In defense of zoos and aquariums

Between Sept. 25 and Oct. 3, residents of Pittsburgh may have spotted a truly massive eagle flying around the city. With a wingspan between six and eight feet, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is a truly massive raptor species that is primarily found in far eastern Russia, not southwestern Pennsylvania. So why was one on the loose in Pittsburgh?

In an extremely unusual turn of events, Kodiak, or Kody, the Steller’s Sea Eagle had escaped from his habitat at the National Aviary. After a week of intensive searching, the Aviary successfully brought the eagle home in good condition and began renovations on his habitat. As a former volunteer at the institution, I was relieved to say the least. However, I noticed some people did not feel the same way.

During this process I saw many people make uneducated and frankly irresponsible claims on social media. Many insisted that it was unethical to keep the eagle “in a cage” and that Kody should be allowed to go free. Others implied that Kody left because he was receiving substandard care and claimed that zoos are harmful and cruel institutions. Ignoring the many problems with allowing a non-native species to roam the city and the unrealistic expectations that a bird that has spent most of his life in captivity could survive in the wild, I was horrified by the warped perception many individuals seemed to have of zoos. Although disreputable animal sanctuaries and zoos exist, it would be completely inaccurate to think of the majority of zoos as unethical and harmful to animal welfare.

The National Aviary, like most other respectable zoos in the United States, is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To be accredited, zoos must go through a long and rigorous process to prove that they meet AZA standards. The AZA evaluates the environments, health and nutrition of animals, conducting yearly welfare assessments. Veterinary programs, education programs, safety policies, facilities, security and finances are also assessed. The AZA requires that animals are provided with sufficient enrichment that mimics their natural behavior. The AZA also looks at an institution’s contributions to research and conservation programs. An inspection team spends several days at the institution in question to ensure animal welfare standards are being met. Once a zoo has been accredited, it must go through the accreditation process every five years to ensure AZA requirements are still being fulfilled. Accredited institutions have a very high standard of care, ensuring that all animals in these facilities live long and happy lives.

Despite this high standard of care, many people may still feel that zoos are not justified or that they do not benefit the conservation of species. This could not be further from the truth. Zoos do important conservation within their facilities, in local communities and internationally. The National Aviary alone is involved in a myriad of conservation projects. On a local scale, the Aviary is involved in the conservation of neotropical migrants. The Aviary has conducted fieldwork related to the Louisiana Waterthrush for over 10 years now. This research is important, as this species can serve as an indicator of the overall ecosystem health of forested riparian areas in the eastern United States.

The National Aviary is also a supporter of the Lights Out Pittsburgh movement. The goal of this movement is to turn off lights during peak migration hours in order to prevent disorientation of migrating birds and reduce window collisions.

There are also many projects focused on the conservation of international species. The National Aviary is the leader of the Saving Animals from Extinction program for African penguins, an endangered species native to South Africa. As part of the species survival plan for the penguins, the Aviary works with other zoos to manage the penguins in a way that increases the genetic diversity of the captive population. The Aviary offers a variety of educational programs, advocating for sustainable seafood purchases and collecting donations for the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. On site, the Aviary is involved in distributing artificial nest burrows and mitigating conflict with fisheries in South Africa.

Another species of interest is the Andean condor, a truly gargantuan bird with a wingspan of 10 feet. The Aviary has a partnership with Bioparque Amaru in Ecuador in order to protect the near threatened condor. Bioparque Amaru is a facility dedicated to housing animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. The Aviary collaborated with Bioparque Amaru to build a breeding center for Andean condors, in the hopes of releasing their offspring into the wild.

Perhaps most impressively, the National Aviary has played a vital role in the recovery of the Guam Rail, a species that, up until 2019, was extinct in the wild. The Guam Rail was essentially exterminated from its home in Guam when invasive brown tree snakes were inadvertently introduced. In 1987, only 21 Guam Rails remained. The Aviary, along with many other zoos and breeding programs, has played an instrumental role in increasing the population of this species, allowing for the eventual introduction of the species to neighboring islands Cocos and Rota. After over 30 years, the Guam Rail is no longer extinct in the wild, and this is largely due to the efforts of the National Aviary, which raised more than 40 birds. This was more than any other North American zoo.

Of course, the National Aviary is not the only zoo committed to education, research and conservation of wildlife. Using only zoos and aquariums I personally have visited, I can list many more amazing conservation programs. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a unique program focused on the rescue, rearing, and reintroduction of southern sea otters. The Columbus Zoo protects over 555 acres of prairie habitat, an endangered ecosystem that is vital for many North American species. The Baltimore Aquarium has rehabilitated and released hundreds of animals on Maryland’s coasts. The Cincinnati Zoo conducts research about the reproductive biology of the rare black-footed cat and funds field research focused on the species in South Africa. Even small zoos like the Erie Zoo provide educational programs to inspire an interest in conservation. Zoos and aquariums play a vital role in conservation on both a local and global scale.

With all of this in mind, it is clearly absurd for anyone to insinuate that Kody would have been better off in the wild or claim that institutions like the Aviary are unethical. Rather than making unsupported claims about accredited institutions, a focus should be placed on shutting down illegal or disreputable zoos, animal sanctuaries and nature parks. Although many people are aware of the benefits of zoos, I felt that it was important to clarify the validity of these institutions, especially in light of the global pandemic. Many zoos suffered financial losses from shutting down as they continued to care for their animals. As a last word, I recommend providing whatever support you can to accredited zoos like the National Aviary, whether that comes in the form of visiting the facility itself or making a donation.