The AAZK, Bowling for Rhinos and National Zoo Keeper Week

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By Maymie Higgins

If you think zoo keepers and aquarists merely prepare food, feed animals, play with animals and scoop poop (or in the case of aquarists, continuously balance the nitrogen content and engage in hand to hand combat with algae), then what you don’t know about zoo keepers and aquarists is a lot!

The best zoo keepers and aquarists spend part of their work day engaging visitors on conservation topics because the animals in their care serve as ambassadors to their wild counterparts. Many of those animals are also integral to preservation of wild populations by providing genetic material or even offspring that are used to supplement wild populations. Some well-known animals that have been saved by captive breeding in zoos and aquariums include red wolves, California condors, Black-footed ferrets and the Desert pupfish. For this reason, zoo keepers and aquarists are on the front line of conservation.

There are also many professional organizations for zoo keepers and aquarists. One of these organizations, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) has been around since 1967, when it was founded in San Diego, California. Today, there are 2,800 members from 48 of 50 states, 5 Canadian provinces and 24 foreign countries, representing approximately 250 animal-related facilities.

The AAZK’s purpose is to foster a professional attitude in animal keepers by encouraging them to become active members of the professional teams at modern zoos and aquariums. The AAZK is dedicated to advancing animal care, promoting public awareness, enhancing professional development and contributing to local and global conservation through fundraising and stewardship. Their goal is to inspire and motivate through roles as animal caregivers, educators and conservationists.

The mission of the AAZK is to advance excellence in the animal keeping profession, foster effective communication beneficial to animal care, support deserving conservation projects, and promote the preservation of our natural resources and animal life.

One of the most high profile and successful projects of the AAZK is the annual Bowling for Rhinos event. Each year the AAZK sponsors a fund raising bowl-a-thon in which more than 60 AAZK chapters participate throughout the US and Canada and raise between $200,000- $300,000 annually. One-hundred percent of all funds raised goes directly to in situ conservation projects, conserving four species of rhino, their habitats, and hundreds of other endangered plants and animals. BFR helps preserve the black and white rhino in Africa and the Javan and Sumatran rhino in Indonesia. Only 5 species of rhino exist today when once there were over 100 species. All 5 species- the white, black, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan are endangered. The black rhino is AAZK National’s symbol.

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July 20-26, 2014 is National Zoo Keeper Week and in celebration, the AAZK proclaims the following: 

WHEREAS, worldwide animal populations are declining at an alarming rate with many facing extinction; and

WHEREAS, zoological institutions have become the final hope for many endangered species recovery programs through conservation research, release programs, and by being a portal through which the general public can view and appreciate disappearing wildlife; and

WHEREAS, zoological institutions are also population managers of keystone and cornerstone species, emphasizing the restoration of not just the endangered species, but a restoration of the delicate balance of nature; and

WHEREAS, zoo keepers are the frontline soldiers for conservation, participating in the battle for species survival and preservation of the natural homelands of the animals they care for through public awareness, education, and exhibition; and

WHEREAS, zoo keepers have become animal caretakers devoting their lives to caring for these animals; and

WHEREAS, zoo keepers have become the spokespersons for vanishing wildlife, carrying the conservation message of habitat loss, endangered species, and preservation of nature’s threatened wild lands to the public; and

WHEREAS, zoo keepers have become animal specialists, as educators, choreographers of animal behaviors through enrichment, behavior managers through operant conditioning, and reproductive specialists through improved observations and husbandry; and

WHEREAS, to help increase public awareness about the need to preserve our precious habitats and the animals which inhabit them and to recognize the roles that zookeepers play in animal conservation and education, The American Association of Zoo Keepers invites all AAZK chapters to participate in National Zoo Keeper Week.

I am fortunate to be friends with many members of the AAZK. The enormous passion these folks have for the natural world is an invaluable asset in a time of grave conservation concerns. If anyone is doing God’s work, they are.

All graphics courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

Author (center) with pals, Jessica and Madison at 2009 Bowling for Rhinos event sponsored by North Carolina AAZK chapter.

Author (center) with pals, Jessica and Madison at 2009 Bowling for Rhinos event sponsored by North Carolina AAZK chapter.

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