In order for zoos and aquariums to transition to being seen as leaders in care and conservation rather than entertainment, I believe they need to start partnering now with our youth to drive a consistent and credible message of the necessity of conservation to ensure these species survive well into the future. We cannot presently promise these youth they will be able to appreciate and enjoy these species throughout their adulthood unless we make strides today to drive a strong, actionable message of conservation today.
As a mother of young children, I do frequently take my kids out to zoos and aquariums to expose them to all different types of animals that live all over the world. It sparks such a curiosity and appreciation for how diverse life is on our planet. A lot of these places fall short on their message regarding conservation, and instead capitalize on a message of entertainment. When my children walk away with a chance at a selfie with an animal rather than an understanding of the life and challenges that animals faces, it is sending a message that the animal is there for exploitation rather than a creature of inherent value. Zoos and aquariums need to be clear and consistent in their conservation messaging to shape the impressions that youth will have towards wildlife. Rather than a photo opportunity, connect my child’s life to the life of the animal—when they are swimming in the ocean, they are in the dolphin’s home. You don’t leave trash at your friend’s house, so don’t leave trash at the dolphin’s house! Now my kids have a message they can bring home, one that they will be certain to remind me of the next time we visit the ocean.
From there, I believe zoos and aquariums have the opportunity to empower youth to be an active part of the solution and inspire a young activist who will carry those values to shape behavior well into the future. Each year on their birthdays, I ask my children to select a cause important to them and ask their friends to make a donation to that cause with the money they would have used to buy a gift. My kids always choose something that has to do with animals—especially if they are cute and endangered. I usually then have to make a lot of phone calls and do a lot of research to figure out how we can get the donation to the organization. I would love to see zoos and aquariums create little activist programs for kids like mine. We always pair the donation with a trip to visit whichever animals we are helping. One year, it was the zoo, another the animal shelter. I have consistently been disappointed by the lack of reaction by the organization. It is a big gesture for a five year old to give up presents so that they can give money to help the polar bears instead. I would love to see a group that would take time to empower my kids to keep making decisions that promote an altruistic cause above their own.
And that is why the final component that I think is so critical is to share the impact that the children’s effort will make to inspire them to keep trying and also to show other kids that they can make a difference if they try. A clear, actionable conservation message from the zoo, along with a strong, youth empowerment program would deliver results on so many levels. The community would become more engaged seeing the strong local commitment of the zoo to partner with youth. The youth would begin to develop a lifetime concern and curiosity for the wildlife around them. And this could be the initial precedent to create the activists of the future.
I sincerely hope to see zoos and aquariums do a better job in the future to emphasize their role in conservation of the species rather than exploitation. And I believe that energizing the base of their visitors of the future at a young age will drive a consistent vision towards a shared goal of species preservation. I know my children would love an opportunity to be part of the solution.