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Texas zoos lead vital conservation work and inspire us to join them.

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On a cold and drizzly weekday afternoon at the Houston Zoo, zookeepers give elephants a drink from a hose and show visitors the zoo’s three generations of giraffes: grandma, mom and baby. Behind a large, fenced-off section, workers busily construct the zoo’s groundbreaking new South American Pantanal exhibit.

That same day, far beyond the zoo walls, employees carry out tasks less visible but increasingly important to the future of zoos: releasing egg strands of the endangered Houston toad into the wild and teaching elephant keepers in Thailand how to treat elephant herpes.

Today you can still see groups of schoolkids in matching shirts ooh and ahh over exotic animals. But Texas zoos are evolving, becoming leaders in local and worldwide conservation, with a unique role to play in saving wild creatures.

“It’s a role that zoos have been playing for a long time,” says Houston Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke. “We’re bringing it to a higher level of visibility and effectiveness. [The world is] losing habitat and wildlife, and zoos have the potential to do significant things to combat that.”

Zoo engage in conservation by performing fieldwork in far-flung places, serving as “arks” harboring rare species, educating millions of visitors and operating captive breeding programs.

Many Texas zoos, especially those certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, do significant work to protect and save wildlife and habitat. Two Texas zoos — Houston and Fort Worth — are undergoing massive transformations, with conservation as the guiding force.

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Conservation messages accompany many zoo exhibits.

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Brittanie Crews with a Houston toad at the Houston Zoo

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Red River hogs

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Bald eagle at the new Texas Wetlands exhibit

Houston Zoo: see them, save them

South America’s Pantanal region isn’t as well known as the Amazon, but as the world’s largest tropical wetlands, it is home to a staggering diversity of wildlife. The Houston Zoo has been working to save wildlife in the Pantanal for more than 15 years, including efforts to protect giant armadillos, giant anteaters and wild tapirs.

The zoo is raising $150 million as it makes the biggest changes in its history, including a new Pantanal exhibit.

“The Pantanal has a density of wildlife that is pretty much unparalleled,” Ehmke says. “It’s a rich, beautiful place. It’s a place that we want to bring to Houston.”

The exhibit reflects progressive thinking, also taking hold at zoos around the country. The immersive, realistic exhibit is intended to show animals in their native habitat, with different species grouped together, just as they would be in the wild, while also being linked to zoo conservation efforts. Today’s new zoo habitats don’t just exhibit species but aim to tell a broader story of wildlife and nature.

“We want to give the illusion that you are walking through a wild environment,” Ehmke says. “Giant anteaters, tapirs, waterfowl, rheas and capybaras will live together in this one marshy wetland area, much as you would find them in the real Pantanal. It’s really an exhibit about habitat, not just an exhibit about animals.”

There’s a growing sense of responsi­bility to present zoo animals not just for enjoyment but for inspiration and education as well. Zoos face very different demands today, and the thrill of seeing a lion, tiger or bear may not be enough of a reason for zoos to exist. Zoos can and must become gateways to the wild, David Hancocks writes in A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future. In the best zoos, wild animals can be seen as ambassadors for the survival of their species in the wild.

“We want to connect the fact that the Houston Zoo is actively working to save the place, and that guests, by coming here and visiting the zoo, are supporting that,” Ehmke says. “We want everyone to know that their visit to the zoo is an act of conservation.”

Zoos want to protect the animals where they live in the wild, too. Texas zoos spend millions of dollars each year on conservation work in places like Congo, Panama, China and Malaysia.

Dr. Joe Flanagan, chief veterinarian, says Houston’s efforts have saved elephant lives — in captivity and in the wild.

The zoo has worked with its neighbor, the Baylor College of Medicine, to find a vaccine for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus. It’s the leading cause of death among young Asian elephants in human care, and it also affects wild elephants. The zoo established a protocol for dealing with the deadly virus and shared it with elephant caretakers around the world.

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Ankole cattle

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Black-bellied whistling duck

 Courtesy of Houston Zoo

Attwater's prairie-chicken eggs

 Courtesy of Houston Zoo

Attwater's prairie-chicken chicks

Taking care of Texas species

As zoos become more global by expanding field conservation work, they’re also becoming more local.

The newest Houston Zoo exhibit is Texas Wetlands, which features American alligators, bald eagles and whooping cranes — Texas species that have come back from the brink of extinction and offer a message of hope.

Behind the public exhibit areas in Houston, rows of Houston toad tanks and incubators full of Attwater’s prairie-chicken eggs reflect the commitment of the Houston Zoo to keep those Texas species from going extinct.

In 2018, the Houston Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo shared the AZA’s top honors for North American Conservation for their Houston toad recovery program, work that continues today.

“We just sent 85,000 eggs out this morning,” says Stan Mays, Houston’s curator of herpetology and entomology.

The zoo’s captive breeding program produces hundreds of thousands of Houston toad eggs each spring, and those eggs are released into Houston toad habitat near Bastrop State Park.

The endangered toad has been struggling for decades to maintain a viable population. The Houston Zoo has worked since 2007 to make sure the toad survives, maintaining a captive population and releasing eggs into the wild.

The zoo’s breeding program for Attwater’s prairie-chickens plays a similar role in keeping that species alive.

The highly endangered ground-dwelling grouse once roamed the prairie where Houston now stands. The Houston Zoo and its partners take part in a breed-and-release program to supply birds to the Attwater Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and a private ranch in Goliad.

“The Houston Zoo’s mission is to save wildlife in the wild,” says prairie-chicken coordinator Amber Zelmer. “There are things in our backyard that we end up losing. Houston is the reason these birds don’t have their space.”

At the Houston Zoo, the commitment to conservation extends down through the entire staff. In a nationally recognized program, all employees receive paid time off to do field conservation work, such as removing abandoned crab traps in Galveston or monitoring monarch butterflies in Hermann Park.

“They feel much more engaged in the mission of the zoo,” Ehmke says. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck idea of conservation engagement for the entire team.”

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

The Fort Worth Zoo's Museum of Living Art

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Giraffe at the new African Savanna exhibit

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Diane Barber checks on a Texas kangaroo rat

Fort Worth: a wilder vision

At the Fort Worth Zoo, a lion roars in the background as Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms, tells me about the transformation taking place under a $100 million capital campaign. The zoo opened the new African Savanna exhibit in spring 2018. In front of us, the under-construction Elephant Springs exhibit, scheduled to open in spring 2021, builds on the zoo’s leadership in global elephant conservation. More new exhibits are planned.

“In the next five years, we will have virtually re-created the zoo,” she says.

Since the 1990s, dozens of zoos across America have closed their elephant exhibits in recognition of the growing challenge of providing an adequate home. Elephants need space, mental challenges and, especially, other elephants to thrive. Some zoos gave up. Others, like Fort Worth, which has played an active role in elephant conservation for decades, rose to the challenge.

“We made a commitment to elephants,” says zoo CEO Michael Fouraker, who in 1998 founded the International Elephant Foundation, which fights elephant poaching and studies elephant health. “We wanted to keep — and keep expanding — the herd. We have tripled the size of the exhibit and doubled the size of the elephant barn.”

At the African Savanna nearby, gazelles and ostriches mingle with giraffes in an open space modeled after African grasslands, reflecting the trend toward larger, naturalistic exhibits with multiple species.

At the elevated feeding station, a giraffe eats a piece of lettuce out of a girl’s hand.

“Mommy, that’s a long tongue,” she says, laughing.

At the zoo’s Museum of Living Art, we come eye to eye with the zoo’s renowned collection of frogs, snakes, toads and lizards. The colorful creatures are truly living, breathing works of art.

“Oh my gosh! That’s a big snake!” one wide-eyed boy exclaims when he sees a massive Burmese python.

These animals are Barber’s specialty; she works closely with several Caribbean nations to help preserve the region’s diversity of frogs, toads and iguanas.

“Zoos all have a shared goal of conservation,” Barber tells me amid the croaking of frogs and toads. “Zoos have transitioned from just showing animals to showing how to contribute to meaningful conservation.”

Tarren Wagener, the zoo’s director of conservation, says that zoos, with their millions of visitors each year, have a unique opportunity to spread the message of saving wildlife and habitat.

“The only way you’re going hear the message is if you’re open to hearing the message,” she says. “If you’re in this environment and enjoying yourself at the zoo, you’re going to hear and understand that story and feel the connection in ways you wouldn’t otherwise.”

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Kids get hands-on with a snake at MOLA

Breeding rare and endangered species

Behind the scenes, the zoo is involved with multiple breeding programs for rare and endangered species. The zoo’s newest project is the Texas kangaroo rat, found in only a few spots in Texas’ Rolling Plains.

“There were so few in the wild, they decided we better get some in captivity,” Barber says. “We want to learn their natural history and apply that to the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew of our work with the Texas horned lizard and asked us to help.”

The zoo population will ensure that Texas kangaroo rats don’t disappear completely. Ideally, the zoo will breed offspring to release into the wild.

Barber points out that as the planet loses species at an increasing rate, the need for species survival programs like this one will only increase. She says the zoo has learned a lot about how to be a safety net for species on the brink.

“The need is only increasing” for harboring and breeding rare animals, Barber says. “If zoos go away, who’s going to fill that niche?”

The Fort Worth Zoo also has breed-and-release programs for the Houston toad, Texas horned lizard, native mussels, Pecos pupfish and Louisiana pine snake.

Next door to the kangaroo rats, Barber shows us the zoo’s Louisiana pine snakes. The snake, one of the rarest in North America, has been disappearing along with its longleaf pine habitat in East Texas.

“We’re bringing these guys out of hibernation,” she says as a snake slithers through her hands. “They will start breeding next week.”

Zoos and the future

Zoos have an important role to play in the world of conservation. With more than 10,000 species of animals from all parts of the world (many rare or endangered), zoos attract large numbers of people interested in wildlife and have unparalleled expertise in the management of animals. Zoos can provide a safety net for species in danger of extinction and mobilize the public for worldwide conservation.

For some people, zoo animals provide their only contact with wild animals, so the significance of zoo interactions will only increase.

Texas zoo animals still spark wonder about the natural world, but now zoos also tell the stories of their increasingly fragile habitats. Zoos open the door for conservation so people will care about wild things.

Together, it might be possible to save Texas’ prairie-chickens, toads and kangaroo rats along with the world’s elephants, rhinos and cheetahs.

Russell Roe is the managing editor at Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.

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