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Beyond its exhibits, Phoenix Zoo works to restore species

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PHOENIX – To visitors, the Phoenix Zoo’s herd of Arabian oryx may constitute another stop on the tour, a chance to view animals featuring long horns and coarse, mostly white coats making them resemble tall goats.

To conservationists, the herd represents a successful breeding program, Operation Oryx, that released more than 100 back into the Middle East. Today, more than 1,000 live in the wild, bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.

More than a half century ago, the Arabian oryx started a conservation legacy for the Phoenix Zoo, which continues its involvement in species-survival programs. It joins zoos across the world that have shifted emphasis from being entertainment venues to homes for research.

“Zoos, historically, were menageries,” said Stuart Wells, the zoo’s director for conservation and science. “Zoos recognize that they are in the good position to contribute to conservation.”

Oryx were hunted to near extinction on the Arabian Peninsula, and zoo conservationists decided to team up and breed the species in captivity. Operation Oryx is over, but the zoo is now heavily involved in breeding programs such as one to help restore the black-footed ferret.

Once ranging from Mexico to Canada across the West, including northern Arizona, the black-footed ferret all but vanished as its chief prey, prairie dogs, declined. After population of 18 was discovered in Wyoming two decades ago, the animals were sent to five zoos to breed and reintroduce in the environment.

The Phoenix Zoo joined the effort in 1996, raising ferrets for release in northern Arizona.

“There’s a chance the ferrets could come off the Endangered Species List in the next decade,” Wells said.

The zoo will get a new population of ferrets to breed in the fall, and at least half those bred are released back into the wild. The breeding program has produced about 8,000 ferrets to date, Wells said.

Emily Hastings, a conservation technician at the Phoenix Zoo, said it’s rewarding to see results from the breeding programs.

“Every animal should be allowed to continue its existence,” Hastings said. “A lot of problems are human-caused, so I feel like it’s our responsibility to help them.”

The zoo is looking to start a breeding program for the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, found only on the mountain in southeastern Arizona.

The zoo has custody of two male squirrels collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and must receive a permit from the agency to start a breeding program.

Among other challenges to such a program, the Mount Graham red squirrels are believed to be ready for breeding only during a six-hour period one day a year, Wells said.

“They’ve never been bred outside their habitats,” he said. “Both of the genders are very territorial, so they don’t get along well.”

Other breeding programs focus on the Chiricahua leopard frog and narrow-headed gartersnake, both native to Arizona.

The frogs used to be abundant in Arizona until habitat destruction and other factors led to a decline, causing them to be listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List. The zoo collects eggs masses and raises them in tanks at the zoo until they are advance-stage tadpoles, ensuring that at least 90 percent of eggs reach development and survive.

Mark Abolhassani, an undergraduate researcher from Arizona State University, said that conserving animal species is challenging.

“You have to predict what is the best course of conservation,” he said. “It’s tricky.”

Money for the conservation programs comes from entrance fees. The black-footed ferret program costs the zoo about $150,000 a year, while breeding Chiricahua leopard frogs costs $65,000 a year, Wells said.

“We decide which ones we work with based on our resources,” he said. “The Phoenix Zoo is ahead of other zoos for local conservation. Who better than to work with local species than the zoo in that area?”