by Jon Biemer

Zoos and aquariums help heal our planet. In addition to wonderful experiential and educational activities, many zoos and aquariums have committed themselves to species rescue and recovery.

I am a student of strategies that can create a healthier future – Handprints. (See my Clearing article about Handprints.) My research has shown me that zoos and aquariums now represent a beautiful, perhaps essential, collective Handprint.

Wildlife Conservation

Of the ten thousand zoos and aquariums worldwide, 239 (in 2019) meet the standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires support of wildlife conservation.

The Toledo Zoo in Ohio is engaged in the Mariana Avifauna Conservation program. Invasive egg-eating brown tree snakes have devastated native bird populations in the Pacific Mariana Islands. While relocation efforts continue for the threatened species, the Toledo Zoo hosts a reserve population of the white-throated ground dove, the golden white-eye dove, the bridled white-eye dove, and the Mariana fruit dove.

The Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and New York Aquarium all host the World Conservation Society. This is a collaboration between a leading wildlife conservation organization and New York City’s aquarium and zoos. The World Conservation Society focuses on at-risk birds, amphibians, and mammals in fifteen regions, including temperate Asian mountains and grasslands, Patagonia in South America, and Madagascar and the western Indian Ocean.

The Monterey Aquarium and the Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach, CA) cooperate to recover the endangered sea otter. Between 2002 and 2016 staff released 37 otters that were nursed by surrogate mother otters. Their survival rates matched those born in the wild. The Monterey Aquarium also teaches the teachers. Their teacher development programs support climate action summits, help instructors get students excited about protecting coastal ecosystems, develop awareness about ocean plastics, and connect conservation and technology.



Each year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program spotlights ten endangered species. SAFE engages some 180 million annual visitors and obtains corporate sponsorship to help protect habitats, mitigate threats, and restore threatened populations. Below is a list of specific SAFE projects from their website. They last from a few months to ongoing.

Species Program leadership Species Program leadership
African Lion Denver Zoo Eastern Indigo Snake Central Florida Zoo & Gardens
African Penguin Not identified (South African project) Giraffe Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Colorado Springs, CO); Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
African Vulture North Carolina Zoo; Denver Zoo Gorilla Cleveland Metroparks Zoo; Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society (NY)
American Red Wolf North Carolina Zoo; Endangered Wolf Center (Saint Louis, MO) Jaguar Albuquerque BioPark
Andean Bear Cleveland Metroparks Zoo North America Monarch (butterfly) Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment; San Diego Zoo Global
American Turtle Tennessee Aquarium Orangutan Henry Vilas Zoo (Madison, WI); Kansas City Zoo
Asian Elephant Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Radiated Tortoise Zoo Knoxville
Asian Hornbill North Carolina Zoo North American Songbird (various species) Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Washington, DC); Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Andean Highland Flamingo Zoo Conservation Outreach Group; Reid Park Zoo (Tucson, AZ) Shark and Ray (various species) Seeking participants
Black-footed Ferret Louisville Zoological Garden; Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) Sea Turtle Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Atlantic Acropora Coral Steinhart Aquarium (San Francisco) Tree Kangaroo of Papua New Guinea Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, WA)
Black Rhinoceros Buffalo Zoo Whooping Crane San Diego Zoo Global; Houston Zoo
Cheetah Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (Omaha, NE) Vaquita (of the porpoise family) The Living Desert Zoo (Palm Desert, CA)
Chimpanzee Lion Country Safari (West Palm Beach, FL) Western Pond Turtle San Francisco Zoo


Vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Only about ten of these small porpoises remain living in the Gulf of California, near the Colorado River delta. Conservation efforts have been frustrated by corruption within the Mexican government. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

SAFE is the tip of the iceberg of AZA conservation efforts. The AZA operates about 500 Animal Programs, many with Species Survival Plans which are managed by Taxon Advisory Groups. These TAG’s develop action plans and goals for animals both in the wild and in zoos and aquariums.










Pacific Northwest Zoos and Aquariums

What are our Northwest members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums doing for species preservation? Here’s a hint.

Facility Species and Programs Supported
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium,

Tacoma WA

·      Programs to recover Red Wolves, Tigers, and Sharks

·      Dr. Holly Reed Conservation Fund (includes support for above programs)

·      Wildlife Trafficking Alliance

·      Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (rainforest protection)

·      Plastic reduction campaign

Oregon Coast Aquarium,

Newport, OR

·      “The Oregon Coast Aquarium [provides] critical care to endangered marine wildlife like sea turtles, northern fur seals, and snowy plovers. The goal is to provide triage and care for the animals until they are deemed eligible for release or transport to another facility for prolonged care and rehabilitation,” according to spokesperson Courtney Pace.

·      Awareness-raising about endangered species, including Vaquita campaign in cooperation with WhaleTimes.

·      Plans include building a state-of-the-art Marine Rehabilitation Center.

Oregon Zoo,

Portland, OR

·      Polar Bears International

·      Kasese Wildlife Conservation Awareness Organization (Uganda)

·      Hutan’s Kinabatangan Oran-utan Conservation Programme (Borneo and Sumatra)

·      Action for Chetahs in Kenya

·      Painted Dog Conservation (Zimbabwe)

·      International Elephant Foundation

·      International Rhino Foundations

·      Tiger Conservation Campaign

· (habitat protection in 11 countries worldwide)

Seattle Aquarium ·      Sea Otter Conservation

·      Sea Turtle Rehabilitation

·      Octopus Survey (specific to Puget Sound)

·      Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award

·      Seattle Aquarium Sylvia Earle Medal (for “inspiring conservation of our marine environment”)

·      Seattle Aquarium Ocean Conservation Honors (two honorees per year)

Wildlife Safari, Winston, OR ·      Cheetah Conservation Botswana (Wildlife Safari is the top cheetah breeding center in the western hemisphere.)

·      International Elephant Foundation

·      Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Woodland Park,

Seattle, WA

·      Living Northwest (projects focused on native raptors, turtles, butterflies and carnivores and their habitats)

·      Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (Papua New Guinea)

·      Conservation Partner Program (including Cranes of Asia’s work with the people and avian fauna of Russia’s Amur River basin)

·      Wildlife Survival Program (activities which support AZA Species Survival Plans)

Zoo Boise,

Boise, Idaho

·      “Part of every admission and proceeds from our most popular attractions go to the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund.” 2019 Fund grantees included Garongosa Restoration (Mozambique), AZA SAFE (see above), Giraffe Conservation Fund, Paso Pacific (sustainable solutions for people and wildlife in Nicaragua), Red Panda Network, Snow Leopard Trust, Wildlife SOS, and…

·      Table Rock restoration (part of five-year commitment to restore the Boise Foothills which were devastated by fire)


Billings, MT

·      “A good majority of the animals that call ZooMontana home are rescues. These include animals that have been permanently injured to animals kept illegally as pets. ZooMontana takes pride in giving animals a second chance. Those that are not rescues are a part of crucial breeding programs designed for species survival and genetic purity.”


Something happened beneath the radar of popular media. As Zoo Boise says, the purpose of a zoo visit has shifted “to help save the very creatures they [are] seeing.” Zoo Boise instituted its conservation fee on admissions and events which goes beyond meeting operating expenses. Since 2007 they have raised more than $3 million. Other institutions have picked up on this practice. That’s an impressive Handprint in its own right. Writ large, the quantity and diversity of AZA programs testify to the maturity of a vision of species preservation.

While researching this article, I came to the conclude that zoos and aquariums are analogous to a keystone species. When the keystone species is healthy, most species within its biom thrive. We now have a powerful network, a system with infrastructure, expertise, experience, and constituents. Not only are iconic species protected. The synergy of young people, teachers, scientists, tourists, accountants, volunteers, and donors nurtures the entire global ecosystem.


Jon Biemer has more than forty years of experience working on sustainability-creating initiatives.  Biemer is a mechanical engineer and holds a certificate in Process-oriented Psychology.  He started Creating Sustainability as a sole-proprietor Organizational Development consulting practice in 2008.  Hi lives in Portland, Oregon.

This article is adapted from Jon Biemer’s book, Our Environmental Handprints: Recover the Land, Reverse Global Warming, Reclaim the Future, published by Rowman & Littlefield, May 5, 2012.