The Palm Beach Zoo’s mission has led it to the forefront of the fight for endangered species survival, taking part in 64 AZA Species Survival Plans. “For a zoo our size, at the lower end of size capacity, a typical AZA zoo would participate in roughly 30 SSPs; we’re double that," Aiken says. "And when you dig deeper, a zoo our size may have one or two leadership roles; we have five leadership roles [and two TAGs—Taxon Advisory Groups—which oversees the entire taxonomy. Currently the PB Zoo—specifically Keith Lovett—chairs the TAG program for both Central and South American primates, and Waterfowl.] The more you pull back the layers, the more exciting, interesting and compelling the work we are doing gets. We really are an institution that is committed to its mission.”
SSPs are an international hedge against the viability of species in the wild. While conservation efforts in the field—saving species from extinction in the wild takes precedent—SSPs are a genetic proliferation effort to ensure the viability of the genetic code of animals in captivity.
The Palm Beach Zoo's three Malayan tiger cubs are important in terms of numbers to their counterparts in the wild. Currently, 61 are in captivity, and the AZA wants to more than double that to 150 as soon as possible. A flagship species, the tiger gets a lot of love from the public, and deservedly so. But some of the other SSPs the zoo participates in are as equally interesting, such as the Perdido Key Beach Mouse (below). This cute little critter was teetering on the brink of extinction; its historical range of most of Florida’s coast was reduced to just Perdido Key in the panhandle. After hurricanes Erin and Opal in the 1990s, fewer than 40 of these mice were left. Now, thanks to research and a captive breeding and reintroduction program in which the Palm Beach Zoo participated, releasing 16 offspring into the wild, subsequent trappings have shown populations have since tripled, and numbers are expected to rise further.
Though the Perdido Key Beach Mouse may be small in stature, its existence in the natural world is no less important, helping shore up and proliferate the spread of sand dunes. These are the lessons Aiken and his team strive to relate to the public. It’s difficult to convey the importance of an animal as small as a mouse, but putting this species in context with their role in the environment helps paint a broader picture of the interconnectedness of the natural world.
The zoo’s participation in staving this species' extinction not only helps keep the balance of the natural order along the Panhandle but also gave the organization invaluable knowledge and experience in breeding captive animals for repatriation. It is much harder to release captive bred animals then to save animals in the wild. But unfortunately, that is not always an option, especially when influences like natural disaster and human impact through encroachment and development mount a campaign to eradicate their existence.
Contiue to Page 3 for more on the zoo's education philosphy...