Lee Richardson Zoo is proud to be an accredited facility of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This means that we go through a rigorous accreditation process every five years to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of animal care and exhibition, safety practices and other aspects of our industry.

One important component of our accreditation assesses how we contribute to conservation of animal species and ecosystems. Educating our guests is certainly one important factor that plays into inspiring them to appreciate and conserve wild things and wild places once they leave our grounds. But the AZA is also interested in seeing that we also support in-situ (in the field) conservation.

Because our staff is fairly small, it is difficult for us to hire a researcher and send them oversees to take part in field research on lions in Africa, Snow leopards in the Himalayas or primates in the Amazon. However, even if we can't spare personnel, it is certainly acceptable to provide financial support for worthwhile projects that other researchers have already established. However, since the zoo's operations are supported by tax dollars from the city's General Fund, it would be inappropriate to use such funds for this purpose.

Enter creative thinking. Some zoos tack a small surcharge onto their admission price and earmark it for conservation. We tackled this challenge in a slightly different way, and brainstormed ways that we could support projects that were meaningful to our staff, but from a non-tax related revenue stream. Several years ago, we decided to try a feed dispenser to enable our guests to feed wild ducks at the duck pond.

Knowing how people love to interact with wildlife by feeding it, we installed a gumball type machine and filled it with feed. For just 25 cents, you can get a handful of feed and make the ducks at the main pond very happy. All the proceeds raised from the sale of duck food are designated to support conservation efforts. As funds accumulate, zoo staff members are asked to submit worthy projects or organizations for funding consideration, and then the staff votes on what projects are ultimately funded.

This has been a win-win situation all the way around. The public gets to do something they love (feed the ducks), the ducks are fat and happy, our conservation initiatives are met, worthy projects (from a local to international scope) help to support species and ecosystems that are struggling for survival, and we meet one of our accreditation standards.

The first feeder was so popular with the public, that we quickly made enough funds to invest in a few more feeders that same year, and between May and October, we added feeders in several more locations. In the first year alone, at 25 cents apiece, we raised more than $5,000 for conservation projects. Now, several years later, we have four feeding stations, and lots of happy birds and visitors.

You may be wondering, if you feed the ducks, what you have supported. Wonder no more! Typically, projects suggested by our staff include species that we exhibit here at the zoo. We have supported a variety of species around the globe, as well as projects here at the zoo that we thought were worthy. Here at the zoo, a mixture of native grass was planted in the lion yard after renovations, and to complement the new "pride rock." The new grass replaced unsightly weeds that had taken over the yard, and because it is native, will require less water while still providing a natural and attractive habitat for these magnificent cats.

Another local project the funds supported was the development of the wetlands we created in the duck pond in 2009. The pond water is recirculated and had no way to vent excess nutrients added by ducks and leaf litter. We were experiencing unsightly and smelly algae blooms as soon as the water warmed up in late June, and water quality was poor.

Enter the natural solutions of Mother Nature. By adding four man-made wetlands on the west end of the pond and filtering the water through them, we improved the water quality significantly, completely eliminating subsequent algae outbreaks. It's been three years and the experiment has certainly exceeded our expectations.

Over the years, elephants have been an important benefactor of "duck food funds" as we fondly call them. Much research is currently under way to better understand Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), a disease that threatens both wild and captive elephants. In fact, it can kill an individual in a matter of days and there is currently no cure. It primarily strikes very young and more elderly elephants, and can be devastating to elephant populations, which are already in trouble.

Another elephant project we supported further developed a strategy to help protect wild elephant herds by reducing human-elephant conflicts in a rather unique way. Elephants can quickly decimate crop fields that have been planted along their traditional migration paths. Unfortunately, those crops are very important to the native people, who may rely almost exclusively on them for food throughout the year.

As you can imagine, this causes significant conflict between humans and elephants. Having discovered that elephants won't approach beehives, researchers were trying to perfect ways to use beehives as barriers (natural fences, if you will) between the forests and the farm crops. The beekeeping can also generate income for some of the local farmers, and the bees help with pollination both within and outside of the forest, improving crop success.

Other conservation projects supported have helped tapirs, Zambian carnivores, Addax antelope in the Sahara, black footed ferrets, Ecuadoran Amphibian research (to investigate a fungal outbreak that is wiping out entire species of frogs around the globe), birds, and tortoises and turtles. So the next time you are at the zoo, and have a quarter to spare, pop it in the feeders, enjoy feeding the ducks and know that you are helping species worldwide.

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.