These days, the word zoo is not always associated with the most positive of images. But that isn’t the case with Edinburgh Zoo. This fantastic zoo to focuses on all things conservation and teaches you just how we are impacting the world and our favorite animals – big and small.
A Change of Pace
Growing up, the zoo was a staple of my childhood. It wasn’t until college, when I became enlightened about the plight of zoo animals through a PETA campaign, that I truly realized just what was going on behind the scenes in the zoos that I enjoyed so well.
Enter Edinburgh Zoo.
A few weeks ago, I found myself venturing to this zoological park on Corstorphine Hill. I won’t say that I was looking for much in the way of being impressed, but I found myself with a free pass and an afternoon to burn, so off I went.
Boy, was I surprised.
A Focus on Conservation
Firstly, this zoo has made excellent use of limited space. Located on top of a hill, I was skeptical that the zoo would be able to provide adequate enclosures for animals to receive full enrichment and natural movement. I was was completely pleased to see that, being located on a hill, the zoo had been able to create spacious enclosures that were layered into the landscape. This allowed the animals to enjoy tiered enclosures with varying terrain.
Animals such as small, rock-climbing deer enjoyed large habitat with plenty of spaces to climb and repose away from the crowds that sought them. All animals also enjoyed bountiful natural water sources and shade from trees, burrows and rocks. Most of the enclosures also seemed state of the art, and offered readily accessible indoor and outdoor space.
But what really surprised me was the massive focus on conservation.
The Edinburgh Zoo doesn’t mince words. Each talk we attended (4-5 in total) discussed the zoos various efforts to promote conservation – even of animals that are not considered to be endangered. For example, the Edinburgh Zoo champions a fantastic programme in Africa in which families are given a goat (or chickens as one attendant informed us) in order to begin a farming practice and move away from the illegal animal trade or even-worse poaching.
“These aren’t bad people,” one reptile handler told us, “…these are people just trying to make the best out of a bad situation. These are people trying to feed their families. And we keep buying these reptiles illegally. Well, we can change that. We can get them started on a path that will help them turn away from poaching and support their families in a long-term and legal way…”
At another chat, we were told about the massive and devastating impact of the palm oil industry while watching a family of Asian Short-Clawed Otters. We were painted the picture of the loss of habitat, dwindling family numbers and horrendous hunting practices that plague the otter species, as well as a number of animal species around the world. We were given facts, figures and easy ways to slow and stop the deforestation and habitat loss of these wonderful animals. Efforts were as minimal as turning off lights when you leave a room, and ranged all the way up to giving money to select conservation groups and changing lifestyle practices through the purchase of fair-trade and eco-responsible products.
It was refreshing to see a zoo doing so much, with a staff (which included a high number of volunteer members) that were so knowledgeable on conservation and who seemed so passionate about the animals they cared for. Each talk, indeed each enclosure, encompassed some sort of information on the danger each animal in the park faced in the wild, as well as what we could do to help them. Each enclosure also mentioned Edinburgh Zoo’s various efforts (whether through a programme like the one listed above, or through financial contribution) to help save those animals.
To top it all off, the zoo even contained a handful of species now considered “extinct”, such as the Socorro Dove. This dove now exists only in a handful of places, with Edinburgh Zoo containing 10% of the world’s remaining population. They are now focusing on (successfully) breeding the doves and rereleasing them back onto the island of Socorro, Mexico.
Giving Wildlife a Fighting Chance
One thing I noticed missing from Edinburgh Zoo was their Snow Leopards. From beginning to end, you will see the Snow Leopard plastered across all the marketing and advertising material for Edinburgh Zoo, but the leopards themselves are missing from the park.
I was pleased to find out the answer to this riddle as well.
As many of you will know, the Snow Leopard is one of the major endangered species, and one that hordes of conservation groups have been working hard to save over the last decade. The story is no different with Edinburgh Zoo, which house themselves a “breeding pair” of Snow Leopards.
However, as the ultimate goal of Edinburgh Zoo is to conserve the species, they decided that the leopards needed to be housed in the most natural of enclosures, so off to Highland Wildlife Park they went.
Here, they get to enjoy not only more space, a more natural climate and a more relaxed experience away from major crowds, but the leopards also get to partake in free-hunting. That’s right, folks. Away from the prying eyes of commercial crowds and school groups, live game is released into the Snow Leopard enclosure and they are encourage to hunt at will.
Upon speaking to a volunteer at Edinburgh Zoo, I found out the reasoning for this move – straight from the lion’s mouth. (Sorry, had to do it.)
“As will all of the endangered species that we are lucky enough to care for here at the Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, our ultimate goal is to see the animals, or their offspring, released back into the wild, where they can thrive and revive the species. They can’t do this if they are used to be fed by and cared for by humans. So we moved the Snow Leopards north. There, they can hunt naturally away from the squeamish eyes of children. They can roam a larger area and partake in a more natural life. It is our hope that this pair will soon become acclimated to one another and breed. Their offspring can grow up with minimal human interaction and natural instinct and – hopefully – one day be released back into the wild where they will thrive once again…”
It was hard (though pleasant) for me to admit, but the Edinburgh Zoo was a great experience. The passion that the handlers and volunteers held for the animals was so apparent that it was truly inspiring. It was also refreshing to see that, unlike many other zoos, Edinburgh Zoo is a zoo that is truly putting their money where their mouths are – through conservation and education.
It’s so easy to tear things apart and rip things down in this day and age. We’ve watched as major animal crime perpetrators such as SeaWorld and Barnum & Bailey’s were exposed. That’s what we’ve come to know as the norm, and that’s the kind of thing that we are very quick to expect from zoos and other animal-based attractions.
But Edinburgh Zoo was different. Much, much different.
Through their conservation efforts, they are actively impacting the lives of animal species around the globe. Not only this, but they are making animals present, accessible and real to many thousands of people each year that would only know them from the occasional storybook or Attenborough documentary. The work they are doing is genuine and real, and while maybe not ideal to those of us who only want animals to exist in their happiest, natural spaces – this type of conservation, education and exposure is what we need now more than ever. We have to give a face to these beautiful creatures that are being destroyed everyday. We have to make people care. And excellent facilities such as Edinburgh Zoo are doing just that.
So, if you’re ever in Edinburgh and have an afternoon to enjoy – why not try Edinburgh Zoo? Attend some talks and find out just how you can change the world around you.