Germany, and hit the tarmac en route to the Audubon Zoo, where he is basking among palm trees, hammocks and a waterfall. It is hoped the new environment and his introduction to new females will have sparks flying and Cupid striking.
Nothing about this program is easy. Or cheap. Imagine transporting a rhinoceros or an elephant.
“An international shipment will be tens of thousands of dollars, but it’s our investment in the conservation of the species,” Hamilton said.
The problem of disappearing species has been brought on by human beings. Poachers hunt elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns. And in poor countries, some endangered species are simply hunted for food.
Deforestation has meant the loss of habitat for many in the wild whose jungles and forests are being cut down. Zoologists can put a date on when a particular species just won’t be around anymore, at least not without conservation intervention.
“The ultimate plan is to breed animals in captivity and put them back into the wild, but until we can resolve the problems in the wild, we cannot think of putting them back into dangerous situations,” Hamilton said.
It’s a delicate balance, managing wildlife populations. Too many lions of the same genetic makeup skew the gene pool and cause problems in terms of genetic diversity.
Birth control is often used but comes with its own set of problems, some involving future fertility. But American zoos prefer it to the practice of culling.
Culling means euthanizing animals when suitable homes in other zoos can’t be found. A few years back, a Denmark zoo was severely criticized for shooting one of its male giraffes and feeding him to their lions.
The giraffe was fighting with his father, and no one wanted him breeding with his mother. Attempts to find him a new home had failed.
“We don’t practice culling,” said Audubon’s Hamilton. “In fact, we have three male bachelor giraffes in our herd, as a commitment to the SSP, because nationally there is a surplus of males.”
The zoos have many options these days, which include everything from artificial insemination and storing DNA to doing embryo transfers.
“The American bison was nearly hunted to extinction,” Hamilton said. “But zoos got together and solved that problem.”
“Some people don’t like to see animals in captivity,” added the AZA’s Vernon. “But sometimes it’s all that’s left to save the animals.”