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Return to the Wild

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Transcript for The New Zoos

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The New Zoos: Return to the Wild

Two decades ago, Washington's National Zoo joined scientists in Brazil in a groundbreaking captive breeding and reintroduction program of golden lion tamarins. Tamarins learn survival skills at a jungle "boot camp" and are later released into their native habitat in Brazil, where their population continues to increase. This model reintroduction program shows what new zoos can do to help ensure the survival of wild animals.

Curriculum Links
Related Frontiers Shows and Activities
Introduction: The New Zoos
Activity 1: "If I Ran the Zoo..."
Activity 2: Genetic Probabilities







Dragon Science (Show 602): Food for Thought


The first zoos can be traced back as far as the 12th century B.C. in China. Later, kings and queens of ancient Egypt and other civilizations kept exotic animal collections for their amusement. In the 18th century, zoos proliferated in Europe and became more public. These zoos, which were more like menageries, existed mainly for displaying animals to visitors for their entertainment.

As you see on Frontiers, zoos have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Zoos today assume multiple responsibilities, from education programs that increase public awareness to captive breeding of endangered animals.

For some critically endangered animals, like the golden lion tamarin, the zoo is the animal's last hope for survival. The tamarins' native habitat, the Atlantic coastal rain forests of Brazil, has been largely depleted. Some of the strategies being used to ensure tamarins' survival include captive breeding, managed wild breeding and reintroduction. We'll meet the scientists responsible for making sure the tamarins have a future.


Imagine that a zoo has just hired you to design its new wild animal park. It's your chance to answer the question, "What would you do if you ran the zoo?" (For a related activity on creating habitats, see Polar Bear Picnic.)


Design blueprints for an enriched "new zoo."

  • pencil
  • graph paper
  • ruler
  • additional art supplies
  • research materials
Part 1: Research
  1. Choose two or three species you would like to include in your park. Will you focus solely on endangered species or one type of animal, like primates? (One trend of zoos is to specialize in animals.)

  2. Research the needs of your selected animals. Consider the following questions:
    • How much area does each species need?

    • What kind of shelter or other structures will each species need for safety, play, sleeping, mating, etc.?

    • How many of the species will be placed in the park? What's the total area needed to support all the animals?

    • How will the species you choose interact with each other?

    • How will the animals obtain food?

    • What are the goals of your wildlife park: to provide a resource for captive breeding, to serve as a refuge for the animals, to entertain the public and/or to ensure the survival of a species?

    • Are there any other physical or psychological requirements of the animals?

  3. Brainstorm the needs of the public that will visit the park:

    • What priority will be given to the public's ability to see the animals?

    • How will the public view the animals?

    • What types of information will you want to supply? Do you want to educate the public?

    • How will you earn the money necessary to house and feed the animals?

    • Will your zoo be more like a wildlife park in a rural setting or will it be a smaller facility in a city?

    • How will climate affect the animals and their needs?

Part 2: Creating the Blueprints
  1. Determine the scale (for example, 1 cm = 10 M).

  2. Outline the boundaries on graph paper.

  3. Represent the geographical features that will be within the park (for example, streams, hills, caves).

  4. Depict the species and location of plant life for the park. Will the plants become part of the animals' diets and have to be replenished?

  5. Add all the necessary buildings that will be used for the zoo support staff.

  1. How do you think this environment will enrich the lives of the animals within?

  2. Does your design reflect the ability to conduct a captive breeding program? If so, how? Will some of the animals later be released?

  3. Where would you build your park? What factors determine its location? Consider climate, pollution and noise, for example.

  4. How will the animals be cared for if they are ill?

  5. How will the animals be fed?

  1. Create a three-dimensional model of your wild animal park.

  2. Visit or research a zoo in your area. Does it provide any enriched habitats for the animals? Have any variations in animal behaviors been observed in comparison with less enriched habitats?

  3. Design an enriched habitat for marine, microbial or extraterrestrial life.

  4. Compare the golden lion tamarin project with other reintroduction programs (the black-footed ferret, the gray wolf, the California condor).

  5. Use stuffed or beanbag animals to set up an educational "zoo" for younger kids.



As zoos evolve from places of entertainment to scientific institutions dedicated to education and conservation, one of the most critical areas of research focuses on genetic diversity. Many endangered species (cheetahs and tamarins, for example) have become victims of inbreeding. The populations of wild animals are simply too small to sustain genetic vigor. As you see on Frontiers, promoting genetic diversity is key to the future existence of the tamarins and other endangered animals.

Because of the limited gene pool in a too-small group, the percentage of detrimental traits bred in the wild population is high. The captive breeding and reintroduction projects sponsored by the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program have begun to restore genetic diversity in the golden lion tamarin population.

Do some research to find out more about genetic problems in captive animals.
  1. What is a gene pool? Why is it important to promote genetic diversity?

  2. Investigate inbreeding problems characteristic of endangered species like the cheetah. How is the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program working to address this issue?

  3. How might genetic engineering affect the probability of detrimental genes for species in the future? What about cloning? Why not just clone endangered species?


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