At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo they are working to help show what scientists are calling a ‘possible sixth mass extinction.’ (Maddie Meyers)
At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo they are working to help show what scientists are calling a ‘possible sixth mass extinction.’

Maddie Meyers

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and KHS work with new programs to help the environment

November 22, 2019

A small pod of kindergarteners press their faces against the tank and stare intently. Inside, fish swim lazily through the murky water.

It is 11 a.m. Suddenly, the kindergarteners gasp, then scream in delight. The Animal Keepers drop fish food into the water and the fish surge together, swarming around it and devouring it in a frenzy of energy. Their excitement mirrored the kindergartener’s faces.

“It’s raining!” They squeal. “Its raining fish food!”

The kindergarteners visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. Nov. 22. Sarah Carr chaperoned the trip and said she hopes the experience might interest the students in learning about animals. 

“I think it’s great exposure for the kids who never came [before],” Carr said. “Obviously we don’t have Amazon animals in D.C. so it’s good exposure to different things.” 

Animal Keeper Thomas Wippenbech said he loves his job because of children like the kindergarteners. 

“Sometimes [the kids] come here and they’ve never seen coral or these fish and they’re amazed,” Wippenbech said. “It’s great to teach them about what we can do to preserve that for the future when their kids come.”

He said that these animals’ future is now endangered.

Endangered

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Endangered

Animal Keepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo encourage students to live a sustainable life.

Animal Keepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo encourage students to live a sustainable life.

Animal Keepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo encourage students to live a sustainable life.

Animal Keepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo encourage students to live a sustainable life.

As of now, Earth is in its sixth mass extinction, called the Holocene extinction. According to the United Nations (UN), this mass eradication has impacted the lives of people all around the globe, specifically those working toward sustainability in their daily lives and less privileged members of society. A spotlight was cast on the Amazon Forest by the UN and various countries earlier this year when a collective effort was made to slow the wildfires burning for weeks on end. The zookeepers working within the Amazonia exhibit have moderated new discussions over the struggles stemming from the rapid decline of the Amazon Rainforest.

As the kindergarteners entered the exhibit, they passed a sign on the wall which read “Diversity on an Amazonian Scale.” According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Amazon Rainforest is home to 10 million species of animals and the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world. Wippenbech said many animals in the exhibits are endangered and their future is as dark as the ambiance.

“In the Amazon all fish are struggling right now,” Wippenbech said. “There’s deforestation [and] pollution. The waterways may be polluted with mining. Fishing is a problem because there are more people in the Amazon who need more food, and they don’t know about sustainability or why the fish population is low.”

Wippenbech said human interference in the ecosystem led to increasing rates of extinction. WWF estimates 17% of the rainforest has been lost to deforestation in the last 50 years. The Guardian reports that although few species die directly following deforestation, they increasingly die in the following years as competition for food increases.

According to Hilary Colton, Animal Keeper, the length of the Amazon River also presents challenges for people working to preserve the species who inhabit it. The number of countries it runs through means pollution in one country with little regulation ultimately affects animals in countries hundreds of miles away.

“The Amazon runs through seven different countries, and each of those countries may have different wildlife laws,” Colton said. “We may have species found only in certain countries because they have stricter hunting laws [while] they may be extinct in other regions.”

Christina Castiglione, zookeeper, said some of those endangered animals are cute.

She believes that cuteness may save them.

Conservation Nation

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Conservation Nation

Amphibian extinction levels have risen above all other animal classes.

Amphibian extinction levels have risen above all other animal classes.

Maddie Meyers

Amphibian extinction levels have risen above all other animal classes.

Maddie Meyers

Maddie Meyers

Amphibian extinction levels have risen above all other animal classes.

“Frogs are actually kind of cute,” Castiglione said.

She gestured at a glass enclosure a couple feet away, housing strawberry poison dart frogs. A shiny red frog covered black dots stared up at the glass, breathing quickly.

“They’re really cute,” Castiglione repeated, a smile tracing her lips.

She and assistant curator Ed Smith said displaying animals in zoos motivate people to engage in environmentally-friendly practices which may help those animals. Smith said zoos first grab people’s attention through creating an emotional attachment, and then use that attachment to benefit the animals.

“At the zoo we have a wonderful platform for discussing [conservation] with visitors,” Smith said. “Through having a collection of living animals and then we also have the interpretive staff that helps prompt some of those discussions. Conservation is one of our primary messages we want to get across.”

Conservation is one of our primary messages we want to get across.”

— Ed Smith

Wippenbech stressed everyone plays a role in protecting ecosystems like the Amazon. He recommended reducing plastic consumption, using energy efficient cars and appliances, and recycling. Kylie Buening, senior and member of KHS’ Environmental Sustainability class, encouraged students to recycle and learn more about what is happening to the Earth right now.

“The easiest thing for students to do is focus on reducing their waste,” Buening said. “We [collect] recycling every Friday as a class, and usually there’s a lot of nasty, unrecyclable things in the bins. Education is important, the more knowledgeable people are about the environment, the more they can help it.”

The Environmental Sustainability class participates in different projects throughout the year to help improve the community surrounding the school and the environment as a whole. Animal Keepers like Castiglione, Colton and Wippenbech said they want students to help out with projects such as the ones Environmental Sustainability hosts.

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“I really believe that a more diverse planet and ecosystem is good for aesthetic interests and staying alive as a species,” Smith said. “For human beings, it’s critical we pay attention to natural history, that means our environment and the animals living in it. We’re all locked and tied in [to the Earth], it’s the only boat we’ve got. Pay attention to it.”

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