In the New York Times today, reporter Leslie Kaufman writes about zoos grappling with how aggressive to be in educating visitors on the perils of climate change, fearful that too much bad news about damaged coral reefs, melting ice caps or vanishing species, might dent ticket sales.

The long, slender horns of the oryx, carried by both males and females, give the oryx the nickname “spear antelope.” This is the most highly specialized oryx species for living in true desert extremes. Their light color reflects the desert heat and sunlight, and they can erect their hair on cold winter mornings to capture warmth to hold in their thick undercoats. Their legs also darken in the winter to absorb more of the sun’s heat.


This antelope of the Arabian Peninsula and Sinai Desert became extinct in the wild by the late 1960s, mostly due to hunters with high-powered rifles. To save the species, nine Arabian oryx from private collections in Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the London Zoo, were moved to the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. A second breeding group of three oryx, from a zoo in Saudi Arabia, was started at the Los Angeles Zoo, and in the 1970s animals from both of these herds were sent to the San Diego Safari Park. As of 2010, 342 Arabian oryx have been born at the Safari Park, with many returned to Oman and Jordan for reintroduction in their native range. (Photo: San Diego Zoo Safari Park)

Some zoos and aquariums have held back, relegating information about climate change to nothing more than signs—about Arctic melting, for example, posted in the polar bear exhibit. On the other hand, many zoos and acquariums have put climate change “front and center.”

This month, the National Science Foundation awarded a coalition of aquariums $5.5 million for a five-year education effort to train staffs to develop ways of conveying information about climate change that will intrigue rather than daunt or depress the average visitor.

Most of the 224 members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums now have some sort of climate message.

Unsurprisingly, talking about climate change in some locales is a tough sell. At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Brian Davis, the vice president for education and training, says to this day his institution ensures its guests will not hear the term global warming. Visitors are “Very conservative,” he said. “When they hear certain terms, our guests shut down. We’ve seen it happen.”

Denial is not just a river in Africa.