Behind The Scenes At The Lincoln Park Zoo | WBEZ
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Behind The Scenes At The Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo opened in 1868 after a donation of just two swans from the menagerie in New York’s Central Park. Today, the zoo is home to hundreds of animals. 

WBEZ’s Morning Shift broadcast live from the Lincoln Park Zoo Friday morning. Host Tony Sarabia spoke with Megan Ross, the zoo’s executive vice president, and Bridget Coughlin, the CEO of the Shedd Aquarium. They gave us a behind-the-scenes look at their respective establishments and discussed the future and ethics of zoos and aquaria.

Click the “play” button above to hear the entire segment.

The evolution of the zoo

Megan Ross is the Lincoln Park Zoo’s executive vice president. She says visitors to zoos and aquaria 'have the opportunity to see up close things that perhaps, and most likely for many of them, they’re never going to see in the wild.' (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Megan Ross: We are turning 150 next year. We opened in 1868. In the early zoos, it used to be that zoos were more of a menagerie. It was a place that you would come and see animals that you may not be able to ever see. It was a little bit more of an, “Oh gosh, what is that? What could that be?”

A family takes a look at a jaguar at the Lincoln Park Zoo on June 9, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Ross: But zoos have evolved over the last 150 years. We are much more conservation organizations. We’re very engaged with how we are communicating and engaging with visitors, as well as people who don’t even live here at the zoo, in communities across Chicagoland, and also working in conservation efforts and research here at the zoo. But not only that, [we] also having field researchers that work in the wild with these animals.

Working with animals

Bridget Coughlin, the CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, says the idea of an endangered species list drives her crazy. 'A list sounds sterile and like a grocery list,' she said. 'These are animals. These are species that are on the brink of vanishing.' (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Bridget Coughlin: Working at an aquarium or a zoo is exceptional, not even if you’re picking up the poop, but especially if you get to pick up the poop. Because the life that we look at is not just the life you can see with your eye.

A chimpanzee at the Lincoln Park Zoo on June 9, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Coughlin: The idea that it is about the animal is where you start, but that animal requires a complex ecosystem, and so [we look] at science-based conservation research, both with animals in our care and also in the wild. 

In response to animal rights organizations that argue zoo animals are treated like commodities 

A zebra at the Lincoln Park Zoo on June 9, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Ross: I think that’s an interesting way to put things. We do not commercially transact any of our animals here at Lincoln Park Zoo. So that is one thing. I think one of the things when people talk about PETA and other welfare organizations as well as animal rights organizations, they’re really focusing in on the things that we maybe don’t necessarily agree on and not necessarily the things that we do agree on. But specifically, as far as moving animals between one institution and another, that is not something that is taken lightly. 

On conservation efforts 

Flamingos at the Lincoln Park Zoo on June 9, 2017(Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Coughlin: What we’re inviting the public — at 6 million strong — to do is to join us, to know about the conservation research, but then to act themselves as personal ambassadors. And then through their personal actions in aggregate, we can make a collective big difference, not only for species, but by harnessing the collective action of all of our visitors. 

And I mean little things. The United States uses 500 million straws a day. That’s a tremendous amount of single-use plastic. Twenty million pounds of single-use plastic gets dumped in the Great Lakes every year. We believe in the aquatic animals of the Great Lakes system. We know that single-use plastic is a peril to them, and we can tell that story and ask visitors to join us and stop that. That’s conservation. 

A gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo on June 9, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

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