Zoos have come under criticism lately, but much of this criticism is not substantiated and fails to acknowledge the beneficial aspects of zoos.

Zoos are more than just a place to see fuzzy, colorful or peculiar animals. While they do create an enjoyable day out for the family, they have a much deeper curriculum. They are a worldwide effort to raise awareness of, study and breed wild animals.

Zoos function to not only exhibit wild animals, but also to breed endangered species. The world's wildlife is currently facing grave danger. There are more than 41,000 species listed on the endangered list, with reportedly more than 16,000 of those facing extinction.

While species extinction is a natural thing, today's accelerated process is far from natural. Many scientists believe the extraordinary number of species dying out puts us in the beginning of the next mass extinction.

Zoos are battling this war every day. They have arranged breeding programs around the world to ensure a genetically diverse population. Many animals bred or rehabilitated in captivity are released to the wold. Species, such as the Arabian Onyx and California Condor, would not be around today if it had not been for zoo breeding and releasing programs.

The average American's encounter with wildlife is watching pesky little chipmunks stealing bird seed or perhaps the exotic occasion of catching a glimpse of the elusive coyote or fox. This all changes, however, when they visit a zoo. At a zoo, they can encounter lions, giraffes, wolves, etc. A real-life encounter does not compare to watching a wild animal on television. These authentic experiences connect people with wildlife across the world. They initiate a wonder that leads to supporting conservation efforts and appreciating what nature has to offer.

Zoos also offer a controlled environment to observe and test animals. Through this, zoos can study breeding cycles, social interaction, intelligence and much more. Zoo research leads to a better understanding of animals, which leads to less human-animal conflict.

So, the next time you visit a zoo and think about how lovable that Arctic fox appears or how quirky that monkey's behavior is, take a moment to realize how important zoos are. They open our eyes to a world of natural diversity, battle species extinction and expand our knowledge of our furry, feathered and scaly friends.

Madeline Nunn is a Jr. Zoological Society Board Member.

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