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It's a Zoo Out There: Creating Marine Conservation Impacts through Zoological Institution and Animal Involvement

By Heather Crane & Sophia Darling, Houston Zoo, Inc.

Originally published in Soundings Volume 41, Number 4 — Fourth Quarter 2016

The original purpose of zoological facilities was to bring exotic animals into people’s lives for entertainment. This is a controversial topic, but one that is becoming more easy to overcome due to a shift in the culture, the practices, and the perception of zoos all around the world. We have moved away from bars and cages and sterile environments, and toward bringing the naturalistic environments to the animals to the absolute best of our ability. Institutions all over the world are working to educate zoo guests, and to inspire conservation. Now when people come to zoos, and they are brought into a community committed to saving animals in the wild.

Zoos are a highly valuable resource for spreading knowledge and reaching large audiences, with millions of people every year coming to zoos and interacting face-to-face with animals and their keepers. The zoo has pledged to increase what was already a robust commitment to conservation. Our conservation department worked together with Service Systems Associates (SSA), the company that runs the Houston Zoo gift shops, and in July 2015 stopped using and distributing plastic bags. In just three months we saved an average of 200 plastic bags a day from being distributed, and the sales of our conservation reusable canvas bags (see Figure 1) has increased by roughly 200 bags per week. We project that this will prevent 120,000 plastics bags from reaching landfills and waterways annually.

The Staff Conservation Fund is another momentous achievement, and to date has funded 30 conservation programs (eight of which have been geared towards marine conservation) involving 47 staff members. The money raised to support the Fund also comes directly from Zoo employees. In 2004, the Houston Zoo’s Staff Conservation Campaign began as a mechanism for staff to directly support their peers in conservation field work. No other zoo that we are aware of operates such a successful program, a program where zoo employees donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to conserve wildlife. The conservation efforts and projects being accomplished by the Houston Zoo (and zoos all over the world) are phenomenal (see Figure 2).  And in 2014, the sea lion department decided to take action and create an initiative to reduce the presence of monofilament and marine debris in the Galveston Bay area.

Figure 1.

(above) Re-useable conservation bags sold at the Houston Zoo
Image Credit: Conservation Department, Houston Zoo

(right) Houston Zoo conservation successes of 2015
Image Credit: Graphics Department, Houston Zoo

Figure 2.

Galveston, Texas has a thriving fishing community, which in turn uses large amounts of monofilament fishing line. As it is well known, the presence of monofilament in the marine environment can lead to entanglement, resulting in the injury or death of marine life. A former resident of the Houston Zoo, and the real inspiration behind the focus on monofilament, is a charismatic California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) pup named Astro. Astro arrived to the Houston Zoo in 2009 and was deemed un-releasable due to the injuries that he incurred by a suspected entanglement event as a young pup. Although his scars healed, it served as a daily reminder of just how much our actions impact the marine environment and its marine animal inhabitants.Astro passed away from un-related causes in 2012, but he remains an animal ambassador in the truest sense, and he will always be the heart and soul behind this project.

Our staff is small, consisting of four keepers and one supervisor. Although limited in size, our efforts are magnified by zoo resources and the large audience to which compelling marine conservation messaging impacts can be delivered. We started by creating a conservation project model as a resource to help others take on large conservation challenges, as well as help “create shared understanding of and focus on program goals and methodology, relating activities to projected outcomes” (Kellogg Foundation, 2004). To do so, we outlined our inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts (see Figure 3). Next, we created a mind map (see Figure 4) which identified the challenge we wanted to address. The mind map is a helpful tool to organize a conservation effort from start to finish. Each branch of the mind map represents a step towards the ultimate goal, much like directions on a map to follow. Our conservation project model is dynamic, encompassing ex-situ and in-situ conservation work.

Figure 3.

An example of the Project Model, identifying Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, and Impact
Image Credit: Heather Crane

Figure 4. (left side of map)

Figure 4. (right side of map)

Our Mind Map, outlining the steps of the Monofilament Project Model
Image Credit: Heather Crane

To take ex-situ action, the Houston Zoo partnered with NOAA to place monofilament recycling containers on the fishing jetties (see Figure 5). Our sea lion team conducts monthly cleanup efforts to empty the monofilament containers, as well as spend the day cleaning up marine debris along the jetty. A large portion of the project is public outreach. We are sure to stop and have conversations with the local fisherman and educate them about what we are doing and how they can help (see Figures 6 and 7). We also let them know what they should do if they ever encounter an entangled sea turtle, and reference the signs that the zoo’s graphics team created for the jetty. Frequently, we have people see us and pitch in; bringing their trash, fishing line, or even finding a spot of their own to start cleaning up. However, not all of what we want to achieve can be accomplished by monthly, or even weekly, visits to the jetty. Our project is more than just a beach cleanup, and works towards accomplishing our goal of diminishing the presence of marine debris and monofilament in our waterways, while also enhancing the zoo visitors’ experience. As is the case in animal training as well, the real root to solving this problem is through prevention.

Figure 5.

A monofilament recycling container designed by NOAA, along with a “If you hook a sea turtle” sign
Image Credit: Conservation Department, Houston Zoo

Figure 6.

The sea lion team and a crew of volunteers climb among the rocks of the Surfside Jetty on a cleanup day
Image Credit: Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

Figure 7.

Houston Zoo Facilities staff member, Kyle Haley, talks to a local fisherman about taking conservation action
Image Credit: Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

Our efforts in the field, combined with the outstanding ambassador personalities of the California sea lion, allow us to inspire hundreds of guests each day to want to make their own difference. The most frequent presentation given by the sea lion department is the “Ocean Ambassadors” presentation, in which we educate the public on these amazing animals and what we can do to protect them. Almost every day we involve the public in a game of reduce, re-use or recycle (see Figure 8). Monofilament information is also now incorporated into the sea lion shows to educate guests about the detrimental impacts monofilament can have on marine mammal species. After our presentations, each guest is invited to learn more about marine debris impacts by visiting our Houston Zoo Interactive signs. The signs provide a visual representation of what debris looks like from both the human and animal perspective, providing an enlightening experience of how our actions affect wild animals and the environment. Additionally, the sign provides activities and shows each guest how to move from awareness to action by changing their own behaviors (see Figures 8 and 9).

Figure 8.

California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), Kamia, recycling a plastic bottle during an “Ocean Ambassadors” presentation at the Houston Zoo
Image Credit: Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

Figure 9.

The Houston Zoo’s Interactive Marine Debris “WOW” sign located the Sea Lion Exhibit at the Houston Zoo
Image Credit: Houston Zoo

In addition to the efforts of the sea lion team’s monofilament initiative, the Houston Zoo has provided valuable resources and support which made these successes possible. The Houston Zoo’s pledge to make conservation involvement its priority is readily apparent. These are only but a few examples of how zoos are supporting conservation efforts worldwide. The Houston Zoo sea lion team has found conservation success through the use of zoo resources, external partnerships, and a defined project model that utilizes animal ambassadors to reach audiences to move guests from awareness to action. With a vision and inspiration, you can see it’s really quite easy to implement your own conservation initiative! It will take a lot of hard work and persistence, but even the smallest of teams can make major contributions using this project model. Start small, but with a big vision, and watch your initiative flourish. Begin with brainstorming who your core team will involve, then decide what the core team is passionate about. Determine what the needs are, and from there begin researching whether you want to contribute to an existing initiative, or tackle a whole new conservation challenge. Just as you use small approximations in training your animals, do the same for your core team. From here, you can branch out and involve other departments. Before you know it, you will be at the one-year mark, re-evaluating and looking at your successes in a year in review. We are excited to share our conservation project model and hope it inspires others to take on a local conservation challenge of your own!

Figure 10.

A young guest and his family interacts with the interactive sign while learning about the fate of plastics in the ocean environment
Image Credit: Sophia Darling/Houston Zoo

Figure 11.

An infographic summarizing 1 year of Jetty cleanups
Image Credit: Houston Zoo