Mar 21

The Conservation Conversation

Dr. Cheryl Morris, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium’s new Chief Conservation Officer, compares the zoo’s conservation work to a swimming duck. To the passive observer, it looks like it’s just moving along placidly, but beneath the surface, it is constantly paddling its feet. “Conservation is what we do, it’s been a part of us all along, but we want people to know more about what it is we are doing to save species. It is a very complex set of activities that people don’t always see or know about," Morris says. "My job is to help tell that story."

Part of that story involves high profile projects like the zoo’s participation in the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, which is almost cinematic in scope. But, Morris emphasizes, for every epic undertaking that installs Omaha zoo scientists in different parts of the globe for the better part of a year, there are hundreds of smaller, equally worthwhile conservation initiatives happening every day at the zoo. “You could almost name a species, and I could tell you some way we are contributing to their conservation.”

That’s where the tireless paddling comes in. “There are many people involved in conservation at any level, and there are a lot of moving pieces: legislative, working with local communities, habitat protection, just to name a few.” Morris says. “Working with animals in human care has its own complexities.”

For example, the zoo has several animal assurance populations that our scientists are continuously working to conserve. The new director of reproductive sciences, Dr, Jason Herrick, is leading a project that partners with other Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos to develop a tiger genome resource bank of blood and semen samples that will help ensure tiger sustainability in zoos all over the U.S.. The zoo also is in the planning stages of a tiger breeding center that will be off-exhibit at the Wildlife Safari Park. “A critical aspect for all felids to have sustainable populations is space,” says Morris, adding that AZA zoos collectively manage over 18 different felid species with limited spaces. “We have taken serious note that sustaining our managed assurance populations requires additional space. Additionally, developing off-exhibit space for tigers allows the cats more privacy. We have learned a tremendous amount from the successes of our cheetah breeding center at the Wildlife Safari Park, and look forward to contributing more substantially to our AZA tiger assurance populations.”

With the help of generous donors, the zoo also contributes financially to several conservation projects around the world. In addition to patron member and Zoo Mamas and Zoo Daddys, Morris says, every person who gives to, or spends money at, the zoo is involved. “When you buy your membership, or you pay your admission, to come see the aquarium, elephants or tigers, you are playing a role in their conservation. Even when you buy something at the gift shop, some of that money is going to support our wildlife conservation efforts worldwide.”

While AZA zoos have always been collaborative about conservation, today it is more urgent than ever to engage the public. “Today we are faced with a major extinction crisis,” says Morris. “We need to reach the 186 million visitors to AZA zoos every year and connect them with this incredible story about conservation, so that they know they are a part of it.”