Trent BUGS Trip: The Toronto Zoo and its Role in Conservation

A zookeeper feeds a giraffe at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Lubna Sadek.

The Trent Biology Undergraduate Society (BUGS) organized a trip, open to all Trent students for an affordable $20 fee, to the Toronto Zoo on Saturday November 3. The aim of this trip was to promote the importance of zoos and their role in conservation biology — the management of nature and Earth’s biodiversity to protect its species, habitats and ecosystems from excessive rates of extinction. The zoo and its organizers emphasize the role of the zoo as a platform for both conservation, and to educate and inspire the public on these issues.

The Toronto Zoo is responsible for organizing a variety of projects and programs in conservation. Some of these programs include the Arctic Ambassador Centre, where staff and volunteers are sent north to aid the ongoing conservation of polar bears and their habitats, and the Protecting Pollinators Program, a public awareness initiative on the decline in pollinators, and how people can help restore pollinator habitats in their own backyards. To demonstrate that the zoo is more than a fun family trip on the weekend Rick Voss, acting curator of reptiles and amphibians, kickstarted the trip with a presentation thoroughly explaining one of the zoo’s conservation projects on Blanding’s Turtles.

Blanding’s Turtles are semi-aquatic turtles native to North America. Their habitat is mainly wetlands, which are unfortunately being eliminated and resulting in Blanding’s Turtles to be an endangered species. With the destruction of wetlands, many of the turtles shift towards more urban areas with gravel. However this results in another issue where raccoons and skunks, which exist excessively in urban areas, prey on Blanding’s Turtles’ eggs.

Data collection in Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto’s suburban area revealed that the quantity of mature Blanding’s Turtles is declining. Since it can take up to 20 years for a Blanding’s turtle to become reproductive, any loss of mature turtles is a threat to the population. Members of the project collect eggs from vulnerable sites, incubate them, and raise turtles at the zoo for approximately two years before they are returned to their natural habitat in a less vulnerable state. Before releasing the turtles, they are placed in a ‘turtle boot camp’, an area that mimics the habitat to which they will be let free in order to adapt, versus the pampered environment they were raised in at the zoo. The turtles are placed in said boot camp in May, and they are released on June 21 of every year, as part of a celebration on National Indigenous Peoples Day, and a way for the public to engage in the project.

The purpose of the project is ‘to give endangered Blanding’s Turtles a head-start on life in the wild’, with the anticipation that the project will continue for the next 15 to 20 years in order to see the turtles begin to reproduce on their own. To date, there have been 165 Blanding’s Turtles released in Rouge National Urban Park.

Following the project details on Blanding’s Turtles, students on the trip were guided through the zoo’s Wildlife Health Centre by veterinarian Chris Dutton to view where medical treatments and surgical procedures of the animals take place. Zoo keepers had trained the animals to accept treatment and cooperate with their veterinarian, such as giving blood and receiving x-rays and ultrasounds. The zoo was proud to present an advanced health centre and explained the available equipment present, such as large adjustable tables that can hold up to 2000 kilograms, and sizable x-ray machines which avoid increased exposure to radiation among staff and animals. The rooms in which procedures are done are visible to the public through a clear glass, and serve educational purposes on how such procedures are done.

The Wildlife Health Centre at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Lubna Sadek.

After an informative morning, the rest of the afternoon was for students on the trip to enjoy the zoo. With Jurassic Park vibes, the zoo was home to various species of animals in different areas of the zoo, such as African Savannah, Canadian Domain and Eurasia Wilds. Some elements of the park were closed for the winter season, and many animals that cannot withstand Canadian winter were moved indoors, such as giraffes and rhinos. The park is heavily tailored to families and children with the intention to educate the public, but more so to create a connection with children – adults of the future – to plant a seed that will grow and result in these individuals to hopefully take action and help protect the animals.

How can we really protect the animals? With each display of an animal, information was available with the same two plaque pattern: “about the animal,” and “why they’re endangered.” The latter always included human impact on the endangerment of the animal. For instance, the leading cause for the endangerment of orangutans is the deforestation of their habitats to obtain palm oil. Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil extracted from the African oil palm tree, and can be found in so many daily-use products, such as toothpaste, shampoo, margarine, and cleansing wipes. While palm oil is a healthy, edible, and natural product to consume, the high demand of palm oil globally has encouraged producers to expand their palm oil plantations, resulting in deforestation of irreplaceable rainforests. As a result of this, the habitats of orangutans and the Sumatran tiger has been demolished, killing many of these animals and limiting the survival rates of the species as a whole.

Penelope the baby pygmy hippopotamus was born at the Toronto Zoo. Photo by Lubna Sadek.

As a way of combating this, the Toronto Zoo makes it a priority to take part in movements and projects to help these animals. Jennifer Tracy, the Senior Director of Marketing Communications and Partnerships of the Toronto Zoo explains that “with the recent release of the WWF’s Living Planet report that indicates surveyed animal populations have declined by more than 50 percent since 1970, the role of the Toronto Zoo has never been more important. The Zoo is working to ensure the ongoing survival of many endangered and species at risk, particularly those native to Canada like the Blanding’s and wood turtles, Vancouver Island marmot, black-footed ferret, Eastern loggerhead shrike, bats, and many others. We remain committed to working with our many partners, including Trent University, as we work together to provide high-quality wildlife health, nutrition, and scientific reproductive and conservation research.”

The zoo serves an important role in conservation, educating the public and instilling the desire to help. Whilst the zoo achieves this, it is also saddening to see the animals locked up, away from their natural habitats. Infrastructure like zoos are important in protecting these animals and emphasizing the importance of learning about them, and helping them. However, the implications of keeping animals in captivity need to be considered in the long run. The controversy of zoos protecting and simultaneously imprisoning animals needs to be a continued dialogue in order to establish more sustainable and effective solutions. The animals at the zoo, especially those born there, will habituate to the environment humans have provided, rather than animals’ original habitat. The implications of humans trying to help by creating zoos needs to be considered, where the root of the problem needs to be addressed; we need to take responsibility for our actions, to stop destroying the environment and the habitats in which these animals live for our own profit. We need to stop destroying each other’s habitats, and animals’ habitats, because we all reside on this one Earth.

Found on a plaque at the zoo, Kofi Annan’s quote beautifully states, “Let us be good stewards of the Earth we inherited. All of us have to share the Earth’s fragile ecosystems and precious resources, and each of us has a role to play in preserving them. If we are to go on living together on this earth, we must all be responsible for it.”

Trent Biology Undergraduate Society (BUGS) group photo from November 3, 2018. Photo by Lubna Sadek.