Nature Calls: Palm Beach Zoo, Conservation Warriors

I have been going to the Palm Beach Zoo, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums member zoo, for as long as I can remember. It is the first zoo I ever visited, just a toddler peering through the enclosures at monkeys and panthers. It was here that I first saw the wild animals that held my fasciation in books and on television, the first place I experienced the difference between a domesticated and wild animal.

For many, their first visit to the zoo is not an experience but a seminal moment in their young lives. It's an event that leaves an impression and spurs the imagination, broadening their tiny worldview beyond Sesame Street and backyard forts.

For me, going to the Palm Beach Zoo is still a highlight of my rather busy life and one of the real perks of this job. Getting to go behind the fence on assignment, seeing exhibits’ night houses and behind-the-scenes viewing of the animals is a unique experience. What makes each visit special is this zoo is constantly evolving, always working on its mission, continually improving. I am amazed at how such a small zoo, just 23 acres, can seem new each time I step foot through the gate. The mission of conservation and animal welfare not only takes precedent but also is carried through to each visitor who walks into the park.

Though small in stature, the Palm Beach Zoo is at the forefront of the fight for endangered species survival. The birth of three Malayan tigers at the Palm Beach Zoo in 2011 was a pivotal moment in the zoo’s involvement in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan.

“Three of the five [Malayan tiger] cubs born [in 2011] in all the AZA zoos were born right here on this site,” said Andrew Aiken (left), president and CEO of the Palm Beach Zoo, while pointing to three larger-than-life photographs of Jaya, Penari and Bunga. “That was sort of a feather in our cap, having proven that our animal care staff is top notch. Tigers don’t just get together and that’s it. It is a drawn-out process, and a very dangerous one if you have the wrong pairs getting together—you just have no idea. So the judgment calls and capacity of our animal care staff to understand the language of the animals and understand when they can be put together, when they should not, is incredibly important. Our folks have done that very, very well. The majority of the expanded population is right here—people are learning about them and looking at them every day. So that is all pretty exciting stuff.”

Aiken’s tenure began with a humble footing, as a volunteer. “I joined the board as a volunteer in 2002 when [the zoo] got some substantial sponsorships and donations, principally from George Cornell’s family, which was deployed into the Cornell Tropics of America exhibit,” Aiken says. With a background in real estate development, Aiken was tapped as chairman of the Construction Oversight Committee to manage the development and construction of the Cornell Tropics of America, the Reptile House and Wings Over Water exhibits, followed by the 10,000 square-foot, LEED gold-certified Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex—“the first of its kind in North America,” he says—and most recently the Koala House.

Named president/CEO on September 30, 2011 after Dr. Terry Maple retired, Aiken is now leading the zoo into a new phase of development, overseeing the capital campaign and construction of Tiger Valley, an expanded exhibit and night house that will give the zoo’s tiger residents nearly three times the space they currently roam.

“Those investments in and of itself tell a lot about the direction of the institution,” Aiken says, motioning to development offices, a trailer easily into its third decade of use. “Where we invest has to do with animals, their well-being, conservation and education. Those are the core elements of our mission.”

The Palm Beach Zoo’s mission has led it to the forefront of the fight for endangered species survival, taking part in 64 AZA Species Survival Plans. “For a zoo our size, at the lower end of size capacity, a typical AZA zoo would participate in roughly 30 SSPs; we’re double that," Aiken says. "And when you dig deeper, a zoo our size may have one or two leadership roles; we have seven leadership roles. The more you pull back the layers, the more exciting, interesting and compelling the work we are doing gets. We really are an institution that is committed to its mission.”

SSPs are an international hedge against the viability of species in the wild. While conservation efforts in the field—saving species from extinction in the wild takes precedent—SSPs are a genetic proliferation effort to ensure the viability of the genetic code of animals in captivity.

The Palm Beach Zoo's three Malayan tiger cubs are important in terms of numbers to their counterparts in the wild. Currently, 61 are in captivity, and the AZA wants to more than double that to 150 as soon as possible. A flagship species, the tiger gets a lot of love from the public, and deservedly so. But some of the other SSPs the zoo participates in are as equally interesting, such as the Perdido Key Beach Mouse (below). This cute little critter was teetering on the brink of extinction; its historical range of most of Florida’s coast was reduced to just Perdido Key in the panhandle. After hurricanes Erin and Opal in the 1990s, fewer than 40 of these mice were left. Now, thanks to research and a captive breeding and reintroduction program in which the Palm Beach Zoo participated, releasing 16 offspring into the wild, subsequent trappings have shown populations have since tripled, and numbers are expected to rise further.

Though the Perdido Key Beach Mouse may be small in stature, its existence in the natural world is no less important, helping shore up and proliferate the spread of sand dunes. These are the lessons Aiken and his team strive to relate to the public. It’s difficult to convey the importance of an animal as small as a mouse, but putting this species in context with their role in the environment helps paint a broader picture of the interconnectedness of the natural world.

The zoo’s participation in staving this species' extinction not only helps keep the balance of the natural order along the Panhandle but also gave the organization invaluable knowledge and experience in breeding captive animals for repatriation. It is much harder to release captive bred animals then to save animals in the wild. But unfortunately, that is not always an option, especially when influences like natural disaster and human impact through encroachment and development mount a campaign to eradicate their existence.

Conservation efforts like these are just but part of the mission the Palm Beach Zoo has taken upon itself to fulfill. Education is one of the most important torches the zoo carries. “The more work done with these animals, the more we learn, the broader the body of knowledge becomes,” Aiken says. “It falls to us to share what we know.”

Visiting the Palm Beach Zoo is essentially a experience—from the small ones, like animal encounters, signage accompanying exhibits and simple observation, to the more in-depth and targeted ones, including teacher workshops, summer camp, the Wild Zoo Adventure Children’s Workshop and outreach programs.

“We have grown more and more toward more formalized education programs,” Aiken says. The goal is to start early, from stroller and mommy and me programs that “encourages parents to bring in their children for hands-on, tactile learning in our educational complex” and follow the child through their school years, he says.

2012 and 2013 have marked big gains in the education front for the zoo. A summer program launched last year for juniors and seniors in high school brought students in for a weeklong zoological course alongside zoo staff. The science-based course gave students a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo, from operations to animal care, all while expounding the mission and purposes of zoos.

At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the introduction of a new initiative, Zoo School, brings the classroom directly to the zoo for a truly unique experience. Open to Title I fifth-grade classes in the immediate vicinity (if all goes well, the program will expand next school year), the class will come to the zoo for an entire week, using the education complex as a classroom. Students will have their regular studies (math, English and history lessons) as well as science but with an animal conservation twist, replete with animal encounters and discussions with zoo keepers throughout the day. It's the ultimate field trip.

In the vein of continued education, the zoo has teamed with Florida Atlantic University for the first time to offer a college conservation course. The one-credit course, taught by zoo staff approved by FAU and deemed associate professors, gives students first-hand experience while garnering greater insight into the demands of zoological careers, from animal care, husbandry and training to conservation medicine and veterinary care. It also delves into field conservation and research, and technology and environmental education.

But education is not limited to the knowledge expounded through classrooms and public programs but through the research the zoo is constantly undertaking. In the last five years, 45 scientific publications have been published by zoo staff, from points on animal care in zoos to conservation in the wild.

“The real stars of the zoo, in my mind, are our keepers,” Aiken says. “We have 21 keepers and a number of zoological manager/curatorial positions, with more than 80 percent having a background in hard-science—biology, chemistry, zoological sciences.”

This stems back to the zoo’s first branch of the mission, conservation. This is the zoo’s sole purpose, from the animal ambassadors on exhibit, involvement in SSP programs, to research in animal care in captivity as well as work in the field, everything imparts to conservation efforts to save species from the brink. The zoo as a moneymaking proposition is a losing one, but the money raised through fundraising, admission and donations goes to the animals in their care and conservation efforts in the field. The zoo’s involvement is not limited to a check and some signage on the property but is an active participant in the field, be it through data collecting, hard-science and lab work or manual labor, like helping with the construction of wildlife corridors in Argentina for jaguars.

Each branch of the mission, conservation/research, animal care/exhibits and education all act as a leg of a tripod, each contributing to preserve and protect. But in the end, it all comes down to the people who walk through that gate to take a look at the tigers and monkeys.

“Our mission is animals," Aiken says. "We want to bring people in here to explain that mission of conservation, that there needs to be a sustainable balance with food and land development, a knowledge of watershed, where our water comes from and the effect of our daily lives ... We need to make that story compelling, because when it's compelling, it strikes a chord.”

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