Samantha Sassone, Lead Zookeeper
Chehaw's participation in AZA's Red Wolf Species Survival Program is a perfect example of how captive animals can help their wild relatives. Not only are we helping to increase the population of this critically endangered species, but we are broadcasting the news far and wide. Opponents may claim that zoos promote animal births solely to increase revenue. Let me give assurance that increasing revenue is not the reason we zookeepers bombard Chehaw's PR Coordinator with photos and stories of the wolf pups.
For me personally, the value of any zoo is measured by its ability to educate the public and use its collection to promote animal conservation. Simply put, I believe that zoo animals are not in captivity just to be seen by the public. They provide an opportunity for the public to learn. There is no better way to develop an appreciation for another living creature than to see it in the flesh. Zoo animals must be transformed into ambassadors that promote the welfare of their species.
Over the past week, I have watched Chehaw's Red Wolves become true ambassadors. Their photos and stories have been shared all over social media, the local evening news, and even the front page of our local paper.
Here is a zookeeper's dream come true: You (average zoo patron) come to Chehaw specifically to see the Red Wolf pups, because you've been besieged by adorable photos. Instead, you find an adult Red Wolf staring into your eyes, and you can see the intelligence behind them. Then, you watch a mother wolf tenderly grooming and nursing her pups while the father prowls nearby, supporting her while she cares for the young. Suddenly, you realize that Red Wolves are capable of sustaining strong social bonds. You begin to feel a connection to these animals and to this species. You learn that they were once native to Georgia, so you do a little research on your own. You read articles about the issues threatening the wild Red Wolf population in North Carolina, and you become a voice supporting predators in their native ranges.
If the above scenario plays out even once, this zoo will have accomplished something amazing for wildlife conservation. And the first step was simply to promote these significant births to various forms of media.
Opponents to zoos may say that people should be visiting animals in the wild rather than in zoos. The truth is that the vast majority of people will never have the opportunity. And even if they did, the effects of millions of people trampling through native habitat just for a glimpse of a lion, well, that would be catastrophic.
I am lucky to work at a facility that maintains high standards of animal care, hence the AZA accreditation, and actively promotes not just itself, but animal welfare and conservation in general.