On a cold and drizzly weekday afternoon at the Houston Zoo, zookeepers give elephants a drink from a hose and show visitors the zoo's three generations of giraffes: grandma, mom and baby. Behind a large, fenced-off section, workers busily construct the zoo's groundbreaking new South American Pantanal exhibit.
That same day, far beyond the zoo walls, employees carry out tasks less visible but increasingly important to the future of zoos: releasing egg strands of the endangered Houston toad into the wild and teaching elephant keepers in Thailand how to treat elephant herpes.
Today you can still see groups of schoolkids in matching shirts ooh and ahh over exotic animals. But Texas zoos are evolving, becoming leaders in local and worldwide conservation, with a unique role to play in saving wild creatures.
“It’s a role that zoos have been playing for a long time,” says Houston Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke. “We’re bringing it to a higher level of visibility and effectiveness. [The world is] losing habitat and wildlife, and zoos have the potential to do significant things to combat that.”
Zoo engage in conservation by performing fieldwork in far-flung places, serving as “arks” harboring rare species, educating millions of visitors and operating captive breeding programs.
Many Texas zoos, especially those certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, do significant work to protect and save wildlife and habitat. Two Texas zoos — Houston and Fort Worth — are undergoing massive transformations, with conservation as the guiding force.
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