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Zoos and Aquariums: Educating the Next Generation of Environmentalists

Zoological institutions have come a long way in the last fifty years. Those that are doing things well are creating wildlife sanctuaries, nurturing endangered species, and helping conservation efforts. But they’re also great education spaces, sparking the next generation of environmentalists.

Children and animals interact at the St. Louis Zoo.   ©By Robert Lawton CC BY-SA 2.5
Children and animals interact at the St. Louis Zoo. ©By Robert Lawton CC BY-SA 2.5

Institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) (based in the US and overseas) receive more than 200 million visitors every year, including fifty-one million students. They train 40,000 teachers annually, provide support for science curricula, and offer practical opportunities for students.

Creating an Inclusive Movement

Karen Tingley, director of education at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), headquartered at AZA member Bronx Zoo in the Bronx, NY, says: "The ultimate vision of the education department is to foster a diverse and inclusive movement of conservation advocates."

The Bronx Zoo, one of America’s largest zoos, has more than four million visitors a year. It is among the WCS’s five zoos and aquariums across New York that aim to increase scientific literacy, empower people to act to protect the environment, and build the next generation of leaders.

At the Bronx Zoo, these aims are achieved through a range of programs. Summer camps offer "an all-access pass" to the zoo’s 265 acres, where school children can learn about 10,000 animals and more than 700 species. In addition, volunteering, internship and employment opportunities are available for young people and adults, and there’s a graduate scholarship program for conservationists. The zoo also provides certification and educational resources for teachers.

Conservation Action and Policy Change

Advocating for positive environmental change is another primary focus of the zoo and its supporters.

"On a policy level, we have people signing petitions, but also making drawings of why these natural spaces are important to us," says Tingley. "Currently we’re working to make the Hudson Canyon and the offshore area off the coast of New York City a marine-protected area. And, so, kids are drawing pictures about the wildlife that are there."

People have also been involved in a campaign to reduce plastics, which has involved a trip to the state capital Albany to speak to government officials and key decision makers.

This North Island brown kiwi chick was incubated, hatched, and raise at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in New Zealand.   ©Willowbank Wildlife Reserve (CC BY-SA 4.0)
This North Island brown kiwi chick was incubated, hatched, and raised at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in New Zealand. ©Willowbank Wildlife Reserve (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tingley explains: "Our goal is not that every young person who works, interns or volunteers at WCS goes on to be the head of the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy. Maybe they’re a lawyer who, when they’re making a decision at work, they think about the environment. Maybe they’re a parent who advocates for more programming for their young people. Our goal is creating a well-rounded conservation ethic that’s integrated into whatever career you pursue."

One of the most popular exhibits is the zoo’s groundbreaking Congo Gorilla Forest. At the 6.5-acre exhibit, visitors can see mountain gorillas and many other animal species, plus 400 types of plants. The exhibit, which offers live daily Congo Cams to watch at home, gives families a memorable connection to Central African wildlife while educating them about a critically endangered animal.

Developing an Ethic of Care

When asked about critics who warn that zoos harm animals and habitats, Tingley has a ready response.

"I have never met people who care more about wildlife, who care more about animals, than people who work in zoos," she says. "I think that at the heart of it there is an ethic of care. Their care is not only for the animals that live here, but also for wildlife out in nature. And those are intertwined."

For example, she adds: "We recently … released six purebred bison back into the wild in Oklahoma. Historically, we have been a part of the reason that bison still exist here in the US, and to be able to have animals that you know were born here at the Bronx Zoo and that are released out into the wild, that’s a beautiful story."

Bison born at the Bronx Zoo and released out into the wild in Oklahoma.   ©Julie Larsen Maher WCS
Some bison born at the Bronx Zoo have been released into the wild in Oklahoma. ©Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Other ‘Immersive’ Experiences

Aquariums are also playing a vital role in educating people about the Earth’s oceans and rivers.

The Tennessee Aquarium, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, home to more than 12,000 animals, representing almost 800 species, has many popular educational exhibits, including the Deeper Dive guided tour.

The tour provides groups of eight with a behind-the-scenes look at how animals are cared for. Participants can see creatures, such as the sand tiger shark, watch live feedings and learn about the flooded Amazon rainforest. And there’s also the IMAX 3D theatre, a sixty-six feet tall and eighty-nine feet wide cinema screen, with state-of-the-art technology, that allows audiences to feel immersed in waterways and oceans. Each movie is accompanied by educator resources that can be downloaded and used in the classroom.

Young people tour the Deeper Dive exhibition at the Tennessee Aquarium.   ©Tennessee Aquarium
Young people tour the Deeper Dive exhibition at the Tennessee Aquarium. ©Tennessee Aquarium

Reaching Out to the Community

Another important part of the aquarium’s education program is community outreach.

The aquarium recently partnered with the Urban League of Chattanooga to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experience to thirty eighth graders from Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

Natali Rodgers, the aquarium’s director of learning and evaluation, explains how the initiative offered "an engaging learning experience centered around conservation and providing the opportunity for these youth to understand the important work that we do at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI)."

The girls were able to interact with lake sturgeon—the massive, eight-feet-long fish that are now close to extinction because of overfishing, dams, and habitat degradation—that are the focus of one of the TNACI conservation projects. 

"It was very exciting to get to see them interact with the lake sturgeon and get to be able to touch or hold these fish," Rodgers said during the event. "That is the first time that these young ladies are even able to do something like that."

She added: "Women are specifically underrepresented when it comes to STEM-faced careers …. This was an opportunity to bring awareness to these young ladies and expose them to these different career paths. And what's even more significant about this is, not only are they young ladies, but these are young ladies that come from diverse backgrounds. … I just wanted to spark interest and curiosity to learn more about what we do here at the Tennessee Aquarium. So, if we've done that, I know we've done a great job."

A similar education outreach program was organized at the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, a nonprofit that provides early childhood education and care.

Meanwhile, the aquarium’s Shaping Our Oceans outreach program includes discussions about the ocean ecosystem and the impact of microplastics pollution.

Washed Ashore exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium.   ©Tennessee Aquarium
Washed Ashore exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium. ©Tennessee Aquarium

"This program ties in with the important work that our partner Washed Ashore does to help address this huge problem that our environment is facing," states Rodgers. "Currently through October, guests can come to see several of the sculptures that Washed Ashore has created using plastic waste that was found in the ocean." 

Helping Species to Flourish

Like the Bronx Zoo, the Tennessee Aquarium is working to make sure creatures are released into the natural environment.

"The lake sturgeon reintroduction program at the Tennessee Aquarium is a wonderful example of how an AZA institution is doing just that," says Rodgers. "Not only are we reintroducing this species back into their native habitats, but we are also working to protect these habitats and engage the public on this important work so this species and many others can once again flourish."


*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.


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