Who hasn't been to a zoo? It's probably safe to assume pretty much everyone out there has been to a zoo or aquarium at some point in their life. Perhaps the last time you visited a zoo was during an elementary school field trip. If you haven't experienceded one in a while you might be surprised at how much they've changed in recent years. I'm not really that old, and in my lifetime I have personally witnessed my hometown zoo undergo revolutionary changes that have put it among the top zoos in the country. I can remember when the big cats lived their entire lives on the concrete floors of their prison cell sized cages, but boy have things changed.
There are lots of zoos out there, and some of the lesser ones have given zoos on the whole a bum rap. Zoos and aquariums can be controversial, and are often protested by animal rights activist groups. As a former zoo professional, I can say that only rarely are zoos even understood by the greater biological conservation community. Zoos are often unjustly looked down upon by conservation workers in other types of scientific institutions. The "good" zoos and aquariums out there are typically members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and as such they have pretty high standards for accreditation to live up to. In short, it's hard to be a crappy outdated zoo and maintain accreditation by AZA.
AZA is at the forefront of wildlife conservation around the world. The conservation efforts of member institutions go far beyond the perimeter fences of the zoos or walls of the aquariums. If they are not directly involved by sending their own staff into the field, then they at minimum (according to AZA guidelines) help fund field biologists, nature preserves, and conservation education programs around the globe. My hometown zoo is one of only four zoos in the U.S. to exhibit Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and they are actively researching the nutritional dynamics of bamboo and how pandas (which are basically carnivores) are able to subsist on a seemingly nutritionally deficient diet. Their work on bamboo goes well beyond the zoo into the Qinling Mountains of China where they are studying bamboo ecology in the field.
Even still, the biggest contribution of AZA zoos and aquariums is really here at home. There is an AZA institution somewhere near you that helps teach the next generation to care about the natural world that we all enjoy so much. Zoos are places that connect people, especially children, with nature. It may not be quite the same as hiking, hunting, or fishing, but for many children, especially in urban areas, it may be their first close encounter with the wild. AZA institutions are not just about saving animals from extinction through captive breeding programs. Zoos and aquariums could potentially serve as "modern arks" for that purpose, but in general they are more focused on promoting a conservation ethic that includes an understanding that wild habitat is what really needs to be saved. If we save wild habitat, then we in turn save wild animals. That's something any knowledgeable sportsman can understand and get behind.
So during the holidays, when you've got some time off, consider visiting a zoo or aquarium near you. Aquariums are always in season, but winter can be one of the best times to visit a zoo if you want to avoid crowds. Winter zoo visitors often have the whole place pretty much to themselves. It's also one of the best seasons to see the animals actually doing something. Tons of visitors pack the zoo on a hot summer afternoon only to complain that all of the animals are sleeping. Wouldn't you sleep in the shade on a 95+ degree day? Additionally, many zoos offer holiday programs for the kids and light displays in the evenings at this time of year.
I'll leave you with a really neat zoo fact and a couple of videos...
Zoo Fact: The combined annual attendance of all AZA member institutions exceeds that of all four major league professional sports combined. Yes, I said combined. The annual attendance at all MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL games is less than that of AZA zoos and aquariums. Pretty impressive, huh? (Just by the numbers, these places are a pretty big deal in our modern society.)
The first video is just to give an idea of what AZA zoos and aquariums are all about, and the second one is some of the best AZA commercials of the past year. You may see your hometown zoo or aquarium among them. Enjoy!