Panel plans to defend role of aquarium, zoo exhibits Experts to weigh in at Charleston event

The Great Ocean Tank at the S.C. Aquarium keeps wild creatures in captivity but gives visitors a chance to experience them up close.

It used to be not so unusual to find a deer, bear or panther penned in a country backyard as a curiosity. Traveling circuses featured huge animals such as elephants or giraffes. Zoos and aquariums were little more than cages and tanks.

Times have changed. Today, “wild animal” exhibits are criticized as inhumane and struggle to maintain an audience. People flock to rescue and sanctuary efforts. Reintroduction to the wild is the sought-after ideal. The larger accredited zoos and aquariums themselves are evolving, becoming more habitat-oriented in exhibits and using captive animals to educate about conservation of the species.

A panel of leading figures in the field defends the role at 5:30 p.m. Friday in a Holland Learning Series event hosted by the South Carolina Aquarium. The presentation includes a question-and-answer session. It is sold out, but will be live-streamed. Viewers can go on the Aquarium’s Facebook page to follow a link and submit questions through Twitter by using #zafuture.

Panelists include Sylvia Earle, the renowned National Geographic explorer-in-residence; Alejandro Grajal, Chicago Zoological Society conservation and education vice president; and Kevin Mills, aquarium chief operating office, among others.

“The reality is, these are questions we ask ourselves every day,” Mills said. The aquarium has cultivated programs such as rehabilitation of sea turtles, education programs such as the Holland series and teaching conservation as part of exhibits. That’s vital in a world where people’s lives are becoming more removed from nature, he said.

“We have a responsibility to inspire people to think about wildlife and wild places. The value of an aquarium is that it’s an intimate point of contact between guest and species, something that’s not so easy in the wild. That spark, that live moment that takes place in an aquarium, can’t be replicated in other media,” he said. “If not for zoos and aquariums, where is the public going to find the means to care?”

It’s not a viewpoint shared universally among animal protection groups. Groups such as Born Free USA oppose any form of captivity for animals, according to its office. But people who work in conservation, sanctuaries and reintroduction largely agree with the need, if not the desire, for zoos and aquariums.

“Hopefully, they’re going to do more for animals in the wild,” said Shirley McGreal, founder of the International Primate Protection League headquartered in Summerville. McGreal won’t be part of the panel.

“It is a problem for (accredited) zoos and aquariums, but most are doing the best they can,” she said. “We’d rather take them back to the wild. But rehabilitation, release and reintroduction are very difficult.”

Grajal, whose background includes protected-area planning and other wild conservation efforts, takes it a step further.

“It’s always a bit of a dilemma to have an animal under managed care,” he said. “There’s a strong affinity between humans and animals. They’re in ancient cave paintings, jewelry and myths. We’re deeply connected to animals. It’s part of being human. Animals help us understand ourselves and our role in nature.”

That’s more important than ever, with species after species being lost at an accelerating rate to human impacts, he said. More and more, zoos and aquariums find themselves serving as holding stations for dying species.

“We have become so far removed from animals it’s threatening our livelihood,” Grajal said. “Hundreds and hundreds exist anymore only in captive conditions. I wish we could take better care of our planet, so we wouldn’t have to go to the expense and the difficulty. But it’s the reality.”

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