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Zookeepers to Rare Species: Have I Got A Match for You

September 26, 1989

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Tomorrow’s baby zoo animals, from Aruba Island rattlesnakes to Grevy’s zebras, are but a gleam in the eyes of zookeepers and aquarium directors who are playing matchmaker this week for endangered species.

″We’re playing God, all of us are. I sit here and say who should do what and when they should do it,″ said Ron Young, an official of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

″It’s important if we want to continue on some semblance of what we were living with orginally on this earth. All of us realize we can’t save the world, but we save as much of it as possible.″

Young, who works for the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Ind., coordinates the nation’s captive breeding of black palm cockatoos, an endangered large black parrot from Papua, New Guinea.

He and about 1,000 other officials from 140 zoos and aquariums from around the country are meeting at a downtown hotel for a week to match, borrow and trade endangered mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians for breeding.

In some cases, the animals are extinct in the wild, and zoos are trying to build a captive population that can be reintroduced into nature some day.

″It’s better than not having anything,″ said Jack Grisham, of the Oklahoma City Zoo, who oversees the nationwide breeding of cheetahs, an endangered species.

″Remember the bison,″ Grisham said. ″Back at the turn of the century, there was just a handful and the New York Zoological Society took them to the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and they started breeding again. They’re the basis of all the bison in North America.″

The association oversees survival programs for 50 endangered species.

One such creature is the Bali mynah bird. Only about 50 remain in the wild, but U.S. zoos have been so successful in breeding them that several hundred are expected to be released into rain forests in the next few years, officials said.

Tom Foose, association coordinator of the species survival plans for all the zoos, said zookeepers want to spread animal genes around different zoos to avoid sterility, mutations and other problems in breeding.

Foose said zookeepers do not breed animals the same way that cattle ranchers or chicken farmers breed domestic animals, which are selected for such traits as the amount of meat or eggs produced.

″Our objective is to stop evolution and preserve as much as the gene pool as we can to get these animals back in the wild and let natural selection sort it all out again,″ Foose said.

Animals are traded and loaned among the institutions based on computer lists that record their family ancestry.

″The mate that’s needed will move to the institution with the best facilities and staff,″ said Dennis Meritt Jr., assistant director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Zookeepers and aquarium directors meet throughout the seven-day conference to discuss their breeding programs and any problems.

For example, zookeepers said they have learned the black palm cockatoos will not incubate or raise their young in captivity, choosing instead to eat them.

By talking among themselves, zookeepers also have learned that the 30 black palm cockatoos in captivity are separated into three sub-species, raising the question of which species should have priority in their return.

Zookeepers said among the most critically endangered species are the Asian lion, white rhinoceros and Sumatran rhinoceros, giant panda and partula snail.

Animals found on islands or in just one part of the world deserve the most attention for captive breeding, Meritt said.

But, Meritt said, some endangered animals will never be freed ″because there’s no wild left.″

″The wild has disappeared and the animals left in zoos are the flagships of their species,″ Meritt said.

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