Zoos and Aquariums:
Raising Awareness of Conservation Issues

Visiting a zoo or aquarium is a great way for individuals and families to gain emotional ties to wildlife and participate in conservation initiatives.  Conservation messages relayed to visitors aid in teaching them how to contribute to the preservation of wildlife and their related habitats.
Environmental education is a core element of the mission and purpose at the Salisbury Zoo, in Salisbury, Md.  “We promote ideas to raise awareness of conservation issues through our educational programs, signage throughout the Zoo and our newsletter.  Also, our special events are designed to provide visitors with a wide variety of information and topics about the environment,” said zoo Director Joel Hamilton.  This year, the zoo hosted 30 different environmental organizations that provided ideas on how to increase awareness of conservation around the Chesapeake Bay.
Each year, the zoo strives to improve their education programs and messaging.  “We will soon create an environmental center that focuses on teaching visitors about conservation issues surrounding reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates,” said Hamilton.  The building will be constructed utilizing sustainable design and materials so that the structure will also serve as a teaching tool.
Many of the zoos 350,000 annual visitors are children, and most of the formal education programs are geared towards these younger guests, such as the weekly story time that focuses on books about various animals and sends a message of conservation to the children.
Mystic Aquarium, in Mystic, Conn., has numerous programs in place to help educate the public on both local and international conservation issues.  “We are home to the Seal Rescue Clinic, where stranded marine animals are rehabilitated with the intent for release,” said MaryEllen Mateleska, public conservation manager.  “Additionally, we are dedicated to the conservation of the African penguin, by participating in the species survival plan (SSP) with other facilities throughout the United States, as well as working directly in South Africa.”
All on-site conservation programs are designed to engage children, according to Mateleska.  “Conservation awareness is included in our summer camp, classroom and preschool programming,” Mateleska said.  There is also a teen group in place, which serves to encourage high school students to take an active role in conservation duties.
The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, located in Virginia Beach, Va., aims to educate the public about Virginia’s marine environment.  “Our Stranding Response Program is nationally renowned for its work in whale and sea turtle research and is one of the ways we raise awareness of marine mammal and sea turtle issues,” said Dr. Jeffrey Mahon, director of exhibits and animal husbandry.  “We also have multimedia exhibits that cover climate change, wetland protection, threats to sea turtles and marine mammal stranding.”
The aquarium, which brings in 650,000 visitors annually, has selected several key issues, such as climate change, endangered species and overfishing to focus on for the busy summer season.  “There will be targeted information on these issues throughout the aquarium,” Mahon said.
Teaching children about these important issues is of utmost importance to the aquarium.  “We have dozens of programs for K-12 and preschoolers.  For example, our Toddler Tuesday programs offer easy-to-grasp conservation messages to little ones, with a puppet show based on a conservation-themed book,” Mahon said.
The Virginia Aquarium exhibits many endangered species, such as sea turtles, sharks, harbor seals, komodo dragons and many more.
Conservation awareness has been in the message and mission of the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) since it was founded in Newport News, Va., in 1966.  Two hundred and fifty thousand visitors attend the museum each year and, of those, 50,000 are school-aged kids, so the museum is focused on conservation programs targeted to children.  In the summer of 2010, the museum, with the help of school students, conducted a “turtle census” to determine what species of turtles were in their lake.  The students were able to learn about turtle identification, biology, behavior and threats to the turtles.  “An exhibit based on the census is coming soon,” said Executive Director Paige Hayhurst.  Family safaris, spelunking and tagging butterflies are other ways to engage children and raise their awareness of conservation issues.
“So much is being done right now to bring conservation messages to light,” said Hayhurst.  “We have our Living Greenhouse, which instructs guests on how to have an earth-friendly home, through living, building and gardening in a ‘green’ way.” 
There is also the red wolf species survival program.  “We work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to reintroduce red wolves into the wild,” said Hayhurst.  The VLM is the closest facility to Alligator River, the only place in the country where red wolves currently live in the wild.
There are also 12 other endangered species at the museum, with exhibits that offer information about those protected species.
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., there are several methods in place to spread awareness of conservation issues, according to Director of Conservation Laura Bankey.  “We have messages about conservation both in our building and outside in our public spaces that relate to the animals we care for.  In addition, we have field conservation programs, in particular, the marine animal rescue program (MARP),” said Bankey.  MARP rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine animals. 
Bankey also mentioned the Chesapeake Bay habitat restoration activities, in which many community citizens participate.  “In the last 10 years, we have helped restore 150 acres of land and have planted 1.3 million native plants.  All of this was done by community volunteers and school groups,” Bankey said.
School groups are a large focus of conservation programming at the aquarium. “There is the Henry Hall program, in which middle school-aged children are immersed in conservation activities locally and afar.  We take them to the Keys to snorkel and to Maine to see coastal habitats,” Bankey remarked.
There is also the restoration work done by schoolchildren.  “The kids take care of young plants throughout the school year and then plant them around the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Similarly, they are given young terrapins early in the year.  They take care of them, learn about their life cycle and finally they release them back to their home,” Bankey said.
Over 1.6 million visitors are expected to visit the National Aquarium this year.
The graphics throughout Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, in Gaitlinburg, Tenn., deliver a strong message of conservation, as they highlight issues affecting animals in the wild.  The day guests also have the opportunity to view the marine science shows in the Discovery Center Classroom.  “These marine shows focus on specific marine animals and always have an underlying conservation theme,” said Education Director Courtney Thompson.
Various activities are held in the aquarium throughout the year to increase public awareness of conservation issues.  “On Earth Day, guests come to the classroom to make a craft and learn what they can do to make a positive impact on the environment.  We plan to add more of these activities, as they provide fun for the families, while teaching ways in which to help animals in the wild,” Thompson said.
Thompson also described their SSP, which works to increase the number of healthy African penguins in captivity.  “If a catastrophic event were to happen, we would be able to raise animals that could be released back into the wild,” Thompson said. 
Ripley’s Web site also provides information on how conservation can be translated into everyday lives.

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