a Smiling Red Panda in the Indianapolis Zoo. Photo: Katie Halverson/shutterstock

a Smiling Red Panda in the Indianapolis Zoo. Photo: Katie Halverson/shutterstock

We’ve seen big gifts in recent years for zoos and gardens that explore conservation and connect visitors to the natural world in meaningful ways. For thousands of years, zoos introduced humans to other species. In response to the growing threats of climate change and habitat loss, zoos are increasingly stepping up to protect imperiled species and their homes, and to inspire public support and engagement. Many zoos carry out captive breeding programs, run science initiatives on-site and in the field, and engage visitors in conservation advocacy. These adaptations in programming help these legacy institutions tap into new veins of funding.

In 2018, the John P. McGovern Foundation gave $50 million to the Houston Zoo, funding new "experiential zones” and a vision that "guests will leave the zoo inspired to take action to save animals in the wild." In June 2019, the Chicago Botanic Garden received a major boost to its conservation programming with a $10 million gift from the Negaunee Foundation. As we’ve covered, the San Diego Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden also received major gifts in the last few years.

A new example is a $4 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to the Indianapolis Zoo to create a Global Center for Species Survival (GCSS). The grant was announced in October 2019 and the center is slated to open in 2020. Lilly is the top grantmaker in Indiana and is heavily invested in Indianapolis.

The GCSS is the result of a partnership between the zoo and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC). The IUCN is the world’s largest environmental conservation organization; it compiles endangered species lists, advises the United Nations, supports multilateral environmental agreements and provides other conservation-related services.

The GCSS team will conduct conservation research and coordinate with the 9,000 experts worldwide who comprise the SCC. While many other institutions, such as Smithsonian and Audubon, run major species conservation centers, this project is billed as the first global center for species survival.

Why the Lilly Endowment Funds the Zoo and GCSS

The Lilly Endowment was founded in 1937 with Lilly family members’ stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. It funds community development, education and religion, and gave $504.5 million in grants in 2018. While most giving occurs in Indianapolis and Indiana, it also supports some national and international programs. Since its founding, the endowment has given out close to $10.4 billion in grants and, at the close of 2018, its assets were $15.1 billion.

The new GCSS grant falls within Lilly’s community development portfolio, said Ronni Kloth, Lilly’s vice president for community development. She said this division makes grants to many kinds of organizations that work to improve Indianapolis quality of life, “build the city’s intellectual capital” and create new economic, cultural and recreational opportunities. She said the zoo is a longtime grantee, and that the endowment appreciates how the zoo “raises the [city’s profile] as an appealing and culturally vibrant place to visit.”

What Will the GCSS Do?

The Indianapolis Zoo is located in White River State Park near downtown Indianapolis. It is one of the largest privately funded zoos in the country (it receives zero government money), underlining the importance of the Lilly Endowment’s support. The zoo’s mission is to empower “people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.” Along with its on-site programming, it runs the Indianapolis Prize, a biennial award that honors animal conservationists, and funds conservation efforts in the field around the world.

The zoo’s new GCSS will employ a team of nine experts and build a new operating space within the zoo. The scientists who work at the GCSS will focus on issues like climate change, biodiversity loss and the illegal wildlife trade.

Along with deepening its conservation work, the zoo stated the GCSS will expand its ability to bring science and scientists into the public sphere. The center will help the researchers share their work and secure ongoing funding by providing support with fundraising, communication with policymakers and social media campaigns. The GCSS will also host international meetings and conferences, convening a global network of conservationists while bringing economic benefits to Indianapolis.

“Indianapolis will be a hub for world-leading expertise and capacity building by working to bridge the gap between experts across the conservation spectrum, from zoo professionals, field practitioners, academics, to government officials,” Dr. Jon Paul Rodriguez, chair of the SSC, said.

The Front Lines of Conservation?

The longstanding debate over the pros and cons of zoos is too complex to enter into here. But we will note that some animal rights advocates and zoo critics question whether these institutions are conservation leaders. Some cite factors like the many animals kept captive whom are not endangered, and the fact that most of the “animal exhibitors” in the U.S. are not members of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), which sets standards for animal care, science and conservation; among other concerns.

The relatively low percentage of zoo budgets allocated for conservation is another related issue. In 2015, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) called on every zoo to begin to devote at least 3 percent of their budgets to conservation work, at a minimum. WAZA Executive Director Gerald Dick said “the ultimate purpose of zoological institutions is conservation.” The Indianapolis Zoo is a member of both AZA and WAZA.

In 2018, the Indianapolis Zoo spent about $2.5 million on education and conservation combined — this puts the potential impact of the recent Lilly grant of $4 million in perspective. The $2.5 million accounted for about 8.6 percent of the zoo’s annual expenses of close to $29.2 million. It reports its “support and revenue” in 2018 as about $32 million. As a point of comparison, the San Diego Zoo, which does receive government funding and is the most visited zoo in America (that doesn’t have an amusement park), devoted about 9.6 percent of the $302 million it spent in 2018 to research and conservation activities. This zoo’s revenue and support tally in 2018 was approximately $342 million.

A recent United Nations report stated up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction — many within decades. The Trump administration’s ongoing rollback of environmental protections and funding continue to imperil the wild species and lands of the U.S. More than 183 million people visit zoos in America each year, and the U.S. zoo and aquarium industry has an estimated annual revenue of about $3 billion in 2019. While valid critiques of animal captivity exist, during a time of great risk and loss for the natural world, zoos appear to be well-poised to make significant contributions to conservation and increase public awareness of these urgent issues. Targeted conservation grants from funders like the Lilly Endowment can boost the effectiveness of these efforts.

Making Lasting Connections

M. Sanjayan, executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International, upholds zoos’ unique position to meaningfully connect people with the natural world and inspire public investment in conservation. “A lot of us in the field think that we’re on the front lines of conservation, but we are wrong. It’s the zoos and aquariums who are on the front lines because they’re the ones having face-to-face interactions with people every day—people who can change the direction of our planet.”

Speaking to the IndyStar about the GCSS, Indianapolis Zoo President Rob Shumaker described his own experience as a volunteer at the National Zoo in high school, where he bonded with an orangutan named Azy (who now lives at the Indianapolis Zoo).

"It suddenly dawned on me that my perspective was really a little bit off. If I cared that deeply about these individuals, shouldn’t I be caring about all great apes in the wild?" he said.

Kloth says the Indianapolis Zoo has already demonstrated it can “connect the work of conservation scientists with zoo patrons” through its established programs and exhibits, and the Indianapolis Prize. She says the new GCSS can “build on these efforts” while enhancing the zoo’s reputation.

Through the GCSS, the zoo will help world-class scientists carry out research and advocacy. Meanwhile, it will continue to expose members of the public to other species through programs informed by its scientific explorations. Along with bringing new visitors and attention to Indianapolis, the GCSS may succeed in influencing policymakers and increasing environmental consciousness in its hometown and around the globe. With these diverse potential benefits in Indiana and beyond, it is clear why the GCSS would appeal to a loyal community funder like the Lilly Endowment.

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