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Protecting Insects: a Zoo within a Zoo

Protecting Insects: a Zoo Within a Zoo

By Patrick Tennyson, CEO, Butterfly Pavilion

In its May 2020 edition, National Geographic asks “Where have all the insects gone?,” bringing much-needed global awareness to the soon-to-be catastrophic loss of insects. The sheer diversity of insect species and their astonishing bio mass is unfathomable – almost indomitable – and yet, they represent the largest percent of loss in biological diversity worldwide. Nevertheless, for many people, these incredibly important animals remain rather obscure and commonly forgotten. This crisis, if left unchecked, will immeasurably impact our very existence. It’s a crisis I believe the Association of Zoos & Aquariums has the opportunity, resources and responsibility to impact.

The question is “How?” What if I told you there’s something you can do today, at your zoo or aquarium, it would add another layer to your guest experience, and it’s a lot easier than you think?

Humans and insects are inextricably linked – the nature that surrounds us is because of them and their very existence guarantees ours. Beyond their economic importance and value to critical environmental services we have come to rely on, invertebrates spur endless inspiration and curiosity. There is so much about these foundational species that we have yet to discover or understand. The culprits to their rapid decline are the very same challenges that we and so many other animals on our planet face: Climate change, indiscriminate and unregulated pesticide and herbicide use, and habitat loss and degradation.    

Over the last few years, and really for the first time in my long career in conservation, we are witnessing an awakening of the public’s perception of the term “wildlife.” A broadening connection to the world in which we live, and the types of animals we share our world with. Our dedicated work in zoos, aquariums, museums and nature centers around the world has effectively created much more meaningful connections to ALL animal life, as well as a greater rationale for the need for conservation, now, more that than ever before. This progression of conservation ethics and values has opened the door for a very real opportunity to expand our zoos’ conservation work for a far greater number of species – namely, insects.

For a moment, put yourself in your guests’ shoes as they walk from exhibit to exhibit. Don’t focus on the exhibits themselves, but on their experience moving between them. Chances are you’re seeing traveling Lego exhibits, art installations, wayfinding signage and advertisements. What if they could experience more wild animals? Butterflies, native bees and other insects, as well as native plants serving as another animal exhibit, a delight for guests at a fraction of the cost, and another reminder that your zoo takes conservation seriously.

I call this a Zoo Within a Zoo.

Utilizing our partnerships and networks within the AZA, the Zoo Within a Zoo program will integrate international horticultural and zoological practices to make zoos and aquariums around the world an insect sanctuary promoting regional insect population growth, increasing native habitats for insects and, best of all, engaging our guests in small but meaningful ways to contribute to grassroots conservation efforts emerging before their eyes. 

The goal is simple: We will use zoo and aquarium grounds to create zoological sanctuaries for native insect populations and tell the conservation story for our guests as they wander and interact with our grounds. The Zoo Within a Zoo program will easily and almost naturally expand every zoo and aquarium’s capacity for advancing their local conservation efforts and expanding their contribution to insect diversity and population health. In many cases this may already be happening unintentionally, so the idea will be to work as partners to make the effort more intentional top to bottom. Again, this will inspire all zoos and aquariums to collaborate more intimately as AZA partners on husbandry, horticulture, education, interpretation, and citizen science data collection and compilation. 

Butterfly Pavilion will happily orchestrate this effort and provide guidance and assistance in appropriate habitat development, program creation and collaborative data collection. We will create a database to facilitate following trends and impacts. For almost two decades Butterfly Pavilion has led habitat restoration and citizen engagement programs through programs like Senior Habitat Gardening, the Urban Prairies Project and our Pollinator District Program. Each program engages citizens, businesses and corporate partners in habitat improvement efforts via mutual goals and aspirations. We are well equipped and inspired to team up with each of you to protect insects and help them prosper!

Albert Einstein famously stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The challenge we face with habitat loss is an uphill battle against human growth and development. We have to stop pointing fingers and reverse these trends using the assets at our disposal. Ultimately, the Zoo Within a Zoo program will help develop a cascading evolution of perception of what wildlife conservation can look like today and resonate loudly during a point in time that many scientists consider the tipping point for international conservation work. I believe it’s time we begin engaging our guests and global citizenry as allies in the race against extinction in ways where they can meaningfully contribute, and moreover be inspired to do more to save wildlife. And now is the time to acknowledge and protect the animals that have, until recently, been denied charismatic relevance. Our guests can witness foraging bumblebees first-hand and even better, they can do something to help them.  This makes conservation not an abstract, pie-in-the-sky notion, but something that is active, community building and hopeful for everyone on all parts of the planet.

The awakening we see among our public is real, and we must take advantage of this opportunity for zoos and aquariums to elevate our image and perpetuate our guests’ belief in our intent by creating something tangible - an everyday experience. This will ignite an introduction and an engagement into our already established and successful global impacts in conservation. Through the Zoo Within a Zoo Program we will continue to orchestrate the growing appreciation of all wildlife, wildlife that comes in all shapes and sizes. We will do this by advancing the future of conservation awareness – one zoo, one flower bed, one park space, one acre at a time.

About Butterfly Pavilion:

Butterfly Pavilion is the world’s only stand-alone, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited invertebrate zoo dedicated to transforming the way people think about the small but mighty animals that are the hidden heroes of the animal kingdom. As the leader in invertebrate knowledge, inspiration and connection, and as a member institution of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, Butterfly Pavilion works to foster an appreciation of these critical animals by educating the public about the need to protect and care for threatened habitats globally, while conducting research for solutions in invertebrate conservation. Whether it is providing unique, hands-on learning experiences in our exhibits and educational programs, conducting new research that sets the standard for zoos across the country or building innovative solutions for species and habitat conservation in countries around the world, Butterfly Pavilion is leading the way in ensuring invertebrates are protected for the future. Learn more at Butterflies.org.

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