Today, April 8th, is National Zoo Lover's Day and we asked our wildlife ecologist Axel Hunnicutt to share his thoughts on the role of zoos and how the Bronx Zoo was a critical influence on inspiring him to devote his life to wildlife conservation.


Zoos are definitely a contentious subject for most. For many they are viewed as being in complete contradiction to aiding any sort of serious wildlife conservation. This is likely due to the fact that indeed many zoos around the globe are little better than circuses, offering little to no animal husbandry, substandard or even horrific enclosures for animals, and largely are just a means to exploit animals to maximize profits with no interest in giving back to those species in the wild.

However, modern zoos that many of us know today are quite the opposite and are perhaps the most important pillar of conservation awareness in a rapidly urbanizing world. Today in my job as a wildlife ecologist in South Africa, it's difficult to imagine a life without constant exposure to the diversity of species I see. However, chances were that as child born and raised in the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, I would have never seen any of them in my lifetime.

Western lowland gorilla - Photo credit: Geoffrey Oddie/WildScreenExchange

Western lowland gorilla - Photo credit: Geoffrey Oddie/WildScreenExchange

The thing that changed that and completely redirected my life and career trajectory was New York's Bronx Zoo.  Run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Bronx Zoo is much more than just a menagerie; simply put is is the centre of conservation education for the city and the area. The Bronx Zoo, as well as other zoos run by or partnered with credible conservation organizations, offer children and adults more than just a chance to view animals from around the world, they also offer the facts and perspective needed to interpret the experience of each species.  While most children will gaze in awe at each species, they also walk away with an important understanding and context for the conservation status and future that that animals holds in this world. Today more than ever we need both of these; we need the awe and we need the context. 

As a young child I became addicted to the zoo. I wanted to see every animal and learn as much as I could about them. When I was nine years old I remember they opened the "Congo" exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. Inside they had recreated the rainforests of central Africa and had extremely well done enclosures for rare animals like the Okapi, offering the chance for a nine year old to travel into one of the most remote natural areas of the world and get a glimpse of a species that eluded naturalists in Africa for decades, only being described in 1901. The main species however was the western lowland gorilla; a critically endangered ape that is all to similar to us and yet is fast having its habitat destroyed by us.

The first time I set eyes on a gorilla was in this exhibit, where only a pane of glass separated me from a family of them. A young gorilla similar in age to myself at the time came over to me and we stood there looking into each other's eyes. I put my hand to the glass and he did the same against mine. From that moment onwards, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. 

An Okapi. Photo Credit: Martin Harvey/WildscreenExchange

An Okapi. Photo Credit: Martin Harvey/WildscreenExchange

Zoos offer people access and exposure to their own natural history, as well as to the natural history of the rest of the planet and far reaching corners of the world. I am a firm believer that it is only what we are exposed to and understand that we are willing to invest in and protect. At the end of the day that is what we will have left.  Many will say that the life of a zoo animal is one that has been taken from the wild where it should be. That may be the case, but those select individuals act as critical ambassadors for their species. Their lives are not wasted, but are critical to teaching us who and what they are, why are they so incredible, and that they still exist and need our help. 

Zoos are our portal to understanding the wild world that we cannot reach and is fast disappearing. More than ever now, we need the modern zoo in our society.

- Axel Hunnicutt, April 8 2018


Wild Tomorrow Fund