Nearly 1,000 animals are officially endangered, and finding the resources to save them all is a difficult, if not impossible, goal. Conservationists realize that to save some species they must make decisions that may harm others. We talk with the head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute about the future of zoos and their links to conservation.
Director, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Front Royal, VA)
From maned wolves and Przewalski’s horses to cheetahs and Micronesian Kingfishers, see some of the endangered species at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. All photos courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo.
Scientists and curators at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute talk about their success in breeding endangered animals, such as black-footed ferrets and dama gazelles. Credit: Seth Liss for WAMU 88.5.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Who knew? It turns out that counting off animals two by two won't ensure a species' survival. In order for endangered animals to survive and thrive, the right mix of genetic variety is key, so conservationists are working with zoos to diversify and strengthen populations.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut with so many animals in need, it's impossible to save them all, which means making tough decisions about which species to promote and which to phase out. Our guest today knows how hard it is to make those choices but thinks that much progress can be made if animal lovers join forces for the greater good. Here to talk with us about the challenges inherent in trying to save species from extinction and other matters is Steven Monfort. He is the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. Steven Monfort, good to see you again.
MR. STEVEN MONFORTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt's been a few years since we talked. Please remind us of the relationship between what you do out at the SCBI, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and the National Zoo.
MONFORTWell, the SCBI is really the scientific arm of the National Zoo. We're a specialized group of scientists and animal care experts that work in 25 countries worldwide.
NNAMDIThe U.S.' Endangered Species Program lists over 1,000 endangered and threatened animal species worldwide. As much as you might like to, it's not possible to save them all. How do you decide which to work with?
MONFORTWell, Kojo, that's a really challenging problem that zoos and conservationists face. We often talk about the concept of triage, and that is basically picking those species that we think we can have an impact with. Zoos often will make a selection based on a number of factors. One of them might be, you know, what they -- what -- how it fits into their collection plan, the availability of the proper space, and their expertise in being able to manage a species.
MONFORTIt also might have to do with conservation interests in the species and often -- and almost always, that's driven by what I would refer to as a conservation champion. So that could be an animal care specialist. It could be a scientist, a zoo director, somebody who decides that they're going to take the lead in trying to do something to help conserve a species, and they want to bring this to the public and educate, inspire them to care and, hopefully, take action to do something to help save that species.
NNAMDISpeaking of saving species, I would like listeners to -- if you'd like to go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you will see a video there by our online managing editor, Seth Liss, about a newborn dama gazelle who he went out to Front Royal to shoot. But, Steven Monfort, you have some pretty sad news about the dama gazelle.
MONFORTYeah. It was a very tragic thing. We had -- this young dama male calf was born about two weeks ago to a terrific mom who did everything right. She took great care of the young calf, but he immediately started to show some signs of not doing so well. He really took a turn for the worse in the last few days, and yesterday we made the decision, based on his quality of life, to humanely euthanize him.
MONFORTWe think, preliminarily, it may have been something to do with bacterial infection of his umbilicus after birth, and it's not something -- it's kind of a little bit of a fluke, but a bacterial infection probably overwhelmed his immune system.
NNAMDIAnd if you'd like to see him, as I said, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and see the video that Seth Liss produced there. You can also call us to join this conversation at 800-433-8850. What draws you to or keeps you away from zoos? 800-433-8850. Are there specific animals you're concerned about the future of? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIAs a lifelong animal lover, I saw where you started your career at the San Diego Zoo in 1979. How hard are these decisions for you to make emotionally?
MONFORTWell, when it comes to decisions about whether an animal's life should be terminated based on factors of the animal's well-being, many people have had the tough decision to make with their own pet, which many consider to be a beloved family member, and there's really no harder decision. And I think we have to recognize that the animal professionals, as much as they try and make the decisions in a very professional way and based on the evidence in front of them, it's an emotional situation that the -- I've never worked with a group of people that care more about animals than zoo professionals.
MONFORTAnd so we take this very seriously. We are really the -- we're the stewards for these animals, and we must make those kinds of tough decisions. And we take them very hard.
NNAMDISteven Monfort is in studio with us. He is the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. And we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You have talked about changes you'd like to see in American zoos. What would you like to see zoos evolve to, if you will?
MONFORTWell, you know, let me start by first saying -- and, you know, as a lifelong -- my entire career having spent in zoos, zoos are doing a tremendous number of things right. I want to make that really clear right off the bat. You know, 175 million people a year come and visit zoos and learn and are inspired by what they see there, 50 million children. We train 40,000 teachers every year. And we generate tremendous amounts of money to support thousands of conservation projects.
MONFORTSo I think that I will start by saying that I'm proud to be a member of the zoo community, and I do believe that the zoos, as collectively and individually have, may be our greatest hope of saving certain species. There have been many successful stories of species that we helped to save -- California condors, giant pandas. The list goes on and on. I think what's happened is the problem of biodiversity loss has accelerated at such a rate that it's overwhelming our capacity to be able to address the challenge.
MONFORTAnd so we are now faced with these very, very difficult decisions about what species to focus on, how do we direct our limited resources. And so I think that's really the challenge that we have. So zoos, each zoo and the zoo community has to decide, you know, how are we going to go forward in the next decades to have the greatest impact? And I think that's the challenge we're grappling with. It's a great community of passionate people, knowledgeable people. But some of the models that we've been working with will need to evolve as the crisis has evolved.
NNAMDIThat's why I mentioned the word. How do you think they should evolve because some people are emotionally or intellectually conflicted about the very idea of zoos because they see them only as places that in where animals are placed for our entertainment? What do you say to those who would argue that we should do away with zoos completely?
MONFORTWell, I adamantly disagree with that, although I do accept the challenge that zoos need to be more than just venues for displaying animals for people's entertainment, certainly. And I think that that's -- that we certainly are that already. We focus heavily on education and inspiration. I -- my own opinion -- and I'm not a spokesperson for the entire zoological community. But I will say that I do think the public will increasingly demand to know how the animals in our exhibits are being supported in nature, and they want to know about the work that zoos are doing to support those animals.
MONFORTMany zoos are doing fantastic work in that regard, and the zoo community, you know, writ large, is doing a lot of great work. But I think we will continually need to raise standards, and I believe that the community is already doing that. And as we raise those standards, we'll raise the expectations and the outputs that the zoos will produce in conservation terms. So we ought to be able to say for many of the species that we have, yes, they're here in our zoo, and we're displaying them to you.
MONFORTWe're educating, inspiring you, but here's what we're doing collectively to make sure they don't go extinct in the first place. We don't want to become living museums of animals in the end, and so this is our ultimate goal. We have to focus as much energy on displaying animals as we do in trying to save them from going extinct in the first place.
NNAMDIBecause when I read in The New York Times that the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that nearly one-fourth of all mammals are at risk of becoming extinct roughly in the course of the next three generations and that the situation is even more dire for amphibians and seabirds. The next time I go to a zoo, I'm asking somebody there, what are you doing to help to preserve these animals in the wild?
NNAMDII read in The New York Times that they are about to disappear in two or three generations, and you're saying that the person who is running that zoo has to be able to explain to me exactly what they're doing.
MONFORTYeah. I think it's -- I do think it's a big challenge, but I -- not every zoo. There are more than 220 zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Not every zoo has to be a frontline champion in terms of having scientists or research staff or whatever, but they can and are demonstrating their commitment through contributing funds, contributing expertise.
MONFORTIn many cases, they're contributing efforts in their own communities locally and regionally here in the United States. It's not as if we don't have conservation challenges that we need to address here on the home front. But in some of the cases that you referenced, what the community is doing is using species -- I'll use the tiger as an example. The species has declined across its range 95 percent in the last 100 years.
MONFORTAnd there's 13 tiger range countries, and we're using tigers as symbols for the greater effort to sustain the landscapes and the habitats that those animals require to survive and to recover. And if we do that, we're going to also sustain many other animals that also share that habitat, including things -- other species like elephants, birds and, you know, a host of hundreds, if not thousands of other species.
MONFORTAnd at the same time, we support the livelihoods of people who depend on those resources, those forest resources or for ecotourism and other benefits. So there are ways that zoos can focus on single species as an umbrella for broad-based conservation initiatives, and there's a whole number of those programs that have been successful and are being successful.
NNAMDIAs you were emphasizing efforts to support animals in their natural habitats, what's the connection between facilities like yours and animals in the wild?
MONFORTWell, one of the things that the Smithsonian institution has a mission of the increase and diffusion of knowledge. We're one of the great knowledge-creating and knowledge-sharing institutions in the world. And so when you look at the thousands of mammal species, over 5,000 species of mammals alone, our knowledge about their basic biology is rudimentary. We know so little about the biology, even of species like cheetahs, which we've taken for granted that we know...
NNAMDIAnd which we'll talk about more later.
MONFORTRight. So one of the focus is in certain species, they require large spaces, specialized facilities and technical expertise that we can provide in a place like SCBI in Front Royal, where we have 3,200 acres. We can house animals privately. We can socially mix them so that breeding can be more successful. We can actually conduct research. And the time to conduct the research on basic biology is when you still have thousands of animals left in the wild.
MONFORTYou don't want to wait until you're down to the last 10 or 20 animals on Earth and then be asked to come in and pull the rabbit out of the hat. So our focus at a facility like SCBI and our philosophy institutionally is to use that basic science to help solve conservation problems, and we work very hard to do that. And we need a place like SCBI. And the zoo community could also benefit and does benefit from having places like that, and perhaps there ought to be more places like that in the future.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think that zoos should begin to shift their focus from entertainment to conservation? Why, or why not? 800-433-8850. Please don your headphones, Steven Monfort, because here is Rebecca in Arlington, Va. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi, Kojo. Hi, Mr. Monfort. I'm just curious to know if you are familiar with the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. My family and I were there a month ago, and we visited the zoo. It was the cleanest, most eco-friendly educational and exciting zoo I've ever been to. And it would be really nice if our zoos here in the States were modeled on that zoo. And I'm just curious to know if you know about it, and if there are plans, do you know. in our zoos to, you know, become more like that kind of zoo, a more modern-type zoo.
MONFORTWell, I do know of the zoo. I -- and its reputation, but I have not visited it. I can tell you that the zoo community is very conscious of trying to become this type of place that you've described. And we do have some fantastic zoos. There's 220-plus accredited zoos in the U.S., and I'm sure you and even I haven't had the chance to visit them all. But I visited many of them.
MONFORTAnd there is an evolution going on, and it has been going on for the last 30 and 40 years where zoos are becoming far more conscious of providing for the well-being and the enrichment of the animals that they care for, a greater focus on that, and also on things like sustainability in terms of our construction, our design, the practices and principles, the green practices we put into place, those are all very, very important part of our philosophy as a community.
MONFORTAt the National Zoo, we're building our elephant exhibit. It's built with high levels of certification for the environment. We have a new facility out in – at our SCBI in Front Royal that is a gold LEED certified $25 million project. So I think it's happening, and it's probably going to continue to happen. And it's a very positive trend.
NNAMDIAnd to what extent do you lend your services to other zoos and, I guess, other nature preserves and conservancies that may not have your level of scientific expertise?
MONFORTWell, we do work on partnership. It's really central to our philosophy and also within the zoo community. There's a great deal of cooperation, conservation breathing programs and even scientific programs that we conduct. One example, we worked with experts from a number of five other zoos -- the Houston Zoo, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and Zoo New England and the National Zoo -- with the project in Panama to help save declining amphibians there. So there's tremendous partnership.
MONFORTIt's essential because no one organization, even our organization, has all of the expertise that's necessary. But we do have more Ph.D. scientists than almost any other zoo in the world. And we're very -- philosophically, we're very inclined towards partnering and sharing knowledge and being parts of teams to solve problems together.
NNAMDII wanted -- and, Rebecca, thank you very much for your call. I want to go to Henry in Chantilly, Va. next. Henry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HENRYYes. Good afternoon. We are a sort of kindred spirits. I've -- for 20 years, I'm taking small animals into schools and summer camps. And I am always amazed and intrigued at how well these animals -- when I returned some of them to the wild, have seemingly no problem getting back into it, even though they've never been reared in the wild. Have you ever had a good portion of returning some of the animals from the zoos back into their natural habitat?
NNAMDIYou anticipated my next question, Henry, and that was whether the SCBI is involved with any projects in which species are released into the wild.
MONFORTWell, the National Zoo and SCBI are very fortunate. We've had a 30-plus year history of participating in some of the most successful reintroduction programs that have ever been undertaken. The golden lion tamarin is a species that was once on a severe decline from the coastal rainforest of Brazil. And due to a global effort, really, within the zoo community and some initial and sustained leadership from the National Zoo, we were able to reintroduce quite a few animals in -- back into Brazil.
MONFORTAnd to stabilize, the population is there. Black-footed ferrets, a species from the American West were down to the last 18 individuals on Earth. And we participated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a number of other zoological organizations to help develop breeding programs, conservation breeding programs and science programs that help to support reintroduction. And now, there are thousands of black-footed ferrets that have been reintroduced in seven locations in three countries in North America.
MONFORTSo, yes, we've had a great deal of success with that. The zoo community, as a whole, has a number of other great successes, but these are very challenging processes. You indicate, you know, animals easily adapt to the wild. It's not always the case. And, really, you need the science to actually study how animals adapt and how successful they are. You need to do things like post-release monitoring. I mean, you -- it is important to know when you're successful as it is to know when you fail, so you can learn from those mistakes.
NNAMDIAnd you can see a black-footed ferret in our video at the website at kojoshow.org. We've got to take a short break. Henry, thank you very much for your call. We still have some lines open. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. If you got a child in your life who is intrigued by animals, give us a call. Tell us which animals they're fascinated by, 800-433-8850, or you might just want to talk about what draws you to zoos. You can also send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest, Steven Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and we're inviting you to join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. Steven, a lot of D.C. denizens are familiar with panda diplomacy. How often do you work closely with other countries on preservation efforts?
MONFORTWell, we work in, as I mentioned earlier, 25 different countries. Giant pandas is one of our longest running programs, and we've worked in China ever since the 1970s when we received our first set of pandas. It's not -- and that's a perfect example of a case where our -- displaying those animals is a big draw, but the actual, you know, really thing we're so proud of is the work that we did in China in terms of our building capacity, training their scientists and their veterinarians.
MONFORTWe have people over there now multiple times every year helping them to make decisions about breeding the pandas they have, about how to monitor pandas in the wild, how to map their protected areas in the face of predictions about climate change. So we've trained hundreds of people in China. We're very proud of the connection that we've made with supporting the in-situ or the wild panda programs there as well. So it's a very common thing.
MONFORTI think the -- our philosophy has very much been highlight animals within our zoo for which we can demonstrate that connection to conservation in the wild and that almost always, of course, involve partnering with our counterparts in those countries where the species are from.
NNAMDIBreeding programs are more -- are about more than restoring endangered species numbers. What is an insurance population, and why is it important?
MONFORTWell, you know, the idea of an insurance population -- this is the classic sort of Noah's Ark principle that came forth about 25-plus years ago. And the idea was we would take a population of founders from the wild, and we would reproduce those animals to sustain the diversity of genetics that they represent and establish good demographic distribution, age grouping of the species.
MONFORTAnd our goals then were to do this for maybe 100 years with the idea that we would have the ability to reintroduce the animals, or we might have the ability to come up with another technological fix. But this was a closed system, a certain -- a fixed number of founders in a captive population, it's only possible for genetic diversity to decline over time.
MONFORTAnd then what we're doing now is we're trying to create populations that are in human care and also are connected in some way perhaps with reserves or protected areas or what we refer to as metapopulations, different populations where animals can be moved around in a way that will allow us to enlarge the genetic base of the animals we keep in zoos. So it is the evolution of the model, is that the initial idea was we're going to solve a problem in the medium term, and we'll put the animals back into the wild.
MONFORTIn many cases, that's not possible, so we have to have different strategies. Now, we work along what we're calling a conservation continuum from population that represents insurance and human care all the way to managing animals in large herds or in populations in the wild.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to talk to you, so let's talk with John in Wilmington, Del. on endangered species. John, your turn. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThanks, Kojo. Long-time listener, first-time caller. I like what I'm hearing. And, Steve, thank you for fighting the good fight. Please keep it up. I'm interested in the mapping the genome. The human genome was a great interest to me, and then I enjoy computers. And I know we've almost solved that riddle. We don't completely -- it's my understanding we don't really know how to read the map yet.
JOHNI mean, we've gone to map the chimpanzee, and certain breeds of dogs have been done and some cats. And I'm wondering if in the future, as I understand it, certain endangered species has been or are being mapped in their genome and species and if you are involved in that or know of that and if data is being shared within certain universities around the globe.
NNAMDIHow about this, Steven Monfort?
MONFORTIt's a great question, and there's really a revolution going on right now in the field of what's being known or called as biodiversity genomics. And the ability is sequence genomes now is accelerating in such a rapid pace, something on the order of 10,000 times quicker within -- when the first human genome was mapped. And so, you know, I'm being told by my Smithsonian colleagues, who are leading an initiative on biodiversity genomics, that the day will come before too long when one will be able to do an entire genome using a device that might be the size of a thumb drive.
MONFORTI mean, this is -- pretty soon, the technology will be there for mapping out the genomes of hundreds of species. And so this is going to lead to a revolution in our understanding of things like the evolution of species, the resistance to diseases and so on. So the Smithsonian is playing a lead role. We have the largest biodiversity collection in the world. And it may soon be possible to go into those collections, even museum specimens, and be able to take DNA from those samples and to map the genomes of species, not just of animals, but also of plants and other genomic groups.
MONFORTSo it is an amazing thing. It's leading to some big breakthroughs. Recently, it helped us to understand the evolution of polar bears and so on. So as you start to get this information, we're going to learn a lot more about the biology and the evolution and also how to treat certain types of things like infertility, disease and other issues that affect endangered species.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call and for raising that issue. We move on to another John in Silver Spring, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JOHNYes. Thank you very much, Kojo. In regard to what we've been talking about with genetics and genetic technologies regarding endangered species, I've encountered some resistance and a degree of antagonism from zoo officials about the idea of using cloning or sperm banking, egg banking, embryo freezing particular endangered species. With regard to zoos, it seems to be something that is anathema to the zoo community. And I was curious to know, in this day and age when species are dwindling and we're trying all kinds of different things, why that would be.
MONFORTWell, I can understand that. In fact, the National Zoo and SCBI are pioneers in the use of assisted reproductive technology. It's something that we've been doing for at least three decades. And we have genome resource banks that contain living cells, sperm and embryos, and we've had -- we've been the leaders in developing things like in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, embryo transfer. So those technologies are accepted and are being used now.
MONFORTThe only thing stopping us in using them in a more widespread way is what I referred to earlier, and it's the lack of a fundamental understanding of the species' biology. We need to first learn to walk before we run. We have to know about an animal's reproductive cycle, its life history strategy, its placentation, you know, all kinds of things. How do we synchronize the timing of reproduction in order to use this technology? So we certainly embrace those and use them. And they have great potential, moving forward.
MONFORTThe issue of cloning is a bit different because you're talking about taking -- replicating the same individual again and again, and I always come up with the case of the wooly mammoth or a specie that's been long extinct. And even if you can clone that individual, the problem then is you have only one individual of one sex. And in order to reproduce that individual, it has to be reproduced with another animal, perhaps, that would be cloned. But this -- it really leads to a number of challenges.
MONFORTAnd I would say the basic issue of applying science to saving species, we don't want to get too far down the road in thinking that technology is going to somehow substitute for the basic work that needs to be done to conserve species, to take care of their behaviors, to let them breed naturally whenever possible and so on. So just to summarize, we use assisted breeding quite a bit. It's a major focus of our science. Cloning, however, we think is something whose time has not really come for endangered species breeding management.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for you call. We've been talking science for a while. Let's talk animals. Let's talk baby cheetahs. When you were last on the show, the breeding program was pretty new, and you've had success.
MONFORTRight. One of the things we've learned about -- well, first of all, cheetahs -- our knowledge of cheetahs is, you know, we've had 2,000-plus years of having cheetahs in human care. And it wasn't until fairly recently that we understood that if you put two female cheetahs together, it's very common for one female to suppress the reproduction in the other female that she's housed with.
MONFORTWell, we went back in our minds and said, look, maybe we're -- we were getting too technical because in the wild, cheetahs are solitary as females in their own territory. Males are -- in -- found in groups or coalitions, and if males will come across the females, a territory, and then a lot of investigation between the male and the female. And there's a lot of choice and selection that goes on in breeding.
MONFORTSo what we really did is we took a step back, and we designed a facility using knowledge we gained from other colleagues, sharing information that allows females to have a large habitat by themselves and males to be grouped, and then we simulate the mate choice during the introduction programs. And, actually, this has led to great success in breeding. So we've had a huge breakthrough in just the husbandry and the care elements.
MONFORTAnd then, along the way, we're trying to understand why cheetahs are not reproducing normally more often. Only 25 percent of all cheetahs in zoos actually ever reproduce. So those populations in zoos are not currently sustaining themselves, and more facilities like the one we have might help to overcome that sustainability issue.
NNAMDIMale cheetahs like to operate in coalitions?
MONFORTAbsolutely. The same thing with lions, you know, have coalitions, but they probably do this to hunt together. Oftentimes, they may be related. The males will rove across a female's territory. Sometimes, a female cheetah might reproduce -- might actually breed with more than one male during her particular period. And so you're going to actually have offspring born to a litter that are from more than one father, more than one sire.
MONFORTSo we're learning a great deal about the biology of cheetahs, even now after really hundreds and thousands, you know, of years that we've had them in our care. And so you extrapolate that to all of the other species for which we haven't discovered some of these things, and it's not only interesting but it's extremely challenging for us.
NNAMDIBut coalitions, think of the potential. This is Washington. They could solve the partisan divide that we have here in Washington. Here is Ethan in Great Falls, Va. Ethan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ETHANHi. My name is Ethan John. I am really interested in saving endangered species. I love animals and visiting zoos. How I -- can I visit your facility in Front Royal?
MONFORTThat's a great question. You know, we are not generally open to the public, but you're in luck because the first weekend of October, Oct. 6 and 7, we have an autumn conservation festival. And we are open to the public for that weekend from 10 o'clock in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. And you can go to the FONZ, Friends of the National Zoo's website, and you can get a sign-up for a parking pass.
MONFORTAnd you can come out and meet some of our scientists and see some of our animals and learn about what we're doing firsthand. It's a great way to spend a weekend, so come on out and see us then.
NNAMDIDo you plan on doing that, Ethan?
ETHANOh, yes. Can I tell you about my favorite animal? And, in fact, it's actually an endangered specie also, and I love this animal so much.
ETHANIt's a chimpanzee.
MONFORTWell, chimpanzees are -- those are great animals, too. They're among my favorites also. We don't have them at the National Zoo.
MONFORTBut we do have -- we have gorillas, and we have orangutans and lots of other primate species at the National Zoo. And so if you come down, you can take a look and learn about them.
NNAMDIEthan, thank you very much for your call, and maintain your interest in animals and endangered species. Good thing.
ETHANOK. Thank you.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Steven Monfort. He is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Are there specific animals you're concerned about the future of? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIIf you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you will see a slideshow of animals at the zoo and a video on our website about a newborn dama gazelle who, unfortunately, is no longer with us. But we think you would enjoy watching the video. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Steven Monfort. He is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and he just mentioned the open house they're having there. You can find a direct link to information about that open house at our website, kojoshow.org. Or you can also go to ask a question or make a comment. You could send email to email@example.com. We got an email from Natalie, who said, "I would love to hear about conservation work being done to support mustangs living in the wild in North America and other wild species of horse around the world."
MONFORTWell, we can -- I can mention mustangs. We do not work with mustangs. Mustangs are actually a feral horse. They're not a special species of horse that warrants a protection. They're managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the main issue there has to do with trying to manage numbers of animals to be able to sustain -- be sustained on the grazing lands that they have.
MONFORTWe do, however, work with endangered horses, and one of the species that we have out at SCBI Front Royal is the Przewalski's horse, and this is an interesting species that was down to only 14 individuals surviving after World War II. Many of the animals were in European zoos. And they were killed during the bombings and so on and so all living descendants of Przewalski's horses are derived from those 14 individuals.
MONFORTAnd now there has been reintroduction programs, three programs, two in Mongolia, one in Kazakhstan, and one that we are strongly engaged in in northwestern China, in the Gobi desert area, contiguous with the Gobi in Mongolia, and working with the Chinese there in Xinjiang province to help reintroduce horses there.
MONFORTSo we have the largest group of Przewalski's horses of any zoo in North America. We have 27 animals out of SCBI, and we conduct research on their reproductive biology. And we're trying to figure out ways to enhance their breeding, understand the impacts of age and infertility and a number of other things.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones, to Bill in Herndon, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
BILLThank you. I've had very fortunate -- I've been very fortunate to have lived in Africa for about three years and to have visited, many times, some of the game reserves that they have out there. And we never tired -- my family and I never tired of just observing these animals in the wild interacting. Coming back to Virginia, it was very hard for me to go back to the National Zoo.
BILLIt was hard, for instance, to see an elephant confined and by himself almost in a pen when I've seen them interacting, you know, as herds in essentially the wild out there and couldn't help feeling that there was something just slightly inhumane about penning some of these animals up out of their natural -- in ways that sort of prevent their natural behavior. So it's good, I guess, for me to hear that there is actually a branch of the zoo that is doing conservation work, and it is really working on behalf of the animals.
BILLIt was also good for me to hear Ethan just a few minutes ago, the very enthusiastic young guy, who seems -- it encourages me that some people come in just to see the display down in Washington at the zoo. It may encourage people like that to become more interested in animals than actually to work for their kind.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to share with you an email that we got from Lisa, Bill. Lisa writes, "My father took me to the zoo as a child, and I remember seeing the seal shows and feeding the elephants and watching the giraffes. Going to the zoo with my father gave me a great appreciation and love for animals. It also led me to donate money to causes to support conservation. Now that I'm a mother of a 2-year-old living in D.C., I take my little girl to the zoo.
NNAMDI"I hope that by doing so, she will learn to respect wildlife, and I also want her to have the opportunity to see animals up-close." Steve Monfort, it seems to me that zoos can serve that dual purpose.
MONFORTRight. And I appreciate your empathy for the animals. And one thing I wanted to say is the -- that you'll never find a group of people more dedicated to the care and wellbeing of animals than you will zoo professionals. I think when we, you know, we get into conversations with other organizations that might not like zoos, I think it's fine to challenge us to be better. But when we start having arguments about who cares more for animals, then I think it's a little bit of a circular argument because the love and the compassion and the empathy is shared amongst all animal lovers.
MONFORTMost people will never ever have the opportunity to go to Africa. Most Americans don't even ever travel internationally. And zoos provide the opportunity to have an up-close experience with animals. The National Zoo, with our elephant exhibit, we've just invested a huge amount of resources in building an appropriate facility that will take care of the well-being and ensure a good life, and all of the needs are taken care of for that animal so that people will have the opportunity. And we're backstopping that with conservation programming in the wild.
MONFORTBut many zoos provide, you know, a safe outdoor experience for children, this no-child-left-inside concept. They can have animal encounters. They can engage and hopefully be inspired to do something. We have, really, some fantastic zoos. Zoos have changed. And I encourage people to go and visit a diversity of different zoos when you go to a city, and I think you're going to be surprised at what you see. Zoos are doing their very, very best to try and be outstanding champions for animals, both in terms of what they do in nature as well as what they do for the animals in the zoos.
NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call. But an alarming incident in Ohio last fall when Terry Thompson opened the cages housing 56 exotic animals, including leopards, tigers, bears and wolves, before killing himself in October of last year, that incident left a lot of people asking questions about private ownership of exotic animals. As a professional who works with these breeds, what's your take on this issue?
MONFORTIt's a very complex issue, and it's regulated generally by state laws as well as the USDA. The Department of Agriculture will -- oversees licenses for these people to have these animals. This, to me, is a personal opinion, but there are many species for which I think no private individual has any business really having in their possession despite their well-intentioned reasons. This is one of the important functions of accreditation within the zoo community. AZA has a very rigorous program for accrediting zoos and aquariums. And they must go every five years through this rigorous process.
MONFORTAn organization, these private owners, they don't have the same level of scrutiny. Even if they're licensed by the government to have these animals, they're not up to the standards that we hold our own zoos and aquariums to. So, personally, I think it's -- generally, it's a bad idea. There are cases where people have certain types of animals that are not likely to cause lethal issues. But, certainly, animals that are a threat to humans and to the people taking care of them, we should have very, very tight standards for that.
NNAMDIHere's Christine in Laurel, Md. Christine, your turn.
CHRISTINEThank you for taking my call. I saw a wonderful broadcast on "60 Minutes" recently about several game ranches, (word?) game ranches in Texas that were -- had many extinct gazelles who were extinct at least in the area where they're naturally breed and bred, as well as gazelles that are from Africa that are hunted. And they are paying -- they are offering a hunt-for-service type of conservation program, so people will go in and hunt the animals.
CHRISTINEAnd that's how the ranchers justify keeping the ranches open, as well as preserving the species. This seems to becoming more popular, and I'm wondering what your opinion is on that.
NNAMDII did see that "60 Minutes" piece also. Did you, Steven Monfort?
MONFORTI did. And I think when you speak about hunting, you know, it can be a very controversial issue in and of itself. I have my own personal views about hunting. Firstly, I am not an anti-hunting person although I don't hunt. To me, the issue of those populations in Texas or in any private hands is that they are a potential for -- they have a potential for contributing to conservation. In the case of Texas, they literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of representatives of several species that are virtually either extinct in the wild or on the verge of extinction in the wild.
MONFORTSo there's no question that those populations have a potential to contribute the conservation. It's so far not been realized. The financial investment hasn't been made, but it may be in the future. And so it's a potential resource. And if they came forth and said they wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to conservation through financial support, providing animals and so on, that would be a welcome thing in my mind.
MONFORTThe issue of, you know, they're business people however, and they're not going to have these animals unless they have a way to derive a livelihood from them. And like anything else, there's good actors and bad actors. But some of the ranches that are -- these animals are held on are thousands and thousands of acres, and the animals that roam there are everything -- you know, they're wild animals functionally and being hunted in that way. So it's a controversial issue.
MONFORTI'm more interested in it from, what is the potential for conservation of those species, like the scimitar-horned oryx, the dama gazelle and the addax, which they have in large numbers? And if they come forward and want to be good citizens and contributing to that, then we should listen to them, in my opinion.
NNAMDIChristine, thank you very much for your call. One of your missions at SCBI is to educate the next generation of conservationists. What's new on that front?
MONFORTWe are so excited. We have a partnership with George Mason University, really a terrific partner. And for the last few years, we've been developing a partnership. And we're launching the Smithsonian Mason School of Conservation. It's a brand-new facility that's being completed within the next week, and we'll have our first set of students and trainees in there in a couple of weeks after that. This is a focus on undergraduate students who come and live in residence for 15 weeks, and they get 16 units of credit.
MONFORTThey learn about the broad areas of conservation in the natural sciences, in the social sciences. And it's really -- it's that point in their life when they're trying to decide, what can I do to contribute something to have my life have meaning in a conservation context? And we try to open their eyes to that. We're trying to create renaissance people for conservation, not necessarily just scientists. And the other audience we have is professionals and practitioners.
MONFORTWe provide cutting-edge, continuing education programming for them one-week, two-week, month-long courses where they come and get updated on various things. We're extremely excited about that. We're -- we've been working on this a long time, but we're going to be able to really amplify our effort to train the next generation through that program.
NNAMDIYou've got history at George Mason University, do you not?
MONFORTYes, sir. Well, I spent -- I was 33 years old when I finished my last -- got my last degree. And I had one year off between college and graduate school. And my last degree was at George Mason University. I received a Ph.D. there after having gone to veterinary school prior to that.
NNAMDIIn 1993. Here is Marissa in Great Falls, Va. Marissa, you only have about a minute. Go ahead, please.
MARISSAHi. I'll very quickly speak to you about the interdisciplinary research usage of these animals that are in zoos, and I wanted to talk quickly just about how we are learning so much from the genetics of museum specimens and how I know that the National Zoo is really great about donating their specimen to the National Museum of Natural History.
MARISSAAnd I just wanted to maybe speak to anyone associated with small zoos who's listening that I think it's really important to make sure that you're collecting data from your specimens, like if your animal passed away in the zoo, that they're, you know, that they can still be useful for research that has conservation implication after they pass away. So that was all I wanted to say.
NNAMDISteven Monfort, you want to underscore the importance of that?
MONFORTYeah. I would say that these biological banks of tissues and specimens can be incredibly valuable, even decades for now -- from now in ways that we can't anticipate. So I endorse that idea completely.
NNAMDISteven Monfort is the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, SCBI in Front Royal, Va. Thank you for joining us.
MONFORTThank you. It was my pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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