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By the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers of wild bald eagles had plummeted due to the effects of pesticides. Shown here: the Southern Bald Eagle
By the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers of wild bald eagles had plummeted due to the effects of pesticides. Shown here: the Southern Bald Eagle
Photo by Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

Bald Eagle, American Alligator and Whooping Crane Get New Digs at Zoo

Almost a million plant and animal species have a target on their back, at risk of extinction thanks to global warming and the need for humans to farm, log, poach, fish and mine the natural world.

There was plenty of doom and gloom in a Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers released last week by IPBES, a coalition made up of members of the United Nations. Key takeaways include: we won't be able to meet conservation goals unless we change our trajectory; humans are extracting more from the Earth and producing more waste than ever before; yet urgent and concerted efforts can still restore some of the nature, biodiversity and ecosystems.

The United Nations report is a depressingly grim reminder that our children and grandchildren will inherit a planet that's basically damaged goods, but there are glimmers of hope.

One example of that promise can be found at the Houston Zoo with the new Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands, a new environment set to open on the site of the former duck pond.

The American alligator was almost wiped out by hunters, but now it's making a steady comeback.
The American alligator was almost wiped out by hunters, but now it's making a steady comeback.
Photo by Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

Back from the brink of extinction, three species that have made an amazing comeback will coexist in the new space, along with gar, snapping turtles, insects and fish. In the 1950s there were only 20 whooping cranes remaining; zoos and conservationists worked together to save the species and now there are more than 500 birds that travel from Canada to Port Aransas each winter. Similarly, the wild bald eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007 after harmful pesticides were banned. The third headliner roommate in the new Texas Wetlands ecosystem will be the American alligator, a species that survived for almost 150 million years only to be hunted almost to extinction.

In anticipation of the big opening on May 24, zoo staffers are slowly introducing the animals to the new space. "We’re doing an animal acclimation period, allowing them to go into their exhibit so that everybody is all nice and calm, ready to go," says Chris Holmes, assistant curator of birds and team lead for the animal departments for Texas Wetlands.

The bald eagles in the exhibit are birds that have come from rehab, been shot at, or were entangled in power lines. "We provide a home for animals that can’t be released to the wild. We’re going to have an individual who has a substantial wing injury who cannot fly," says Holmes.

The Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands will also support gar, snapping turtles, and a rich diversity of insects, fishes, and other small animals.
The Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands will also support gar, snapping turtles, and a rich diversity of insects, fishes, and other small animals.
Rendering by the Houston Zoo

Texas Wetlands features an immersive boardwalk that allows visitors to take a walk through the environment and see the creatures up close. "[The site] used to be our former duck pond that has been around since the 1940s," says Holmes, who says the adjacent Cypress Circle Café also has been revamped. Most have fond childhood memories of the café's familiar concrete circle, but it was built in 1950 and a new renovation keeps the historic parts while placing it in a more natural setting. "The duck pond was a neat place but this is stepping up to a much larger level," says Holmes.

The Houston Zoo is looking forward to its 100th anniversary in 2022, and launched a $150 million centennial fundraising campaign to bring about dramatic transformations. We can expect a big reveal each year leading up to 2022, with the Texas Wetlands being the first major construction project in Phase 1 of its master plan.

Local philanthropist Kathrine G. McGovern, for whom the Texas Wetlands is named, has made significant contributions to the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center, as well as to the Houston Zoo

"She is an amazing supporter of the zoo," says Holmes. "She’s really made the zoo what it’s become, made it possible."

Holmes, along with senior director of public relations Jackie Wallace, tells us they're familiar with the United Nations assessment, but that they're trying to stay positive.

By the 1950s there were only 20 whooping cranes because of hunting and habitat loss.
By the 1950s there were only 20 whooping cranes because of hunting and habitat loss.
Photo by Stephanie Adams/Houston Zoo

"When you purchase a ticket [to the zoo] you're also donating money to help with conservation," says Holmes. "What we're trying to focus on is the hope that things can change. We have three examples here. The whooping crane was down to 20 individuals — to come back from that place to 500. This is not an end, it’s a continuation."

The Houston Zoo works to save animals in the wild by partnering with programs and organizations around the world. Just last year alone they released more than a million Houston toad eggs into the wild, helping to save this rare toad from extinction.

"By visiting the zoo our guests are contributing to save the wildlife," says Jackie Wallace. "There is hope, we must act now, we are making a change and there is a way forward. People just need to know what to do: start using reusable bags, not using plastic, and the awareness that we should be doing something."

The Houston Zoo has dedicated a portion of its website to help us understand how we can help save animals in the wild. For information about recycling and the reduction of plastic, paper, and handheld electronic devices; sustainable seafood; pollinator awareness; and the hidden dangers of our dependence on palm oil, visit houstonzoo.org/save-wildlife.

The Houston Zoo is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily at 6200 Hermann Park Drive; the Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands opens May 24. For information, call 713-533-6535 or visit houstonzoo.org. Free to $19.95.

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