Here’s How Zoos Can Play a Role in Climate Change Education

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Yurong Yu, C+S ’17

There’s no doubt education is a vitally important part of fighting against climate change for several key reasons. Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing young people, and education can equip them with the skills to help. It also encourages young people to get involved as global citizens and make contributions.

Climate change education isn’t just for school. It’s also happening in zoos.

People interacting with two newly hatched penguins in the Bronx Zoo educational center (Source: Yurong Yu)

I have been working for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) this summer on communication. My office is at New York Bronx Zoo. Thanks to this extraordinary experience, I have had the chance to spend time with animals and their keepers everyday. From what I’ve seen here and learned from the Climate and Society program, I found that the zoo is one of the best places to provide climate change education.

In the Bronx Zoo Educational Center, you can have a chance to see penguins in the flesh. It is also where I and countless others learned that these adorable creatures are threatened by climate change.

“We usually bring them to school kids’ visits,” said one of the keepers. “We would also tell them that these lovely animals are losing habitats because of global warming.”

Penguins are among the most threatened animals. They need cold water to survive and are particularly sensitive to temperature changes. Even some penguins living in warm regions are impacted significantly by climate change because they depend on ocean currents carrying large volumes of cold water and nutrients.

Obviously, global warming is wreaking havoc on many other living beings as well, such as polar bears, cold-water fish, and sea birds. In the zoo, people have a chance to closely see these species that are usually distant to their life.

I learned from our fall class on adapting to climate change that the facts alone are not generally enough to make the public act. Instead, they usually make their daily decisions based on their emotions. So it is hard for the public to really care much about climate change, unless they see and interact with animals like penguins in the zoo. They will learn that climate change means losing the chance to see these animals and are generally more willing to take actions after they learn this fact.

A corner of the San Diego Zoo has an exhibit on climate change (Source: Yurong Yu)

Additionally, zoos can engage visitors about climate change in other ways. I found the climate change display above in a corner of the San Diego Zoo. The display clearly explained how quickly carbon dioxide concentrations have increased in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. That in turn has affected drought and caused other extreme weather events to happen more often. All those changes have impacts on wildlife whether because they cannot get used to a hotter environment or they lose their habitats due to sea level rise or their prey going extinct.

Facilities like this are very common in the zoo. These displays attract children easily because they are designed in a vivid way. It helps to keep climate change and its impact in children’s minds.

Climate change and its impact on ecosystems poses a serious challenge that will cut across generations. Educating future generations about the causes and effects of global warming is imperative because implementing solutions depends on an informed public.

Once the next generation has the empathy and knowledge, they can change their behavior to mitigate and adapt climate change.

At the end of the day, the push to talk about climate change at zoos is not only about animals. It’s about humans. According to the director of programs at the Columbus Zoo, visitors and goundspeople get uncomfortable when it’s 83°F outside. They feel the same way many wildlife do. If we try to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we can better ameliorate the situation.

Zoos can help us start with climate change education.


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