Conservation Through a Different Lens

How Tagging Along with Denver Zoo’s Field Conservation Team Gave me a New Perspective on the Important Work Accredited Zoos Do To Save Wildlife

By Kristi Odom 

I will admit, I was skeptical about zoos. As a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, I spent countless hours observing animals in their natural habitat in some crazy-remote locations. My passion has grown quickly for the beauty of nature and so has my fight to try and use photography to protect it.  

Like many people in 2020, I found myself wanting a change, and I moved to Colorado It felt like a natural fit since I’m always looking for stories about people who fight to save wildlife, to celebrate those heroes and to help show the power people can make protecting our planet. I found a group of more than 400 volunteers that hike to high altitudes to count and monitor pikas. The first trip sparked my curiosity and excitement.  This small rabbit relative is a climate indicator, and with temperatures changing in the mountains, their livelihood is becoming more challenged. The Pika Project is run by a partnership with Rocky Mountain Wild and Denver Zoo. I was so inspired by the work, I ended up pitching and getting this story published online for National Geographic.It was an honor to tell a story about an experience I loved so much. The piece not only talked about climate change, but also the collaboration between individuals, organizations and biologists to protect a threatened species.  

This was my introduction to Denver Zoo. Not a visit to the 86-acre campus, but getting out in the field with their experts. Getting to know all the key players in conservation at the Zoo, my first thought was, “Wow, this is a passionate group.” I learned about the many projects they were involved in, from working on the human wildlife conflict on Mount Evans (soon to be Mount Blue Sky), to the fight to protect Colorado’s only alpine toad, the endangered boreal toad. Talking with the director of Colorado Field Conservation at Denver Zoo, Stefan Ekernas, I learned about how the Zoo spends more than $2 million a year on protecting wildlife and wild spaces. While I have worked with many organizations that have helped protect individual animals, this was a bigger scale–it is a group that helps protect species. From there, I started learning about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums., an organization dedicated to the conservation, education, science and recreation efforts of zoos. AZA accredited zoos and aquariums spend around $160 million on conservation annually and have funded more than 2,500 conservation projects in more than 100 countries. Denver Zoo is one of the 242 AZA-accredited organizations in North America, and has supported or directly participated in more than 600 conservation projects in 62 countries spanning six continents.  

I suspect many people are like me, and had no idea the dedication that the Zoo had for protection of wildlife and wild spaces. They have a large community science program in which they inspire locals to get involved and protect their local wildlife, which anyone can join. Denver Zoo also build relationships with state and federal run wildlife managements, other zoos, native American tribes and conservation organizations, creating a huge impact through collaboration.  

Last summer, I proudly took my stepson to Denver Zoo. He saw animals from all over the world, ones he might never get the experiences to see in the wild, and I saw the awe and wonderment in his eyes. I told him about how the Zoo is fighting to protect them, pikas, tadpoles, big horns and all. It was the first time I had been to a zoo since I can remember, and it was a beautiful experience celebrating wildlife and the heroes that fight to protect it. All it took was looking at the Zoo through a new lens. 

Kristi Odom is a member of the of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a Nikon Ambassador.  Her accolades include over 60 international photography awards including 2 Nature’s Best Photography awards, which exhibited her images at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Her work has appeared either online and/or in print for the following clients: National Geographic, Nikon, Forbes, Rollingstone, Microsoft and Outside Magazine. 

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