May 18, 2018

The Hill is a Zoo…. Literally

By McKenna Guettinger

One of the best things about my house in Saint Paul is how close it is to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Como is an amazing zoo that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is an accreditation process that less than 10% of zoos complete. In addition to being AZA accredited, it is one of the few zoos left in the country that doesn’t charge an admission fee! The zoo is home to a wide variety of species including gorillas, orangutans, large cats, giraffes, and many more! Keepers not only work with the animals in the zoo collection, but they also are encouraged to contribute their expertise to conservation and rehabilitation efforts abroad.

Over the years I have volunteered, interned, and worked at Como as well as visited regularly. Because of this work I have been able to learn more about what AZA does to support their member zoos, as well as field conservation work. I was excited to hear that AZA was going to be in Washington this week to speak with congressional offices regarding their conservation work, and the important work they do educating the public on endangered species issues. As it turned out, the Campus Director of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory was in town for the event, and I was able to catch up with her during a coffee with your senator event before their advocacy began. It was great to get her firsthand perspective on what the AZA would be advocating for, and also an update on Como’s new aquatics exhibit, which will be beginning construction soon!

AZA also coordinates a Congressional Reception every year, which literally brings the zoo to the Hill. AZA institutions from the surrounding area bring ambassador animals to talk about conservation and breeding programs that the animals are involved in. This year the ambassador animals included a penguin, crocodile, sloth, rabbit, macaw, and sharks. Ambassador animals play an important role in spreading the message regarding conservation both in the wild and in zoos. Many of the animals attending the reception were part of Species Survival Programs (SSP), which is a program that I like to describe as eHarmony for animals. The program evaluates genetics, breeding potential, and behavioral compatibilities for all breeding aged animals of a particular species in captivity to find the best matches. For example, if a tiger at one zoo is found to be a good match with another tiger across the country, they will be transferred to a zoo facility that could accommodate their breeding and gestation needs. This system ensures that genetic diversity is maintained in a captive population, and that zoos will have healthy captive populations for generations to come. It was great to see these ambassador animals on the Hill educating offices on the role that AZA institutions play at home and abroad. The continued support of Congress is essential to ensure that endangered and vulnerable species are given a chance at survival. In case I still haven’t convinced you that AZA institutions are invaluable to public education and conservation, here’s my shameless plug for all the amazing work that keepers at Como are working on internationally: